How to be Plastic-Free with Kate Nelson

Jul 28, 2020

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While in college at a party, Kate Nelson looked around at the sea of Red Solo cups half-filled with beer and thought that there must be another option. In the decade since, Kate (aka the Plastic-Free Mermaid) has been single-use plastic free and has helped thousands of people use reduce the plastic in their lives.

Kate: Hello. I'm Kate. I'm Plastic Free Mermaid. I'm a mermaid and I haven't used single use plastics for a decade. I teach that lifestyle. I teach how not to use plastics. I teach about the science, the reasons why we shouldn't use plastics. And then I'm a mermaid so I free dive and I surf and I sail. And I love the ocean.

Jeff: And you didn't just wake up one day, 10 years ago and just say magically, "Plastic free mermaid?"

Kate: Correct.

Jeff: This is sort of like, it's not, would not be a normal response to humanity. I'm wondering what experience in your life led you to make that decision?

Kate: I was volunteering at a nonprofit in Santa Barbara in college and I learned it was John-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society. And I was working for a scientist there. Her name is Dr. Andrea Neal and she was studying microorganisms ingesting microplastics, which at I had no idea, no context for what that meant. She had to back up and explain to me that plastic does not biodegrade. It takes about a 1,000 years to break down into the environment. And in that lifespan of a 1,000 years, it doesn't just break down like a banana peel, but it breaks up into millions of tiny little fragments or pieces. First, the size of a fingernail, a macro plastic. Then smaller like the size of a sesame seed, a microplastic. And then beyond we can't even see it with the human eye anymore. It's a nanoplastic.

Kate: And then it's working, these little bits make their way out into the ocean and they're ingested by microorganisms as well as a range of sea creatures, which then works its way up the food chain. Just there's so much science around this, but that understanding that plastic does not biodegrade was shocking to me because I was in college so I was smoothie cups and Red Solo beer cups at parties. And all this plastic.

Jeff: Yeah. You cannot turn your head in modern society without seeing plastic. In fact I know my wife sort of has this disease of, I don't know, it's yet to be named. Maybe you can help her name it. When she walks into a room, she is surveying the room now for essentially single use plastics.

Kate: She's seen the Matrix.

Jeff: Yes. She's seen the Matrix. And then you traveled out to what I believe is the Big Gyre in the Pacific, is that right? And I think the images of that have started to be popularized, but that the size of it is just sort of beyond comprehension. I'm seeing like the size of France or the size of Texas. Tell us a little bit about that experience.

Kate: Yeah, oh man. They're all over the world too, these gyres. What it is, is it's our currents, our trash maybe gets blown into the ocean or travels along rivers and streams and makes its way out to the ocean. And then it floats out at sea and then makes its way into a current. And then those currents travel around the world. And then they converge in places. They run into each other and they form these large whirlpool like systems between continents in those great open spaces. And there are these big swirling whirlpool like systems and all the trash collects there. And it creates this kind of dead spot where life can't really survive because there's big chunks of marine litter, nets and rope and discarded laundry tubs and just huge bits of plastic. And then it's all broken down into these tiny little bits.

Kate: Then it's kind of this soup. It's not when captain Charles Moore first discovered this about 11 or so years ago, it was sensationalized and people thought it was this floating island. And so this is why we have to be careful about how we report facts and things, everyone was like, this plastic island, you can go stand on it. And you can't, it's more of a soup. And so I was shocked and went out to visit it. And yeah, took a sample and it was just this, you can't separate out those plastics because of the same size as the phytoplankton. How do you clean that? And these are all over the world. There's currents all over so there's these little tiny gyres all over the world. And about five or six main gyres.

Jeff: Yeah. I was reading a little bit about the evolution and the invention of plastic and obviously plastic, it's amongst the biggest problems to solve right now, but initially it was actually invented to solve a problem, which was somewhat as I understand it, sort of conservationists in essence. Which was we were using and this might be great mythology so you'll have to help us because essentially we were using raw materials from nature, like ivory, tortoise shells, obviously wood, a whole variety of devices and trinkets and everything that man uses. This is sometime in the early 1900s, I believe. And that, there was all this human innovation around creating this polymer substance to essentially conserve. But that no longer seems like a relevant concept.

Kate: Correct. Yeah. I think we got excited about this new technology and instead of, and especially in war time, it proved so convenient. It proved such a useful material. It was so durable and weather resistant. And light. For soldiers to be carrying cases and different parts of their uniform to be made of this material was really useful. And so, yeah, again, it was serving a purpose more than metal or heavier materials would use. And then at home, back in the States, at least, with most of the men away at war, the women were entering the workforce and they also had to take care of the family and cook food. Plastic was, oh, well how convenient we can make packaged food in this and make disposable plates and silverware. Again, it was like, oh, this is serving a need. It's serving this. We're conserving time and energy and supporting the women. And it was good, it was seen as the solution. But what we didn't.

Jeff: [inaudible 00:06:54] hold that thought, Kate.

Kate: Yeah.

Jeff: I like the World War II bit anyways. You good?

Kate: All right. Can I have more hot water?

Jeff: Absolutely. There you go.

Kate: Thank you. You're saving a mermaid with that cup.

Jeff: I'm saving a mermaid?

Kate: Yeah.

Jeff: God. That's fantastic. Can I have a whole case of these cups? I'll save mermaids.

Kate: Yes you can.

Jeff: As many mermaids as there could possibly be on this property.

Kate: Yeah, they're really struggling.

Jeff: Could be a boon.

Kate: Sure. It was such a great material, but we didn't consider the consequences of the scale with which we were rolling it out, the vast quantity. The amount of single use and where it was all going to end up.

Jeff: Yeah. One of the things that I think that you talk about that I really find fascinating is it's a little bit more philosophical in nature. And if you look at the invention of plastics as to in some ways provide this convenient tool that used to be provided by natural by nature. And in a way we have gotten so personally divorced from nature that we see our identity as completely separate from it. And because we're separate from it, we feel like we have dominion over it. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Kate: Yeah. I'd love to. I think that a lot of people are feeling this disconnection and this separation and it's ironic because we're never separate from nature. We always are connected to nature. We breathe air, we drink water, we eat food that grows from soil. But you're right. We've created all of these synthetic barriers. We've built houses around ourselves and walls. And we pump synthetic air through our buildings and we package our food in synthetic materials. We've manufactured that separation and you're right. It's given us this sort of us and them, this separation that again is just, it's something of our own invention.

Kate: When we start to come back to, oh wow. We actually we want herbs as our medicine and teas as our medicine or we're taking all these supplements and all of these natural foods to get our energy or we're paying all this money to go on medicine retreats or we're paying all this money for a week for a yoga retreat. And we're trying to reconnect or tune into this higher, this self or go inside and heal and do all this healing from all of the years we spent disconnected. It's so ironic because we certainly were never actually disconnected. It was just, it was a mental framework that we created.

Jeff: Yeah. Completely. And even from a genetic perspective, we are more bacteria and fungi than we actually are ourselves.

Kate: Trillions of bacteria.

Jeff: Yeah. As when they mapped the human genome, I think in the nineties and they were assuming because we are these brilliant complex beings, they would come back and we would have millions of genes. Well, it turned out we only had 20,000 or so. And that led to, well, what is going on? How are we functioning from a digestive perspective? And all this other stuff. And now you've seen over the last 10 years, this kind of efflorescence in the research and study around microbiome and more of that DNA. We're really more, even our corporeal physical selves are more nature than they are truly us.

Kate: We're mostly dirt and water.

Jeff: Yeah. There are a lot of different kinds of plastics out there. And I think just from my sort of neophyte perspective, I look on the bottom and there's different numbers. And what does all that signify? Or does it mean actually anything? And is it just a myth to confuse us?

Kate: It is a myth. It's one of my kind of favorite myths to bust around these false solutions to our waste problem. When we started using plastic for all these, in World War II for at home disposable materials, forks and plates, recycling was invented by the plastics industry. Big oil was like, "Okay, how do we make people feel better about all this plastic that they're just throwing away? Oh, let's create a separate bin for all of these materials and say, 'Don't worry, we're going to repurpose. We're going to recycle these things into equal materials.'" But now we know that it's not actually being recycled. Things get down cycled, plastics can be down cycled, but unlike metal and glass and paper, that can be recycled into something of equal value, plastic can't really because there's so many different types. And amongst those types, even PET, polyethylene terephthalate, which is the most commonly recycled plastic water bottles.

Jeff: Is that number one?

Kate: Number one. But they use that in making food packaging as well. And even those, it's crusted with soda or it has a sticky glue on it from a label or it has color printed onto it, ink printed onto it, or it's been dyed with another color, or it has phthalates, different chemical additives to give it different characteristics like rigidity or opaqueness or something. It's this one plastic, PET, but it's got all these different things in it so it's really hard for it to be a pure material, like simply glass or metal.


Jeff: When you say down cycled, what does that actually mean?

Kate: When they said 9% has been recycled, they mean down cycled.

Jeff: They mean down cycled, okay. And down cycled is essentially taking that plastic and making it into some other plastic.

Kate: Some other plastic.

Jeff: That then does not generally decompose well. Right?

Kate: Correct. Oh yeah. It's not going to break down. Because these pure PET bottles are made from virgin plastics and when you recycle these plastics, because there's so many contaminants in it, when you melt something down, it's got all these different and even plastic leaches as we were talking about earlier, but it also is absorbent. It absorbs toxins in its environment. Recycling plastic into something that we could eat or drink out of just is unsafe. And so, and there's not regulation around this yet. This happens a lot. We're so innovative as humans and so we get excited and we want to, oh recycle it and use this here and there. But then the policy or the legislation can't keep up with our innovation. The science can barely keep up. We release a study and then business and technology evolves and we haven't yet been able to regulate or create meaningful legislation around these things to protect us. Protect our health or our environment.

Jeff: Yeah. There are these kind of global pacts. I think the Paris Treaty addressed some of this stuff, but countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, I don't really think are heeding some of the guidelines.

Kate: That's a really interesting part about this is because Southeast Asia is where the Western countries ship our trash. They get a bad rap, but it's because we are sending our trash to these countries that don't have the waste management systems in place. That's when this becomes not just an environmental injustice, but more of a social injustice because why are they supposed to be responsible for the trash of the world?

Jeff: Right. This sounds like a kind of an obvious question, sort of an analytic truth, like a bachelor is unmarried or something, but what is single use plastic?

Kate: Disposable. One time use. You use it once and then you throw it away. Which was really interesting for me when I first quit things that use plastic, because I was like, oh, straws, bags, bottles done. And then I was realizing as I was shopping that all the food packaged in plastic, that's single use. Even the shampoo bottles and the makeup containers, the packaging around my technology, all of that is single use plastic. Because you just unwrap it or you use your shampoo for a couple months and then you throw that container away.

Jeff: Right. It's pervasive and insidious really. You gave a few examples of perhaps not the obvious single use plastics because I think there's a general movement against using sort of plastic bags at grocery stores. And I suppose that's incremental progress.

Kate: Unfortunately.

Jeff: Yeah, in a way because it's sort of greenwashing some of the other issues. But when you think of the biggest single use plastics that people might not think of, health and beauty aid industry probably.

Kate: Yeah, it's so hard to narrow it down because that's why we're doing a course on it. There's so much plastic that we don't even realize around us. I look around here and I think the one that is most shocking is our clothing and that's not single use because we wear our clothing over and over again. But if I think about what's the most shocking amount of plastic that we use and we're contributing to plastic pollution, it's when we wash our clothing, thousands of micro, little threads, synthetic threads are shaken loose. Little threads are shaken loose of natural clothing as well but it's when they're synthetic that they're ending up, they're out the laundry machine, out into the waterways and that goes out into the ocean because the treatment plants aren't able to separate those fibers out.

Kate: These little fibers weave their way into the gastrointestinal tract and then because plastic itself is toxic. Okay, so it's in the environment, it's piling up as pollution. It's leaching its toxins into the ground and the soil, the groundwater, it's also shedding these little microfibers and also any packaging is shedding microplastics, these little particles that then are being ingested by wildlife. And these negative impacts, which I'll get to, bioaccumulate or get bigger as other creatures eat them and they make their way up the food chain. If we're eating fish, if we're eating meat that have been eating plastic, all of those negative toxins are bigger in our bodies. What are these negative toxins?

Jeff: There's plastic in this thing here?

Kate: Yeah. Yeah. That thing. That's why I was thinking maybe if you're not fully human, maybe you're half plastic.

Jeff: Oh you were setting me up.

Kate: But you seem pretty good. You seem like you're doing pretty good job.

Jeff: Okay. Sorry to interrupt that.

Kate: No problem. Yeah. Plastics shedding these little microfibers and it also leaches. it's attracted to fat so if it's storing anything with that in it, the container is going to leach into that food or that drink. If you have a latte, with milk in there, it's going to leach to that milk. If it's storing anything that's hot so if you're storing hot food into plastic Tupperware or you're getting takeout in a plastic box or you're microwaving food in plastic, the plastic chemicals are going to transfer into your food or drink. And if something's sitting on a shelf for a really long time in plastic, duration of time in that plastic, it's going to leach and what these chemicals do we're finding is they actually act like estrogen in our bodies. When we ingest these foods or drink these drinks that are contaminated with the plastics, they travel through our bloodstream and trigger all of our estrogen sensors or receptors around our body. And this disrupts our endocrine system and eventually our reproductive systems and leads to all sorts of diseases, which I can talk about.

Jeff: Well, before you talk about that, because I'm very squeamish about anything medical, so I might have to go off camera for that particular piece. I believe in the general I'm an optimist and I believe that it's people in their general nature are good. And they, when confronted with this kind of problem, people can feel paralyzed by the enormity of it and they simply just go numb. What would you say to that person that is paralyzed by the enormity of the problem? What can they do?

Kate: Baby steps.

Kate: Well, first of all, quit the obvious ones. Quit single use plastic bags, bring your own bags. Quit using single use plastic water bottles or drink bottles, bring your own bottle. And if you forget these things, get resourceful. Go without or use a cup, try and find some other vessel or use a cardboard box at the grocery store to get your groceries out. Bring your own coffee cup, start bringing your reusables, build those habits. Change where you shop. Shop at the farmer's markets, support local makers, artisans, makers of vegan, coconut yogurt or something. Research and find people that are making these things and support those small local food movements. Shop bulk, go to the refill centers, bring your own containers, set your own at your home. Find these suppliers and just order a large bag of beans and keep it in your basement. And then you can just refill for yourself.

Kate: Just changing how we're consuming. Instead of just blindly consuming and trusting all these corporations that are delivering us all these packaged products, kind of coming back into ourself and seeing how we can make little changes day to day. Bring our own materials, make things at home. I make all my bath products. I make much of my food products at home. Just changing our routine.

Jeff: It sounds like what you're espousing is a more sacred way of living. And I'm curious as you started to instantiate more of these plastic free habits into your life, how did that change you holistically?

Kate: Yeah. Beautiful question. I think that that is definitely the mindset that we want to take when we approach quitting something as pervasive and ubiquitous as plastic. That instead of what I did, which was kind of this just huge quit, I'm done with this forever, which was extreme.

Jeff: The guillotine approach to plastics.

Kate: Yeah. Which, of course, as I said, then continued to be a learning journey as I realized what that meant. But yeah, it's just approaching this as we are connected to nature. We are not better or bigger than anything in nature. In fact, we are connected. We're a part of this and just creating that holistic appreciation is so fulfilling and rewarding. And that's what makes these changes sustainable because it can be really overwhelming to think, I have to make all my stuff? I have to bring things? I don't know how I'm going to change my routine. But when you look at this as this beautiful holistic lifestyle, that all makes sense. That all is easy. It's like, of course I'm going to make my own face balms and lip balms and body butters, because it's part of my process. It's part of this quality of life that I'm choosing.


Jeff: Do you feel though, in order to make really systemic change, they're going to be, we need a fuck load of mermaids, right?

Kate: We do. We need to build an army.

Jeff: And that is hard in the face of essentially a hyper commodified capitalist system that relies on efficiency that essentially strips the world of the sacred. Because the sacred is unique. It's making your own pie at home instead of buying it in a plastic container or something like that.

Kate: Self sufficiency.

Jeff: But when we live in a culture that essentially is based on a system that consistently tells you that you are not enough and then markets trinkets and devices for you to address those perceived deficiencies, really you need a grassroots revolution to change the systems and structures by which we live and by which we're governed. And I'm curious how one does that? You're certainly doing it by example. And I think of, how do you, is it purely a grassroots movement? Does environmentalism and sustainability sort of have a marketing problem? And I wonder if you could kind of talk to how you can create the critical mass to overturn the systems and structures that are deeply embedded in our society?

Kate: That's why I love the health and wellness movement. I love that people are starting to put their money where their mouth is. They're really, and yes, it's being taken advantage of. And there's all sorts of marketing and trinkets that are catering to this new value of health and wellness. But it shows us that our values can be commoditized in a way and that we can actually, the environmentalism can also be pitched and promoted as a way to serve our health and to serve our bodies. And that's why the angle around the science, the fact that the science, that plastic is actually contaminating and poisoning us on a daily basis and affecting our reproductive, leading to infertility and cancer and obesity and depression and all of these things that we're actively trying to avoid by leading healthy lives.

Kate: I think getting this information out mainstream and it's really interesting actually, because as I've been an activist in this space for a long time and the grassroots movement feels so slow and we'll get legislation passed and then it will be overturned or it won't be strong enough so it won't actually make a difference. And that's why I've chosen to go more into, okay, how do we inspire and teach people how to live this lifestyle and kind of package it as this magical, sacred, beautiful mermaid lifestyle so that it's appealing? And we show people that it's actually easy and it's beautiful and it's rich. And hopefully the wealthier nations take this on because the world mimics what we do. And so if we can reduce our plastic use, because it's so hard. The real solution to all of this is turning off the tap of plastics.

Kate: Just stopping the extraction of oil and the production and the manufacturer of all these plastic products. How do we do that? We try to target these corporations, but they're so, they've got immense resources and there's plenty of great movements out there that are working towards that. And then we also try to do the cleanup and try and work with Southeast Asia and these different countries that all of our trash is ending up and it's really leaking out into the environment there. We try to figure out systems there as well.

Kate: But what do we do? We work on the narrative. We work on changing our relationship to single use plastics so that that can become a trend and that can become a movement with our communities that have real impact and influence.

Jeff: Yeah, no, I think that that is a good point of essentially changing the story and that goes back to kind of this notion of the separate self. That that is our modern story. That I'm an individual living amongst other individuals in this separate and external universe. That I'm only a part of, but not connected to. That if we can effectively change the story to feel like more connected human beings to each other and to nature that essentially we might not have the same sort of, I guess, resources to lobby in Washington against entrenched corporations. But we do have the power en masse of our consumption.

Jeff: Yeah, and that's extremely powerful. And there is precedent for large changes of consciousness. I look at smoking is one that gets held out there often. Is that, we as a culture have changed largely how we've approached that notion of smoking.

Kate: And that's a perfect example of how we influence social change. Social law can be so much stronger than a political law. If we can make something, when someone smokes it used to be cool. And now it's, oh, eww. I can't believe. It's we created that.

Jeff: Yeah, that's interesting. There's accountability. We have accountability to each other there. And I guess I might ask you to kind of in summation, what is the relationship between community and solving for plastics?

Kate: Well, I think community is essential for solving all environmental issues which is Earth issues. Bringing it back to the local instead of this globalization where we're importing and exporting foods and things all over the world. And instead coming back to the local level, to our local community and working with each other and the people, our neighbors. If disaster hits, we're going to need to know these people who can grow food and where the water sources are. Coming back to that local and more to your point or your question in terms of our local or our social circles and our communities, how can we create these social norms? How can we be the ones to lead with grace instead of pressing this and making it that aggressive, even can you sign this petition? Or donate now. It's not this urgent. It's more just, this is important to me. And this is how I'm doing it. Letting it be easy other people to adopt and take on and just outright saying, "Hey, let's create this as a social norm within our community because it's important."

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