“It’s exciting to look at the last decade of my life and to see all the little stepping stones that have shaped my current situation. I’m really happy to be in a position now where I can be a voice for an issue that hasn’t achieved widespread attention.”
Tim on the campaign trail on the NSW coast
Tim Silverwood is one passionate man. An environmentalist, plastic pollution spokesperson and keen surfer, Tim is dedicated to spreading awareness of the dangers plastic pose to our marine life, wild life, as well as to our own health. Tim studied Sustainable Resource Management at university and has worked in the non-profit sector for most of his career. We got to have a chat to Tim about his recent forays in implementing change for the better -
1. What are three words that describe you?
Philosophical. Ethical. Committed.
2. Why did you choose this particular path?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a beautiful part of the world; the Central Coast of New South Wales. From an early age I was interested in the natural world and, in particular, how the human species fits in to the broader scheme of things. It was the love affair I developed with the ocean throughout my teenage years that shaped my current commitment to protecting our ocean from plastic.
"During those early years spent revelling in the waves as a young surfer or ‘grommet’, and the 20 years since, the ocean has become my best friend, my playground, my provider and my temple. I'm sick of people trashing my temple."
Tim in his temple
3. Recently Susan Beraza released the documentary Bag It, which correlates with your own quest. Can you share with us your take on its themes and how we can learn more about it?
The Bag It movie was released in the USA in 2010 and is an incredibly engaging, funny and frightening film about the role plastic plays in our lives. It tells the story of plastic through the eyes of the everyday lead character Jebb. Jebb starts out looking at the impact of plastic bags in his community and then expands his investigation to see how plastic is impacting the environment, the oceans, how the corporate lobbying of the plastics industry affects our consumption - and most shocking of all; how our dependence on plastic is affecting human health. When I saw the film for the first time I was really shocked by the extent of health implications resulting from our use of plastic.
"The chemicals used in plastics and the plasticizers used in everyday products are being linked back to many health conditions - most notably hormone disruption. It’s really frightening."
4. What’s the one thing that has alarmed you the most about the use of plastics in our society?
The implications plastic has to our own health. My eyes have opened so much in the past couple of years. Before that, I was doing a lot of the things I now consider to be no-no’s - I was microwaving my lunch at work in a plastic container, I was leaving bottles of water in the car and drinking them after they’d been exposed to sunlight and heat, and I was using products containing phthalates (an endocrine-disrupting chemical used as a plasticizer), like body wash and moisturisers. I am part of a growing global community of people who are shocked, puzzled and angered by the fact that we are basically being poisoned by the products we buy. I ask the question “How is this possible?” How can toxic chemicals be sold to us in products without restriction? Where are our government leaders? That brings me to the second most alarming feature of plastics in our society; how much power the giant chemical companies and industry have and the lengths they take to quash any legislative reform.
5. This is probably an impossible question to answer, but why do people litter? What do you think is the root of the cause?
In some parts of the world that’s a very easy question to answer - throughout many of the world’s developing nations the rapid rise in plastic as a form of packaging has not been supported by any sort of education or systems to contain it. I’ll never forget travelling in India by train and being offered chai at one stop in a beautiful clay moulded pot and at the next it would come in a plastic cup. Both were treated the same way by locals, tossed out the window to the magical mystical land called ‘away’, but one would have dissolved during the next storm whilst the other would be with the earth for potentially hundreds of years. All across the world organic forms of packaging are being replaced by plastic.
"I notice it here…the label on vegemite that was once paper is now plastic, products once in glass are now in plastic and I heard recently that you can only get sour cream from Coles in plastic after it had always been offered in a cardboard container (that yes…was also lined with plastic)."
I think to some degree, littering is ingrained in our psyche. For as long as we’ve been on earth we have been dumping unwanted items out of sight and out of mind. Even I will chuck an apple core into the bush when I’m done. The problem has come with the massive rise in non-organic, non-biodegradable packaging since World War II - all designed for the inescapable, mother of all causes of this problem… convenience. In the 1950’s there was a feature in Life Magazine embracing the new notion of ‘disposable living’. The message: “Why do the dishes when you can just throw them away, imagine how much easier life could be?” If we are to tackle this problem we need to reverse that notion and REFUSE disposable living. It’s inevitable that when we use so much disposable packaging, it will escape into the environment either by the minority who litter or simply by gaps in the chain (from consumption to recycling or landfill).
I like to think that I am a product of a time when education campaigns like ‘Do the Right Thing’ and ‘Keep Australia Beautiful’ were effective. They certainly had an impact on me, but where are they now? I still see an incredible amount of people littering, especially amongst our youth, which upsets me. Where are the industry groups that should be spending their energy ensuring their items don’t end up being wasted? All I see is them spending money on new, fancier forms of disposable packaging and objecting initiatives that would drastically reduce littering, like the successful Container Deposit Scheme (CDS) that gives a 10 cent refund on bottles and cans.
"This system drastically reduces littering, boosts recycling, and works well in South Australia, many states in the USA, and throughout Europe. If you believe in this simple change to help boost recycling and reduce littering you can show your support here. 90% of Australians support CDS but our politicians are reluctant to act. Please tell them you care."
I am committed to try and educate the community to stop littering, but at the same time the industry has to do their part. Whose job should it really be to clean up the mess? The council? The government? The community? Me? You? I’d like to see a growing shift in extended producer responsibility where the corporations who make these products assist in ensuring it’s recycled and disposed of responsibly.
6. Can you tell us a bit about what you saw whilst filming your documentary The Greening of Kashmir?
I first visited Kashmir in 2008 after spending 7 months backpacking throughout South East Asia. I was already reeling from seeing the way plastic waste was treated in India, Indonesia and other countries – tossed into the sea, burnt, buried and left clogging storm water drains and rivers – I thought I’d seen it all. I discovered that the tourist resort I was staying in had a very simple waste management system – tip everything over the side of a mountain 3000m above sea level.
Watch Tim's footage here.
The shock of it was compounded by the fact that most of the trash generated was from tourists, so I felt directly implicated in the dumping. Here I was amongst the highest mountain range on Earth and seeing trash that I’d created dumped into a pristine wilderness where it could theoretically one day make it to the ocean to pollute the same ocean that I consider my temple. It was a key moment for me.
7. How did you feel after taking the voyage to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
It was an incredibly powerful experience. It almost overwhelmed me but thankfully I was surrounded by very inspirational people that left me feeling stronger than ever, that we really can make a difference if we work together. For those that aren’t aware - the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the name given to a region of ocean where a huge quantity of debris (mostly plastic) accumulates in the North Pacific Ocean. The reason it forms is because of a massive network of currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre that encircle the North Pacific (bordered by Asia to the west and North America to the east). All the debris that makes it into the ocean from both continents is consumed by the currents and in some places it converges into these so called ‘garbage patches’.
Some people may have heard the Garbage Patch referred to as a floating island of rubbish. The media are the main ones pedalling this notion. Environmentalists prefer to describe the region as a “complicated plastic soup”. Firstly, the debris is spread out over a massive area and the debris doesn’t just float on the surface, it also descends down deep into the water column. Most of the larger items actually break into smaller pieces as the sun’s rays make them brittle and the disturbance of the sea beats them around against other items as well as being selectively nibbled by wildlife. The problem is that all the plastic, whilst it breaks apart, doesn’t actually break down or biodegrade. If you can imagine a plastic bottle that could potentially break down into thousands of pieces equivalent to the size of a grain of rice -all those bits of the bottle will be out there - spread out over a massive area. This has lead scientists to assess that there is up to 18,000 pieces of plastic in every square kilometre of ocean. It’s not just in the garbage patches, but in every part of our ocean – not to mention that there are FIVE recognized gyres like this one.
8. If littering or the amount of plastic that we now use infuriates our readers, what can they do to form part of the solution?
We all have a footprint on this planet and we can all reduce that footprint by taking additional steps. The major cause of this problem is disposable living, using items that were designed to be thrown away. Whether the item is recycled, burnt, buried in a landfill or littered into the environment the resources and energy used to make it have been wasted. One of the simplest things we can all do is refuse disposable products and embrace reusable products. It might surprise you to know that we didn’t have plastic shopping bags until the 1970s, prior to that everyone used reusable bags or paper bags. When I ask people to sign my petition to ban plastic shopping bags in NSW people often say, “But what will I do without plastic bags for my rubbish bin?” I reply, “What would your parents or grandparents have done?” We are stuck in this moment thinking that how we are consuming and abusing valuable resources now is the only way to live… it’s not.
The grommet at heart
"Every day that we continue to perpetuate that notion, we are heading further into a deep cave and away from the light and fresh air outside. Ditch plastic bags and get yourself a quality reusable shopping bag you can use over and over again."
I recently became a distributor of the fantastic ChicoBag (reusable shopping bags) invented by environmental activist Andy Keller from California. He has changed the landscape of plastic bag consumption in the USA, so much so that he was taken to court by Hilex-Poly and two other plastic bag manufacturers in the USA when they tried to sue his company.
As well as reusable bags there are reusable coffee cup options and reusable bottles like the range from Australian company Cheeki. I am shocked at the size of the bottled water industry in Australia in a country that has access to some of the cleanest tap water on the planet. People are often spending more money on water per litre than they do for petrol and they’re drinking it out of petroleum based plastic bottles that will persist on earth for hundreds of years and are made of a swathe of chemicals we don’t know much about. Often the bottled water is just filtered tap water and it takes the equivalent of three bottles of water and a huge amount of energy to produce a single bottle. Reusable containers, reusable cutlery, reusable glass straws, it goes on and on. Support or start initiatives in your town, workplace, educational institution, region and state to reduce plastic consumption. Australia has three states and territories with ultra thin plastic bag bans (SA, NT and ACT) and many more towns and communities that have voluntarily banned plastic bags. In 2009, Bundanoon (NSW) was the first town in Australia to ban the sale of bottled water, and since, other towns, schools and universities have supported similar initiatives. In addition, smoking has been banned on beaches around Australia to stem cigarette butt litter; cigarette butts are made from synthetic (plastic) fibres and are the single most littered item in the world.
9. What keeps you motivated? I mean you must feel disillusioned or hopeless from time to time? And if not, what keeps you from feeling like this!
There are moments when I do feel overwhelmed. But like any environmental movement that has come before us, there are always challenges and obstacles. Think about the challenges they faced trying to ban carcinogenic pesticides like DDT, or banning CFC’s from aerosol products or even the latest challenges our Australian government has faced in introducing a price on carbon emissions. The key to all these reforms is passion and persistence. What angers me the most about some of the simple reforms we are asking for is the retaliation from industry and the influence they have over government with their lobbying and political donations. It’s a real kick in the face for democracy when you find out that lobbying is more powerful than the consent of the people. I figure that Australia has a real opportunity to become a global leader on conserving our oceans and marine life and I am motivated to see it happen in my lifetime. We have seen some great decisions lately with the Commonwealth marine park network and our government acknowledging that our oceans are not just Australia’s greatest asset; they are THE critical asset to the world. If plastic pollution threatens to become a catastrophic feature of our oceans in my generation, what does that mean for future generations? I figure it’s up to us to say, “No more!"
Don't be a Bag Monster!
10. What’s your favourite food or meal? If you were reincarnated as a food item or dish, what would it be?
I was born in Cairns and have always loved mangoes. Mango is one of those fruits where you just devour the flesh and think, “Is this really straight from a tree?” So divine. It is winter now and I won’t be seeing a mango for six more months so right now my favourite dish would be a delicious bowl of pumpkin soup.
11. Give us your top 3 sustainable living tips...
1. Live simply – realise that we don’t need a lot of the ‘stuff’ that we are told that we need by media and marketing.
2. Live locally – living local is the true solution to so many of the challenges we face in this day and age. If you can source all your food needs from a 20, 50, 100km radius then you will be drastically reduce the energy footprint of that product, support local farmers and producers and reduce the need for packaging. I love that so many farmers markets and food co-ops are popping up all over Australia. Get out there and support them and reduce your food miles!
3. Remember the six R’s (we all know the three R’s but I like to think there are some really important additions):
REFUSE – refuse disposable packaging and embrace reusable products.
REDUCE – reduce the amount of stuff you use and think you need.
REUSE – find another use for your waste, there are so many creative ways to give products a new life instead of throwing them away.
RECYCLE – Recycling has fantastic potential when done correctly. Recycling should always be a ‘closed loop’ meaning the item you recycle should be designed so it can become the same item again. Often much of what we recycle is actually ‘down-cycled’ into a product that can’t be recycled again. We should be embracing a ‘cradle to cradle’ concept for products not the common ‘cradle to grave’ model.
REPLENISH – generally over 40% of waste from the kerbside collection system is organic matter that could be composted and used to fertilise local gardens. That’s a HUGE amount of waste going to unnecessarily to our landfills. Please invest in a compost or worm farm if you don’t already have one and do your part to replenish the earth.
RESPOND – No one likes to see rubbish on the ground, on the beach or in our oceans so instead of walking past it why not respond and pick it up! You may not have put it there but you can take it away. You now know the impact it can cause so please, take 3 or even a few more!
Want more info on Tim's work? Check out these links to some of Tim's talks, projects and products: