Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Campaigner Hayley McLellan is the founder of Rethink the Bag – fighting on behalf of us, of you, and of the ocean, for a plastic shopping bag free South Africa.

The Rethink the Bag campaign had an outstanding 2017! If ever there was the feeling of a tipping point in this campaign, this year was definitely it.

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. It is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point. Big changes occurring as a result of small events.” – Malcolm Gladwell

I love the work I do in the arena of waste management. Now, if that sounds awfully boring to you, let me tell you that being an environmental campaigner/activist is, oftentimes, exhilarating, as it is actually human behaviour that fascinates me. After all, every plastic shopping bag that ends up as environmental litter was once in somebody’s hands…

Here are a few of my highlights from the end of this amazing year.

Symposium of Contemporary Conservation Practices

I felt honoured to be invited to present the campaign at the Symposium of Contemporary Conservation Practices, held in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal. This event offers a platform for the conservation community to share their diverse knowledge with their peers.

Solutions to critical environmental issues are sought in order to impact policy and thereby enhance conservation efforts – in Africa and beyond. This gathering also aims to promote partnerships between all relevant stakeholders, in order to address the contemporary conservation challenges of our world. Modern-day solutions for modern-day problems.

To take a welcome break from my every-day plastic-crisis awareness work (a theme which was very well researched, documented and represented at this symposium), I chose to attend a few alternative presentations. Drones in conservation was a hot topic and a solution that apparently makes a whole lot of sense in terms of solving the often-restrictive logistics of doing wildlife censuses across, for example, the vast expanse of the Serengeti.

Being afforded this opportunity to grow the Rethink the Bag campaign audience was crucial, and I took this occasion to challenge all attending organisations and individuals to go plastic shopping bag free, with both commitment and urgency! As I’ve experienced in my own life, making this one change can shift so much of our perspective on personal consumption, helping us realise that we are individually accountable. I became a better Earth citizen by giving up plastic shopping bags. Thumbs up to that unexpected outcome!

I also had the chance to present the Rethink the Bag campaign to three schools in the Midlands area, and to visit a number of SPAR stores that are currently trialling a plastic shopping bag free experience with their shoppers. Progress for KwaZulu-Natal indeed!

SANParks

Through fantastic networking successes at the Conservation Symposium, I was invited to give a Rethink the Bag talk to SANParks staff and invited guests at the Cape Research Centre in Tokai. Being tasked with the custodianship of our terrestrial environment, SANParks may be excused for sometimes losing sight of what is happening in our ocean. Shocking images of helpless marine animals entangled in plastic shopping bags seemed to bring the message home.

TEDxCapeTownSalon

The global TED platform is highly sought after by activists. So imagine my glee when I was invited to speak at a TEDx event for the second time since launching Rethink the Bag in 2011. The revelation that not all shopping bags in South Africa are recyclable, and that more than R1 billion of levy fees is unaccounted for, came as a shock to most of the audience.

TEDxCapeTownSalon is run by an amazing team of volunteers who prepared all eight presenters with gentle professionalism. They have such a knack for taking our passionate, sometimes scattered, ideas and transforming them into “ideas worth spreading”, and it was magic to be a part of that process.

I was really proud to share the stage with such esteemed peers from whom I learnt a whole lot more about life on this planet! I would call us all “connectors” and, again, refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of the term:

“Connectors are the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions. A connector is essentially the social equivalent of a computer network hub. They usually know people across an array of social, cultural, professional, and economic circles, and make a habit of introducing people who work or live in different circles. They are people who "link us up with the world...people with a special gift for bringing the world together. They are "a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances.” – Malcolm Gladwell

These are the kinds of people I was lucky enough to share a space with for a few weeks as we prepared our heartfelt, important messages for the world to hear.

Volvo Ocean Race Ocean Summit: Cape Town

It’s not every day that a global sailing event comes through our port at the V&A Waterfront. To add to that, this one has taken full responsibility for its legacy and the footprint it leaves behind, long after the winds have dropped. The Volvo Ocean Race Sustainability Strategy reads as follows: “We commit to running our business and stopovers with minimal environmental impact, and we encourage every member of the wider Volvo Ocean Race family to join us. It’s about thinking ‘ocean first’ in everything we do – to contribute a solution not just globally, but locally, in every Host City we visit – and to spread the message ‘Protect Oceans’ amongst fans and followers.”

As I walked around the sprawling event this year, I was impressed to see the lack of cable ties holding it all together. These non-recyclable, single-use items are always an obvious hangover from these types of events … but not this year. The race organisers’ objectives were evident in this detail.

I imagine it must have been overwhelming for the Ocean Summit audience to hear that South Africans use approximately 8 billion plastic grocery shopping bags every year, and that 96% of these end up in over-burdened landfill sites after a mere 20 minutes of practical use.

It was, again, inspiring to share this stage with change makers such as Boyan Slat – about to literally remove marine debris from the ocean on a monumental scale; Dr Ivone Mirpuri – scientifically impressing upon us the reality of just how our plastic addiction is radically altering our own fragile biological processes; Riaan Manser – who seemingly does not tire of rowing across the ocean, exposing himself to enormous danger for the purpose of awareness, while partnering with his ever-committed wife; A Plastic Planet – two ladies fearlessly lobbying for plastic-free aisles in all common supermarkets. “Give us a choice!” they plead.

The obvious highlight for me was the moment when the CEO of the V&A Waterfront, David Green, announced the Waterfront’s intention to become a plastic shopping bag- and plastic bottle-free retail zone. Finally it feels like the Rethink the Bag campaign has earned its “Stickiness Factor”:

“The specific quality that a message needs to be successful is the quality of 'stickiness.' Is the message memorable? Is it so memorable, in fact, that it can create change, that it can spur someone to action?” – Malcolm Gladwell

Click here to read more about our experience at the Volvo Ocean Race Ocean Summit: Cape Town

Rethink the Bag is a call-to-action campaign, and you are that “someone” who can act differently through your personal choice. So, are you with us? Please support the campaign by following www.rethinkthebag.org and show your commitment to this beautiful world that we live in.

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