Written by Jeni Bone
Photography by David Jones
02 March 2022
Our oceans are choking on plastic pollution. Around 10-million tonnes annually, in fact, and that figure is only increasing. Each year in Australia, 130,00 tonnes of plastic end up in our waterways and marine environments. It’s estimated that 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, not to mention one million seabirds, are killed by marine plastic pollution.
With the mission to change the world’s attitude to plastic consumption within a generation, Plastic Oceans Australasia (POA) was established to show people how to live without single-use plastic.
“POA provides information and education and conducts research to raise awareness of the problems of plastic waste in the environment,” explains Ricki Hersburgh, Executive Director at Plastic Oceans Australasia.
Hersburgh was appointed by Jo Ruxton, the founder of Plastic Oceans UK, now known as Ocean Generation. She also produced the documentary A Plastic Ocean, which was endorsed by Sir David Attenborough.
Hersburgh’s job was to establish the Plastic Oceans Foundation operations in the Asia-Pacific region. POA launched at Parliament House in Canberra in August 2017, where the now award-winning A Plastic Ocean was screened.
Hersburgh is perfectly equipped for the role of executive director. In the 1980s, her father ran one of the first plastic recycling plants in Victoria. Before the advent of sorting technology, she worked in the yard, sifting through the waste by hand. It made a tremendous impact on her life and career. “That was 25-odd years ago when I started my journey,” she says.
“My parents were ahead of their time. Recycling was seen as a bit of a hippy thing to do – certainly not something I admitted to my friends at school.”
After graduation, Hersburgh acquired a diverse professional and academic background. She worked her way through the ranks to senior management positions in organisations including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Greening Australia, the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) and Hilton International Hotels Group.
“I was working in Hong Kong when I met Jo Ruxton, so reached out to her – it was the era when hotels had just started to adopt the reduce, recycle, reuse approach.
“In conjunction with Jo, I initiated a community engagement program called Healthy Oceans to raise awareness about pollution issues facing Hong Kong Harbour. Never did I think that a few years later, I would head up POA.”
Hersburgh felt compelled to take up the mantle in our region, extending the message to reach every sector about the urgency of the POA’s mission.
“The fastest way to activate change is to get young people involved. It encourages others to walk the talk and be part of our innovative, creative programs that reach out to the community, businesses, government – everyone!”
“Our programs are core to this mission – they address the root cause of single-use plastic consumption and show people the path to positive behavioural change.”
The barrage of information in the media and images that may be overwhelming for most people doesn’t help. However, according to Hersburgh, “There are three main barriers: it’s not my problem; I don’t have the information or time to know how to deal with it; and apathy.”
Devising and delivering relevant, fun programs is therefore crucial. One of the successful POA programs that has been implemented and evolved over the past five years is the national school program. There’s also the ongoing scientific research conducted by the POA Technical Advisory Panel team, which draws on data from several national and international universities and research centres.”
“Everything we deliver is based on science, research and peer-reviewed evidence,” asserts Hersburgh, adding that their objectives had been gaining traction as the world became more aware of the impact of single-use plastics.
That was until the pandemic struck.
“People were becoming accustomed to using cloth bags, retailers stopped giving out disposable bags, straws were being phased out. Then COVID arrived, and it was a case of one step forward, two back – there has been a marked increase in plastic consumption.
“During the pandemic, the use of plastic masks, disposable packaging and single-use cups have all increased exponentially, and estimates suggests it’s a 33-percent increase across the globe. In the UK alone, it is estimated that 29 million masks per month were being disposed of – and that was back in August 2020.”
But the up side, be it ever so slight, is that the pandemic has escalated the visibility of issues surrounding plastic. “Now, more than ever, people are becoming conscious of plastic waste. It’s obvious, everywhere we look,” says Hersburgh.
“There are so many small things we can do every day that result in huge changes, such as reusable cups, compostable wraps, beeswax wraps, wax paper, tin foil and reusable containers.”
Like everyone else, POA has had to work with closed borders and curtailed travel.
“When we couldn’t deliver face-to-face training and school programs, we adapted and delivered webinars to over 1,000 people. Our education programs via Zoom reached more than 17,500 students.
“On World Picnic Day on 8 June, we initiated Picnics Unwrapped, a month-long campaign that was launched in September in Australia, to capture our springtime and inspire people to host a picnic without single-use plastic packaging. We appointed celebrities, influencers and student ambassadors to spread the word.”
Expanding its focus in 2022, POA is inviting all boat owners, captains, crew and guests alike to take up the creative challenge and enter the 2022 Oceans in Motion Film Competition.
“The Oceans in Motion initiative began two years ago to recognise the United Nations’ Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development,” explains Hersburgh.
“We’re rolling it out in 2022 to encourage everyone connected to the water to show us how they are working towards reducing single-use plastic items on their boat by the way of a short film.”
The competition is free to enter and open to everyone in the Australasian region. Expressions of Interest are required by 21 March 2022. Film entries, no longer than ten minutes, must be submitted in .mp4, .avi or .mov file format by 21 September 2022.
Judged by an independent panel, the top three entries will be named Ocean in Motion Australasia inaugural winners. There will be exceptional prizes to honour their films around the region in 2023.
“It can be a documentary style or a public service announcement, serious or funny, live action or animated – it’s up to you! Oceans in Motion is open to the entire local fleet – ferries, charter yachts and commercial vessels, superyachts, sailors, owners, crew and guests,” says Hersburgh. “It’s time to get on board!”