Social Icon Interviews: Kate Nelson
Kate Nelson (Plastic Free Mermaid)
On why she quit plastic and how you can too
I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Kate Nelson @plasticfreemermaid over the phone from her home in Byron Bay, Australia. Kate was talking about plastic a decade ago, when no one else was. She’s truly a leader — a pioneer really — in advocating for our oceans and reducing the plastic that is harming humans, sea animals, coral reefs, and, ultimately, our whole planet.
Her website, iquitplastics.com, is filled with helpful resources and blogs, as well as a number of unique offerings for those who want to get more involved.
Many of us are working on our waste reduction and upping our reusables game in 2019, so hopefully Kate’s experience can inspire us to ditch the plastic for good! ‘Progress over perfection’ seems to be an applicable mantra here. Just like any good habit, start with one thing and add on from there.
Q: What inspired you to start your plastic free journey over 10 years ago? When did you know you had to start sharing it with the world?
A: We always volunteered in my family, and I was also very connected to nature. Growing up, I did junior lifeguarding in San Diego, and then I was a canoe camp counselor in the boundary waters between Canada and the states. Both of those things really impacted me. In college, I would seek out non-profits and organizations to volunteer with that had an environmental focus.
After college, I was volunteering for Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society in Santa Barbara, California and I was working for this amazing scientist — she’s known as ‘Dr. Dre’, Dr. Andrea Neal — and she was studying microorganisms ingesting microplastics.
She explained to me that plastic doesn't biodegrade. It doesn't break down in the environment like a banana peel, but it breaks up into millions of tiny little pieces, eventually even into microscopic pieces that we can't see with the naked eye.
So, she said, when these things end up in the environment, they get swept away with the rain into the streams, and the rivers into the lakes, into the oceans. And we're finding just as the fish ingest the macro plastics, the bigger pieces, plankton and other microorganisms are ingesting the microplastics, the smaller particles of plastic - this synthetic material that doesn't go away for thousands of years.
I was just horrified. I had no idea. That was definitely the catalyst - learning from this incredible scientist and having this awakening around my own daily use of single use plastics - disposable items that we use once for maybe 5 or 10 minutes and then throw away…
Then Captain Charles Moore had discovered the Great Pacific Trash Gyre where all of our trash was collecting out in the middle of the ocean.
And I thought “man, I have to see it!” I joined a research vessel and went to check out the trash gyre. That was eyeopening - when I saw this thing that was like a big soup full of all these plastic bits. That was 10 years ago, maybe 11 now. And I thought, I have to take drastic action! I need to share because nobody knows about this. (No one knew about it back then at least.) I decided that I have to really dedicate some energy towards helping people learn about this issue. And also personally, I need to quit all this plastic. So yeah, I gave up all the single use plastic.
Q: Wow! It sounds like you had this amazing information, from the scientists, and you sort of helped translate all of it into what that means for us in real life - how to put into practice actually reducing our plastic use. Do you feel a bit like that’s what you’ve done?
A: Yeah, even that was a journey. I felt like a lot of people are feeling now, which is just that once we discover and wake up to our plastic use or our carbon footprint, you kind of feel the sense of urgency. I felt that [urgency], and I was kind of alone in it, aside from the scientists I was working for.
I also realized that Dr. Dre was limited in a way with her ability to share this super important research because she had to wait to get it published in a legitimate journal, and there’s an element of keeping your grant funders happy. And I was like, “Well, I can share it! I can talk about plastic pollution.”
Then I started Save the Mermaids, which is a nonprofit, with all my girlfriends. We decided, okay, we need to make this fun. Instead of saying “The sea turtles are dying!” We would say, “We’re sparkly mermaids from the ocean and we came to land to tell you about plastic pollution.” It made it much more fun and accessible, and so many more people were willing to listen.
It was clear to me that the science is there now, it's just about communicating the message - really amplifying it. And rebranding environmentalism so it's not all doomsday, negative fear tactics, but about ‘let's be involved in this beautiful ocean’.
Q: You’ve done a great job of giving people concrete, practical things we can start to change NOW… With that said, can you break down for people the best ways to reduce our plastic consumption/ use? Where should we start?
(I do have E-books about this on my website iquitplastics.com , as well as an online course starting on June 12! So if anybody needs more support, there's tons of resources on my website and Youtube channel (Plastic Free Mermaid).
A: I think focusing on the four main single-use plastics that we're exposed to on a daily basis is a great place to start. Those are: takeaway coffee cups (with plastic lids), plastic water bottles, straws, and plastic bags.
1) Coffee cups:
A super easy baby step is simply skipping the plastic lid on your cup (for hot coffee).
Or, have your coffee at the cafe in a real cup.
Ideally, start to build the habit around bringing your own cup.
2) Plastic water bottles:
Keep your reusable bottle in your bag or in your car.
Get a bottle that you really love so that you’ll be more inclined to remember it. (Same with the reusable coffee cup.)
Keep them clean - once you're done drinking, go rinse it out right away.
The real trick here is communicating this to wait staff. (This isn't as tricky anymore just because there's been like a global movement against straws.) It takes a little bit more polite communication to just make sure that the message of ‘no straw, please’ has gotten across.
Or bring your own reusable straw, if you need one.
4) Plastic bags:
Ideally, bring your own bags when you go out shopping.
If you forget, you can actually use a cardboard box from the grocery store. A lot of the time they use the cardboard boxes that food gets shipped in for grocery store displays. So you can just grab one that’s almost empty (or ask for one from the back).
In the produce section, most stores have paper bags for mushrooms that you can use for other loose produce as well.
Those are the first four things I recommend phasing out if you're trying to quit plastics!
I like to stress it’s not about needing to go buy all new reusable ‘stuff’. The whole point of this movement is to consume LESS. We’re trying to curb the waste that we're creating. So the more stuff we buy to live an ‘environmental lifestyle’ is actually quite counter-productive.
So just trying to use as many of the containers and materials that we have at home already and repurposing them is the best solution. [Example: any glass food jar like spaghetti sauce or pickles or jam can be washed and reused!] Or going to the thrift store, and getting beautiful vintage ceramic mugs, or a picnic basket to store things in, or something already in circulation that you could use and love.
Q: There’s a lot of discussion around the individual impact we can make and how that fits in with what major corporations are doing or governments. Are our individual actions enough or do we need people working at all levels to counteract this?
A: I think that it’s kind of like the climate situation. We do need action, and we’re all asking, “Okay, how much and where?” How should I focus on reducing my personal footprint versus contributing to the collective drawdown? And is me quitting plastics a big enough impact? Or do I need to work on lobbying locally or pressuring corporations to reduce plastic production?
I think that the answer is go where you have the most energy.
For me, I’ve always had energy for sharing this information and this lifestyle. So I encourage people - on this journey towards saving the planet - to really think about how we have to redesign the way we operate on the planet as a species. That includes recreating systems, redesigning packaging, and redesigning economies.
Quitting plastics is such a gateway into the environmental world. Then, from there, work on the stuff that comes your way.
Instead of having to go out and research the biggest organizations to be involved with, do the one that's local. The whole ‘buy local, eat local’ movement applies to volunteer local too. Act local. You don't need to travel across the world to Indonesia to clean the beach, make sure your local beach is clean. Go to your local recycling facility and see what they recycle so that you can really tailor your home recycling bin.
We all just have to do the best we can with what we have.
Q: What about food? It seems like the grocery store is harder than ever to navigate avoiding plastic, especially if you’re out and about/ not making food at home. What can do we there to improve?
A: In my course, I go through each part of the house with you and you do a trash audit and plastic audit of all of the plastic packaging in each room, and yeah, it can be tough - food packaging is the most heinous.
I could talk for hours on this stuff, but the chemicals/ toxins that are leaching from plastic packaging into our food and drinks are so bad for us. Quitting plastics for food is one of the best things to phase out for your health. Sure, it takes a little more effort to make your own hummus or make your own almond milk. But that's also the quality of life aspect. Again, that’s why we have to adopt this holistic perspective on it, because it's about more than just quitting plastics. It's a lifestyle shift.
I did a whole video series with Dr. Anthony Jay, author of Estrogeneration, where he talks about how these toxins from plastic are affecting our hormones, our fertility, and our health.
Q: Besides plastic, what other causes you are you passionate about sharing- things that could really help the world if everyone got on board?
A: Thank you for that question. The reason I think I've been successful is because I really hyper focused in on plastics. Of all the issues impacting the planet, that was something I felt like I could have an impact on.
But yes, it's so hard for me not to get involved in all the campaigns as such a devotee to the health of our planet. Everything makes me want to get involved! In particular…
1) Marine mammals in captivity - especially dolphins and orcas. That is really something that I care about as I can't believe that we still have these incredible sentient beings in captivity. So, yes, freeing ALL the Willys!
2) The fishing industry - Something else I feel super strongly about is the completely unsustainable (as well as dangerous) fishing industry. It's not sustainable because of the methods in which they collect fish - standard practice is just putting gigantic nets out and taking everything in the ocean. So it’s creating a desert, just a death zone out in the ocean, which is responsible for maintaining the equilibrium of our planet’s diversity.
This is a super important issue if you do eat fish or seafood — make SURE that it's coming from a sustainable source. I'm not asking you to stop eating fish, but I'm asking you to just ask questions about where it comes from and how it was caught so that we can influence the seafood economy to be more transparent and to support the fishermen, the fishing communities that are doing it sustainably.
[Editor’s note: There are several resources for sustainable fish guides including the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list.]
3). Climate. I currently live in Australia and we’re protesting the Australian government trying to sneak in all of these new giant coal mines. One of which you may have heard of - it's the Adani coal mine.
This would be the largest coal mine in the southern hemisphere, and it would open up this incredible piece of land in Queensland, Australia that is owned by the indigenous community. This is land that's just inland from the Great Barrier Reef. So they'd have to dredge the reef to be able to bring all these ships in.
So, I’m really trying to be politically active around stopping any new mines, any new drilling for oil or any fossil fuel. Yes, we're still dependent on these fuel sources for now, so I realize the existing mines need to continue supplying us with fuel as we work on our renewable energy sources. But we definitely don't need to spend billions of dollars setting up new mines that are just going to perpetuate our reliance on these archaic fuels.
Q: What is one question that you wish people would ask you more often?
A: Wow, that’s hard. I get so many emails with questions like “where do I start, how do I quit plastic, what do I do?” I think it's less about what do I wish people would ask and more about that I wish people would go within.
You know, less about “How do I do what you're doing, Kate?” and more about tuning in to what each of us can do individually.
So I guess I wish people would ask the same questions but not ask them of me, rather of themselves.
When people are constantly seeking information outside, that's just another sort of consumption.
Instead, I invite people to take that hand where they're reaching out asking me, asking others, to take that hand and bring it back to the heart and bring the other hand on top.
Just closing the eyes and breathing deeply every time they want to reach for something external. Bringing that hand back to take some time to spend with yourself. And just quietly be internal for a moment. Focus on breathing and connecting back into yourself and what you really, truly need. This is all about being satisfied, and comfortable, and whole with what we already have within.
Q: What does being a Social Icon mean to you?
Yeah, I think that's a good question as well. I'm so hesitant to use the term influencer cause it has kind of a stigma; it’s lacking depth.
Another reason I often avoid claiming an influencer label or title is that I feel like it kind of works against me in a way… I want people to know you don't have to be ‘Plastic Free Mermaid’ with however many followers to make an impact. You don't have to be a scientist, or have a PhD, or be an engineer to make an impact.
It's bringing your own cup to the coffee shop and talking about the discount you get. It's gardening and gathering all the greens for your salad. Just sharing the lifestyle is so important because as we try to create new norms around living in alignment with nature, we have to make them cool and easy and appealing to others who aren’t doing it yet.
So we have to talk about it, we have to communicate. And the social channels that we have available to us are so great for giving us opportunities to do that! I encourage everyone to just be super vocal as we try to create these new norms around quitting plastics and reducing our carbon. Yeah, Be vocal.