Updated: Apr 26, 2020
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
PREMA: In the 90s, there was a television cartoon called Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Back then, it was the first cartoon that delivered an environmental message to kids. It featured five planeteers and Captain Planet, who fought supervillains. "Gonna help him put asunder bad guys who like to loot and plunder" as the opening song went. If this show were going to be remade, I'd cast my next guest, Malin Frick, as the new Captain Planet. She is cultivating a generation of eco-warriors and spreading the green word far and wide, telling people just like Captain Planet did, that the POWER IS YOURS.
PREMA: Malin is originally from Sweden. As a child, she cared a lot about animals. She was distressed by the way she saw animals being affected by waste from a young age.
MALIN: My favorite movie was Dr. Dolittle, and my dream was always to be able to talk to animals like he did. And I did see, you know, fish entangled in fishing line. And I did see seagulls injured by plastic. So for me, I just felt very upset. And I didn't really at the time realize what I can do. And the older I grew, the more I realized that all the plastic and entanglements and fishing lines and it's all coming from humans. And if we change our habits, we can change our planet.
PREMA: Malin moved to Sydney, Australia in 2001 and has lived in the northern beaches area ever since. This area sits north of Sydney, spanning 254 square kilometres and faces the Pacific Ocean. In the first few years of living in Sydney, Malin noticed that littering was a serious problem at her local beaches, which were popular destinations for national and international travelers. The issue was twofold - a lack of adequate waste disposal and people's poor habits around waste. At first, Malin and her friends started collecting the waste on their own, and that led Malin to start the Northern Beaches cleanup crew in 2014.
MALIN: I think what really kicked it off was when we kind of made it official, as official Facebook now is by putting it on as a Facebook group and starting to make an event for actual cleanups. And anyone could join and then many did join. And then they told their neighbors or the friend of a school and more people came.
PREMA: And this organic growth has resulted in hundreds of people turning up for each of the cleanups.
MALIN: Now it's really grown. And because I work as an educator. For me, it's very, very important to educate. So every beach cleanup, we do start with a talk why we are doing these beach cleanups, because we can clean up the beach or the lagoon every day for rest of our lives, unless people are starting to change our habits and refuse.
PREMA: Malin realised she had a good launchpad to spread her message further and reach more people than just the participants who come to the actual cleanup event.
MALIN: I decided to focus more on the environmental part and do more posts more often. I mean, now on social media, we haven't got that many likes on Facebook. In a way we've got about 7000. But we can see in a week we reach about 300,000 people. So the people who share our posts make sure that they are being spread around. So for a little community group reaching 300,000 on average every week in just with an environmental message that we want to get out, it's quite a lot I think.
PREMA: Malin is also spreading this message closer to home, to schools where she's an educator. And much like her social media posts which make their way across the Internet, Malin's message reaches more than just her students.
MALIN: Because I'm a teacher as a full time job and I do run environmental programs at schools I work at. I teach the students and it can be about plastic ocean conservation or palm oil, whatever topic we are going through. But I also after a while, I felt some of the problem comes from home and their parents at home. And it's generally that parents are packing for lunch boxes full of glad wrap and single-use plastic and bags, drop off the kids in the morning with a single used coffee cup. So I added on to my environmental program at work an environmental newsletter that went home to offer parents after every lesson. And this is what we learned about today. And this is what we can do to stop this. So and first, in my opinion, I was maybe a little bit worried about what will they say. But I actually got the feedback, which was really positive, that the parents started to print the newsletter and they brought it to the workplaces as well. And oh, now we got rid of that coffee pot machine at work and now we've got rid of those plastic cups that we had for a water container, etc.. So it's a ripple effect. It's about spreading awareness and the people that you teach for them to teach others as well.
PREMA: Malin is quick to point out that hers isn't a war against plastic because a lot of good things are made out of plastic. Her issue is with single-use plastic. Malin acknowledges that people aren't the only problem. Businesses and retailers also contribute. It is a lack of robust environmental policy and infrastructure. It doesn't help that in Australia, each state and territory has its own distinct laws.
MALIN: For example, there are some shops in Sweden. They got rid of all the plastic bags that they offer for free for apples, bananas, fruit, avocados, and some shops have replaced them with paper bags. Two years ago, Sweden, for example, introduced a law, very, very simple law. And that was just for every retailer to ask of a person getting the clothing item or whatever they bought from paper to pens. Do you really need a plastic bag? They made it law that they need to ask that to the customer. And since they made that law, it has reduced the amount of plastic bags tremendously. That's a simple thing that they can put on the retailers.
PREMA: Sweden has also built an infrastructure that can handle disposing and processing of waste. Less than 1 percent of Sweden's waste ends up in landfills. About half of it is regenerated into energy through the waste energy process, which is proving very lucrative for the country. The other half of the waste is recycled. In the absence of such laws, infrastructure and government support, Malin feels that it will be the small things that make the biggest difference.
MALIN: Every year, Australians chuck out 27 million plastic toothbrushes. They're not going to be recycled. They go to landfill. How many toothbrushes are we gonna have in a landfill? 27 million every year. You can go online and buy a bamboo toothbrush. That would make a massive difference. Imagine if everyone in Australia did that. You can instead of using glad wrap around your sandwiches, online you can buy silicon wraps or bee wraps. So little things. I don't expect anyone to be perfect because no one is. Then make the changes that is convenient enough for you to do without trashing the planet at the same time.
PREMA: The task of changing minds and habits hasn't been an easy one.
MALIN: It was tough at the beginning the challenge when we first started the group was what we're doing with all the rubbish we pick up because it was enormous amounts. And generally what we did, we took them to the closest council bin because I mean, we can't take it home. We did. It was not actually until last year until the council decided to help us with that part. So we had to take the rubbish home. And if we had heaps of rubbish and the cars were full of rubbish, we had to drive around and emptied in different council bins that we could find around the area. They didn't come on board sooner and they were a little bit rude to us and they said you have to be a professional litter picker to pick up rubbish. And I don't know what training you need to go through to pick up rubbish. Bad, bad. Last year I got nominated know and I won the prize for as an eco award for waterways for the Northern Beaches Council. And when I did my talk, they also said, from now on, we will help you with their rubbish.
PREMA: Then there are other emerging challenges which seem to be specific to our time.
MALIN: Most challenging part is social media trolls that like to have online arguments with you and saying, oh, I use my plastic bags and I need to put each and every tomato on each and every apple in a plastic bag because otherwise the food will get cross-contaminated on the conveyor belt. Then they just keep arguing and arguing why the need to have plastic bags. And we've written about it so many times. But I think some people get enjoyment out of just being oppositional. And that takes a bit of energy from me. And I try to ignore it as much as I can. But I still don't want to let them go. So that's what I find a bit challenging personally
PREMA: Malin's patience and efforts have paid off in many ways, extending to how businesses in the northern beaches operate.
MALIN: There's a lot of local venues, particularly here on the northern beaches Sydney that stopped plastic straws and they replaced him either with stainless steel straws or paper straws. I would have to say we have seen definitely decrease in balloons and in plastic straws from local venues.
PREMA: After five years, Malin finds she isn't alone in fighting the eco battle. Over time, she has created many eco-warriors.
MALIN: A lot of the community members participate in our cleanups. They've what's great. They become very passionate as well. So they send us messages on Facebook and oh, I went to this cafe today and they got plastic straws and they gave me plastic straws. Even though I didn't want it. Should we write something about it? So people are sometimes I can see the comments on our social media page. Like, don't mess with this group because your restaurant will soon get mentioned.
PREMA: The issue of plastic ways is becoming more urgent in the northern beaches.
MALIN: Yeah, we've got an endangered fairy penguin colony here as well by the wharf in Mandalay. So all those businesses say, you know, we're very strict. As soon as we see any balloon or anything like that, they're like, oh, you know, it can go down to the endangered little colony of the fairy penguins. And lots and lots of the locals really care about those penguins.
PREMA: And businesses know that they need to keep their customers happy. So they ask northern beaches, clean up crew for advice on what they should do. Malin and I talked about big businesses, national chains, and international change, trying to appeal to eco-conscious consumers because of sustainability being seen as a lucrative trend. It's great that businesses are aware of sustainability, but consumers need to watch out for greenwashing.
MALIN: It's kind of a scam. The greenwashing, because it's what businesses and companies do to make you feel better and that you're doing the right thing. But it's actually not. So again, we need to start controlling their businesses by refusing their plastic because plastic will always be here. There's no out.
PREMA: Malin is saying that we have the power and we have to use in every way available to us.
MALIN: Vote for the right political party is a good start because and then try and organize a meeting with the council's politicians, et cetera. You need to generally have a big group behind you, though. So start, you and your friends start a petition for changes. The more your voice is heard, the more it will consider. And really, there's nothing wrong with outing businesses and just posting. This is what they are doing to expose them. Because if you see businesses as bullies, they are the ones that they are the liars. They are the ones, you know, selling the plastic. The only way to stop a bully is by exposing them. And that's what we have to do to businesses as well.
PREMA: And overall, it's just about having the conversations first conversations to raise awareness.
MALIN: And talk to the people that don't know. maybe we live in a bit of a bubble because we are aware and we are educated. But when you go and talk to the general public face a lot of people that they don't know and they don't know the impact their habits are having. So unless, you know, you can't get angry or, you know, tell them what you're doing wrong, you need to make them aware and you need to educate them about what they're doing and the impacts they have. It's an ongoing journey, but the more people they learn, the more changes we will see. So don't think you will win anyone over by being aggressive. So it's again about educating and it's the same approach we have with businesses. We give them a chance and we talk to them. And if they are then oppositional or deny what we're saying is for truth, etc., that's when we have a bit more stern approach with them.
PREMA: If you're thinking of setting up your own cleanup crew in your neighborhood, visit https://www.tangaroablue.org/, which is a website for the Tangoroa Blue Foundation, an Australian non-profit dedicated to the removal and prevention of marine debris. They have blog posts on how to start your own group. What gear would you need?
MALIN: Buckets that we're using is old Mayo containers from local restaurants. The bag we are using are from grass or horse food that someone gave us. So we haven't bought anything. We don't need to buy anything. There's enough people buying enough things on this planet that we don't need to and we reduce. We have the same buckets that we've had the whole time and they don't break. So, I mean, in an ideal world, it would be great if we had maybe stainless steel buckets instead of plastic mayo buckets. But it's. We are reusing them. So it's not single-use.
PREMA: My conversation with Malin left me a lot to think about. Her sensitive, multipronged approach made so much sense. I can see how she influence so many people and businesses to change the behavior. When I got home after my interview with Malin, I got to work changing the small things in my house, starting with my kitchen. As each week passes, I make more changes and my waste has reduced significantly. And I hope to be completely plastic-free one day.