From city to sea change
It was a chance video popping up on a computer screen that provided the inspiration for one of the most exciting plastic pollution campaign groups in the UK. Leonie Butler met up with Natalie Fee of City to Sea to talk plastic and direct action
If you live in Bristol and have an interest in the environment, chances are you’ve heard of Natalie Fee. She was recently awarded the title of ‘One of the most inspiring Bristolians alive today’ by the Bristol Evening Post and an honorary doctorate from the University of the West of England. That’s made even more significant when you realise that it normally takes at least 30 years of living in the city to be considered a local – having grown up in Southampton, she’s only been there for six! So, what has she done to achieve such an accolade? Quite a lot, actually (and she’s not even 40...).
A high flyer, Natalie, eschewing university, was living the dream as an IT recruitment consultant and doing very well, but she wasn’t fulfilled. A couple of years travelling, then a move to the South West, heralded a change in lifestyle and Natalie began a new career in media – she even wrote a book on how to “transform your everyday stresses and struggles into more energy and awareness about what to focus on”, called The Everyday Alchemist’s Happiness Handbook. Excelling in television and film production, she was enjoying her work until a trailer for the film Albatross, by artist Chris Jordon, popped up while she was absent-mindedly surfing the web: “The video was doing the rounds on Facebook about five years ago and it absolutely devastated me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and it upset me more than any other environmental issues I had been aware of. There was something about seeing these beautiful baby birds on their backs with their feet in the air gasping for breath. I felt grief for the first time over our environment and what we were doing to it. It was recognising the everyday items I was using inside the bellies of these albatross chicks that was the wake-up call for me.”
Struck by these images, she decided to take direct action: “I thought a song I had written could go with a video on plastic pollution and, being naive and optimistic, I thought I would make the video, it would be a huge hit, go viral and people would change their actions.” It didn’t exactly go quite according to plan, but off the back of that Natalie had created a movement: people knew she was working on that cause.
This led to the inception of City to Sea, an organisation that campaigns to reduce the prevalence of plastic pollution in our seas and on our streets. It all started, as the best ideas so often do, in a pub in 2015. Natalie got together with friends and family – including scientists, local organisations, marine biologists and other campaigners – to talk about plastic. “I obviously saw that the problem wasn’t just out there with the albatross, but here along the Avon where there were (and still are) islands of plastic, a result of things being flushed down the loo and a lot of singleuse bottles.”
Natalie realised that in order to reduce bottle waste, water fountains and refill points would be a good place to start. Her objective was simply to promote free tap water and bottle refills in shops, cafes and businesses on high streets, transport hubs and, well, anywhere with a safe tap.
And how that has taken off. Back in 2016, Bristol held the title of European Green Capital, and City to Sea received about £12,000 in funding to pilot the Refill Bristol project during the same year. The pilot went well, Bristol Water got on board and, at the latest count, there are now 9,000 Refill stations in the UK. There’s even a Refill app to incentivise refills and to reduce the amount of single-use plastics in circulation. Natalie’s favourite compliment so far has been when someone likened Refill to Trip Advisor: “That’s exactly what we’re aiming for. Anywhere in the world you go you can see whether you can drink the water, what the quality is like, you can rate it and you can find it without a plastic bottle in sight.”
City to Sea can also be credited with helping to get plastic cotton buds out of the shops thanks to its ‘Switch the Sticks’ campaign in association with over 150,000 38 Degrees members. “It was a simple switch from plastic to a properly biodegradable alternative – the product viability wasn’t affected by switching to paper, of course you can’t switch bottles to paper, so it was straightforward. We had an amazing response, with all major UK retailers agreeing to phase out plastic buds, Superdrug are still evading us, though.” Somehow I am not sure they will evade Natalie for long.
It’s not just small changes that Natalie chases, however, with the introduction of a deposit return system in the UK music to her ears: “I said, when I started plastic pollution campaigning, that when a deposit scheme was in place in the UK I would stop plastic pollution campaigning.
“It’s a real celebration, definitely needed and proven to reduce litter, so it is incredibly important. Obviously recycling isn’t the answer to marine plastic pollution and reuse and refill come before, but this is a step in the right direction. In terms of getting money back for it, or there being a levy on it at the point of sale, that’s when the general public will start to realise that plastic is a resource worth conserving.”
She adds: “Our recycling rates are still shockingly low and even though we’ve got great kerbside and it may hit local authorities and waste companies hard initially, the change has to happen.” This kind of economic nudge that gets people thinking about the value of their actions strikes a chord with Natalie. Touching on the so-called ‘latte levy’, Natalie is incredulous that this isn’t a given: “We’ve got nearly 200,000 people on a petition to introduce a levy. It worked with plastic bags – there’s been an 83 per cent fall in the number of plastic bags issued by supermarkets and a study in the journal Science of the Total Environment reported a 30 per cent drop in the number of plastic bags in our seas. A 25p levy, with a 40 per cent reduction, would raise £1.5 billion a year, which could fund other schemes to improve our environment and tackle plastic pollution.”
Another campaign City to Sea is working on is about period waste and menstrual products, an overlooked source of plastic waste. The brilliant Amika George has dropped the issue of period poverty in the UK at the government’s doorstep with her #FreePeriods movement, which highlights the disturbing fact that many schoolgirls in the UK struggle to be able to afford sanitary products – a basic need for women on their period. Campaigns like City to Sea’s Plastic Free Periods are hoping to use this momentum to normalise reusable menstrual products. One might be forgiven for thinking that the Plastic Free Periods and Unflushables campaigns (to discourage flushing anything other than pee, poo and paper) would prove harder to promote because of the ‘embarrassment’ we have over periods and poo, and keeping bottoms clean, but Natalie, a woman after my own heart, is more likely to relish talking about these issues than others: “For me, I like it when there’s an edge, a taboo or toilet humour. The wet wipes is a hard change to bring about because people generally, when something has poo on it, they probably want to flush it down the loo so re-educating people to have two bins in their bathroom – one for mucky wipes and used menstrual products and one for your recyclables is good behaviour change, but getting everyone to have two bins is going to be quite a push.”
The Plastic Free Period campaign focuses on the plastic applicators found on beaches, but also wakes women up to the fact that most tampons contain plastic and should not be entering our waterways. Did you know, for example, that the average pad contains approximately the same amount of plastic as four carrier bags? Before the government even thinks of putting another tax on sanitary products, there is a solution, but it’s all about education. City to Sea are already piloting a menstruation programme in the East of England in collaboration with Anglian Water, working with 6,000 students in 22 schools. The working title is ‘Periods: The Facts’, and it teaches students about the biological, environment and social sides of menstruation – demystifying and breaking taboos – and discussing options available: disposable and reusable pads and tampons, plastic and organic materials. “It’s very much giving all the options and enabling people to be aware of the options and ensuring people know not to flush down the toilet”, says Natalie. “Often the education in schools is provided by brands like Always and Tampax, and that’s where we want to bring the intervention.” Just think, if we could make the simple change that sees girls start their periods using reusable sanitary products, what a difference that would have on the flushed waste that finds its way into our natural environment.
It appears single-use plastics are everywhere, but Natalie remains unapologetic for her stance towards them. Asked if there is a role for them anywhere, she simply replies: “Hospitals… that’s probably the only place I can think of. I think there areb other refill solutions for all retailers,” she adds. “It’s a genius product, but it’s the way we’ve used it that’s the problem.”
She also cautions about our future reliance on certain alternatives to plastics: “Take bioplastics, for instance. I would flag that I am extremely cautious about a leap from the frying pan and into the fire with bioplastics. They don’t biodegrade very easily, they need industrial composters, of which we don’t have many in the UK, and there’s already a case where invasive species are being used to grow bioplastics. It’s disrupting ecosystems and it’s using agricultural land when we’re going to need food as a growing population. We don’t need more singleuse packaging. Plastic in itself was invented to try and stop the ivory trade – so it was invented as a positive response to the ivory trade, an environmental problem, and it’s now caused one, so we have to be careful bioplastics don’t do the same.”
It seems the battle is never won for Natalie. As for what’s next for her, Natalie explains she’s started work on a new book: “I’ve just recently written out all the chapter headings... I love writing more than I love speaking. I love being on stage and working with an audience, but I can craft what I am going to say, whereas when I am talking I don’t know what’s going to come out!” I think, from what Natalie’s said so far (catch her brilliant TEDx talk, ‘Why Plastic Pollution is Personal’), the next chapter in her story is sure to be a hit.