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Let's talk about plastic in the oceans

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

Over the final weekend of June this year, members of the Dreambox Collective participated in a voluntary clean-up along the banks of the Cook River, facilitated by Tangaroa Blue. Largely, this was for us to gain practical insight into issues around our Big Blue virtual concert, and to take action on a cause many of us are passionate about. It was also our first meeting with Tangaroa Blue’s Mathilde Gordon. We found her so passionate and inspiring, as did the international audience of our online Big Blue event, at which she gave a presentation.

This interview grew out of some questions Chloe and Brad brainstormed together to send on to Mathilde. We are sure you’ll be as inspired as we are by her responses!


Chloe & Brad: Firstly, thanks so much Mathilde, for agreeing to answer a few questions after already being so generous with your time, knowledge and energy. Your suggestion for our ‘Big Blue’ online event, for each of us to make a one-month pledge to reduce or remove plastics from some area of our lives ‘for the oceans’ got everyone motivated. Perhaps you could begin by telling us how you went with your pledge?

Mathilde Gordon: Thanks for the great opportunity to be a part of this project! My monthly September pledge was to go back to making my own toothpaste (out of coconut oil, bicarb soda and spearmint essential oil). I had made my toothpaste like this for the past couple of years but fell out of the habit when I recently moved onto a boat last year due to a change of routine and… you guessed it… convenience! I made my first batch in a while straight after the Big Blue concert and am still using it. My teeth are happy and healthy and, in fact, even my dentist commented on how healthy they were the other day! So, I’d say the pledge went well and I’m back in the routine :)

C&B: It was a challenge for many of us to last one month keeping a pledge to remove one type of plastic use from our lives, yet you’ve undertaken the really meaningful, and I imagine life and habit-changing commitment to totally remove single-use plastic from your life as much as it is possible to do so. Could you tell us when your plastic-free journey started, and any practical tips for those of us who would like to start to follow that path?

MG: My plastic-free journey started when I was studying at James Cook University in 2013. I was helping run the sustainability club and we invited a guest speaker from Tangaroa Blue to come in and speak to us. Soon after I went on my first semi-remote beach clean-up to Cape Kimberley in the Daintree, and I was shocked at how much plastic we were finding. I found myself feeling frustrated at society and then realised that I couldn’t blame other people for littering as any of the items we were finding (thongs, wrappers, bottles, toothbrushes) could technically have come from me! That’s when I realised I needed to change my habits. To be honest I kind of forgot about it for a bit (university study took over), until I read a Trash is for Tossers blog in 2015. I was inspired by Lauren Singer, who managed to produce only a jar of waste in a year, living as a student in New York. A few months later when two friends and I decided to move into a sharehouse together, we pledged to stop using single use plastics, all at once, and have never gone back :) A couple of tips:

  1. My suggestion for someone who is starting out is to not cut out everything at once like we did, as it can be quite overwhelming. Start with cutting out three single-use plastic items from your life for a month and see how you go, and then branch out from there. If you're struggling with thinking of alternatives then definitely check out Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home. She takes it to another level! I would suggest to use her book as more of an encyclopaedia rather than following everything she says, remember it has taken her a few years to get to where she is now!

  2. Check out the zero waste groups on Facebook! Often there are ones that are tailored to your local area, where you can see what bulk food stores etc might be in your area. The groups are also a perfect mix of people who are thinking “Where the heck do I start??” and those that have been on the journey for a while and have developed some great habits

  3. If you’re having trouble remembering to take your reusable coffee cup at the start then next time you forget, don’t allow yourself to get a coffee! Trust me, after 2 or 3 times you’ll never forget it again :’)

  4. My last piece of advice would be to not be too hard on yourself when you “fail.” If you order a drink with no straw and it comes out with two, or you’re having a bad day and all you want to do is defrost a pre-made meal every now and then, it’s ok. We’re all human. If you’re super harsh on yourself then you’ll just hate your new lifestyle and you’ll give up quickly.

C&B: It’s been a busy time for you judging from Tangaroa Blue’s website and your own Facebook posts. Could you tell us some of what have you been up to since Big Blue?

MG: It certainly has! In September my partner and I had the privilege of running some multi-day beach clean-ups in Cape York with the Tangaroa Blue Foundation. These trips are so much fun! We get to drive 4WD Troopies full of volunteers into some incredibly remote and beautiful places and camp for 9 days, cleaning up rubbish from the shores. It’s awesome to be able to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rangers, Elders and school kids who all come out and lend a hand during these trips. With the data that Tangaroa Blue has been collecting over the past 16 years we are able to capture valuable information on where marine debris comes from and how much of it there is. This information is then used to trace it back to the source as much as possible and stop it from entering the environment in the first place. At Chilli Beach, in Kutini-Payamu National Park, we collected close to 3 tonnes of debris in 5 days. At the tip of Australia, at a site called 5 Beaches Loop, we collected another 2 tonnes. These were both relatively small loads compared to other years. I have also just come back from a clean-up at Cedar Bay, which is only accessible for a clean-up by boat. On the way home we were greeted by a pod of around 30 False Killer Whales who were bow riding with us for ages. It was awesome and reminded me of the reasons why I spend my life fighting for the oceans!

C&B: Finally, something we have had to confront in ourselves and which we hope thinking about may inspire or lead to some reflection regarding motivation. Layer upon layer of plastic presents itself upon any effort to minimise its use, or, as we found, when you try to clean up an area of waterway. It can take several hours to clean up a few square meters of river edge, and any sense of achievement is dwarfed by the several hundred square metres within view. It’s easy to feel personal effort is fruitless. How do you maintain motivation in what can seem for many of us to be futile times?

MG: This is a great question! At Cedar Bay alone we picked up 600kg of rubbish from the beach. When I went to the waste transfer station, I saw people throwing out about double that amount in the span of 20 minutes! The thing that keeps me going with Tangaroa Blue clean-ups is the data collection. We have seen some awesome source reduction plans come into place as a result of us collecting data. For example, Chemistry Australia is the largest national body representing Australia's chemicals and plastics industries. In March this year they signed onto our Operation Clean Sweep program, which is a program aimed at stopping the accidental (or purposeful) release of plastic pellets into the environment. One of the main reasons they came on board is because we presented them with evidence that they couldn’t ignore. To be able to work with communities, schools and individuals on the issue of marine debris is one thing. To work with industry and change legislation has an even bigger impact, and I believe that there are some really exciting ideas that will evolve around the issue of waste in the next decade.

On a personal level, I am motivated to continue my single-use plastic-free life every day because of the positive impacts it has had on me. I eat healthier, save money and don’t have to empty out any bins! It’s also amazing to see friends and family join in on the party and reduce their waste, not because I’ve been preaching to them, but because they are able to see someone leading by example and they can see that I’m still a functional human being even without plastics! Seeing a bunch of people change their own habits motivates me to keep going :)

Also, there are A LOT OF US on the planet. Some people might see this as an overwhelming negative thing (i.e. there are a lot of uneducated people, or people who don’t care about their plastic consumption), but I see it as a positive. We don’t actually need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we just need millions of people doing it imperfectly! There is a movement happening right now, so why not jump on board and see where it takes you. If the unexpected side effect is that you produce less crap, eat healthier and save money then that’s great!

Remember that the dude that invented the light bulb worked by candlelight. We are constrained by the social norms of society and progress might be slow, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep working towards making the world a brighter place!

Profits from our Big Blue online concert are being donated to Tangaroa Blue, which is an organisation with resources and activities Australia-wide focused on volunteer-based clean up of ocean debris and fostering awareness of the issue of marine plastic pollution. You can purchase a recording of the live streamed concert and presentation here and find out more about the organisation and get involved directly here.


All photographs from Mathilde Gordon

Article written by Brad Gill and Chloe Chung with editing by Toni Berg.

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