Behind the global Plastic Free July movement – a South Fremantle resident’s story

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, Executive Director of the Plastic Free Foundation.

A single, great idea can change the world. 

Very few people can say they know what that feels like, but the founder of the Plastic Free July (PFJ) campaign is certainly one of them. 

Last year, an estimated 140 million people around the world took up the annual PFJ challenge, slashing their single-use plastic usage in a global movement to end plastic waste.

People from 190 countries kicked their dependence on plastic products over 31 days, shrinking the global waste mountain by an astounding 2.1million tonnes last year alone.  

This world-wide phenomenon, hailed by the likes of Sir David Attenborough for starting a wave of behavioural change across the world, was born in the beachside town of South Fremantle eleven years ago; the genius idea of local government worker, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz.

As founder of PFJ and Executive Director of the Plastic Free Foundation, Ms Prince-Ruiz maintains she is, “just one of those 140 million people, just plodding along on my own journey, doing what I can.”

“If I’d had the idea in June 2021, I would have been one of many people tackling plastic waste but back then (2011), people weren’t talking about it.”

Just hours before Clean State sat down to chat with Ms Prince-Ruiz, the Plastic Free Foundation in collaboration with WWF, released a major report – Rising Tides, Global Opinions on Actions to Stop Plastic Pollution in 28 Countries – in the lead up to the March conference of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), the world’s peak environmental decision-making body.

The report directly addressed the proposed global treaty to combat plastic pollution that UNEA members would discuss at the Nairobi conference.

“This global treaty is really critical. We have to dramatically reduce production of virgin plastics, no question,” Ms Prince-Ruiz said. 

In barely five minutes of conversation, it was clear that her passion for reducing plastic waste and improving waste management systems had not waned over the last decade. If anything, it had probably gone up a few notches.

“A lot of people are driven by the pollution issue, which is such a tangible thing – we can see plastic in our oceans, we can see images of it harming wildlife and there’s no denying we are the source of that problem,” she said. 

“But even if we solve the problem of pollution, we’ve still got a huge waste issue on land which also harms wildlife and impacts human health, especially in already vulnerable communities.

“We need a circular economy. 

“There has to be a requirement for producers and manufacturers of plastic to take responsibility over the lifetime of those items and to use recycled content.”

In addition to her work with the Plastic Free Foundation, Ms Prince-Ruiz sits on the board of the State Government’s container deposit scheme, has been named 2021 WA Local Hero in the Australian of the Year Awards and has more than 30 years’ experience in waste management, sustainability and community engagement.

And she has witnessed first-hand how the power of individual behaviour change can influence systemic cultural and policy change. The entire PFJ journey began with her own, somewhat experimental, change.

Working for the Western Metropolitan Regional Council at the time, Ms Prince-Ruiz visited a local recycling facility where she was struck by the sheer mass of plastic waste produced and the energy required to process it.

“It made me realise that filling my yellow-lidded bin each fortnight wasn’t actually helping the planet,” she said.  

“It’s a commodity market and a lot of the time, it costs more to process those (waste plastic) materials (than what they are sold for) and it’s cheaper to send to landfill,” she said. 

“Typically plastics are downcycled rather than properly recycled and just because something is technically recyclable doesn’t mean it will be.

“That night when I went to put my recycling bin out, I knew where it was going and I knew that the best thing I could do was not just to sort it properly and fill my recycling bin, but to avoid what I was purchasing and consuming.”

She immediately set herself and her family the challenge of avoiding single use plastics over  the following month (July) and invited colleagues and workplace volunteers to join in.

About 40 Western Australians can look back today and say they were the founding participants of the PFJ movement.

So how did this thought bubble become such a global success story?

“I’d really love to know,” she laughed.

“I think because people were able to take part and take direct action.

“Rather than talking about the problem and becoming overwhelmed it’s an opportunity to be part of the solution, whether it’s packing a shopping bag or finding an alternative to a plastic item.”

Over time, the groundswell of public support for the campaign has helped shift policy.

In the last five years, the WA State Government has introduced bans on lightweight plastic bags and single use plastics, and introduced a container deposit scheme.

Next on the cards is a ban on single use coffee cups, which according to PFJ research, Western Australians throw out at least 180 million annually. 

“We know from our research that government is active because there is very strong public support for these issues and for these policy changes and that was not the case 10 years ago. That was all behaviour change,” Ms Prince-Ruiz said. 

“In WA, we need solutions that fit the problem.

“I don’t want to see 180 million takeaway cups replaced with 180 million “environmentally friendly” disposable coffee cups that may be technically compostable but end up in landfills, or (for which) we don’t have the facilities necessary to compost them.”

PFJ has played an extraordinary role in keeping the plastic waste issue on the agenda 

but it hasn’t been without a personal cost to its founder. 

“I never set out to start a campaign; it was something I did as a personal response.

“My youngest had just started school when I first started this and I think there has been a cost to my family along the way. 

“At times my health and wellbeing has been impacted, not because of the stress of the issue but because I’m so passionate about it and it has, at times, really taken over my life. 

“I look at the changes I’ve seen over the last decade; the way it’s become part of our conversation and part of our language… I’m not naïve by the enormity of the challenge facing us but I’m buoyed by the fact that people are making a difference.” 

Clean State research shows WA has enormous potential to create thousands of jobs and boost the economy by stimulating sustainable industries including innovative waste management and recycling.

“A circular economy is essential if we are to significantly reduce waste levels in WA and the good news is that industries such as recycling are jobs-rich and can be developed right here in WA,” said Clean State Director Olivia Chapman. 

“A global treaty on plastic pollution would be a landmark development in the campaign to end plastic waste and would reinforce a global commitment to ending the utterly devastating impacts of plastic on our environment, wildlife and health.”

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