Nat & Dan, Founders of Clean Coast Collective
Nat Woods & Dan Smith
— Founders of Clean Coast Collective
Truth be told, until recently my understanding of marine health was piecemeal. Knowledge was formed from the morsels of information punctuating my news or social media. Micro-beads in skincare… The Great Pacific garbage patch… the adverse effect of global warming, overfishing and marine pollution on our reefs. As a city-dweller I was far-removed from the front line and whilst footage of sea life entangled in plastics may have deterred my use of straws, my efforts felt like a drop in the ocean and I was easily distracted by causes closer to home.
You would think the surfing community – who live, breath and co-exist with the ocean – would be more concerned and yet it was a universal lack of understanding and dialogue, even amongst this community, that propelled Nat and Dan of Clean Coast Collective to action. Since founding their NFP, they have undertaken expeditions to remote coastlines to clean Australia’s dirtiest beaches, produced a collection of reusable lifestyle accessories and have presented this mammoth issue in a relatable and inspiring way that has educated and engendered both those in the city and the coast for positive change.
If you are like me and seeking clarity, take a read whilst Nat gives you both an overview of the state of affairs and some inspiring tips for change…
Hailing from: ACT & QLD
Calls home: Byron Bay
Where are you from and where do you now call home?
I grew up in Canberra and Dan grew up mainly in Brisbane and Townsville. We are now fortunate to live in beautiful Byron Bay.
Please tell us what you do and how this came to be?
Dan and I run Clean Coast Collective, a not-for-profit organisation committed to shifting consumer behaviour to solve the issue of marine debris (or plastic pollution in our oceans). Clean Coast Collective grew out of a realisation of how much pollution was in our oceans, and how little our surfing community was talking about it at the time. We started doing small clean ups along the east coast of Australia, and now take groups of young adults on clean up expeditions to remote Australia.
How do you personally feel towards the social and environmental state of the world?
It's hard not to feel despondent about the state of the world and it's easy to lose hope, however you just have to look for the good stories—the stories of people relentlessly fighting to protect the planet and fight for social justice. There's hope to the find in the passion and fire of people. I think the world got pretty lost there for awhile, in the industrial revolution and the quest for wealth and greed, however I see small glimmers of a better future emerging. We only need to look at how much the issue of plastic pollution has hit the mainstream in just the past four years—changes take a long time but it is happening. I choose to be hopeful because what's the point of being anything else?
What was the catalyst for starting Clean Coast Collective?
The catalyst was a realisation that our ocean's are incredibly polluted and yet people who love the ocean, surfers, weren't paying attention. When we started in 2014 not many people were talking about plastics, and zero-waste lifestyles were certainly not on many people's radars. We set out to present the issue and the messaging in the way that was inspiring and positive, using 'trendy' ocean lifestyle aesthetics to promote an slower way of living and treading on this land and water.
In your experience travelling around Australia, how do rural and regional communities compare to those in the inner city for their receptivity to sustainability and action on environmental issues?
Hmmm interesting question. I think often in urban environments, the impacts of pollution are out of sight, out of mind—city beaches are often cleaned with a tractor or grader in the early hours before many people are up and about, so the litter of the day before is hidden from sight. Or our increasingly huge amounts of waste that we personally generate is whisked away in our kerbside bins, so we never have to see or deal with the accumulation of our consumption. So really, it's not so much that there is less pollution, it is just better managed.
I'll speak to Cape York because that's where we spend most of our time as I don't want to generalise all of 'remote' Australia. In Cape York, instead of littered pollution we find a lot of marine debris (pollution washing ashore), that is perhaps arriving on the currents or coming from industrial sources offshore, such as shipping and fishing. These are beaches that are often inaccessible for most of the year, and due to their location are a convergence of different ocean currents bringing this pollution ashore. I think the issue of 'caring' is a deep issue to unpack, because you can care deeply for the land you live on and be impacted by the pollution washing ashore, however there are things that can limit your ability to translate this care into action. In Cape York, there is no waste infrastructure, so if you collect the rubbish on these beaches, where are you supposed to put it? We have to truck the waste to the nearest resource management centres over two days drive away.
There is no 'sustainability' movement in these areas like we might be used to—but the culture is that we do not live 'on' the land, we are part of it. The culture is that we do not control the land, we are custodians. I think environmental sustainability as a movement is really a western construct that we have had to create to deal with the destruction we have created—indigenous cultures all around the world have lived 'sustainably' in the true sense of the world for thousands of years.
Furthermore, in remote areas, your consumer choice is SO limited. In Lockhart River, the town closest to Chilli Beach where we run our Cape York clean ups, a barge comes into the town's wharf once a week carrying fresh produce and items for the supermarket. There is simply no option to choose less packaging or avoid plastic, you get what is available.
What I'm trying to say is that yes these issues are right in the faces of people living in remote communities, and yes they are devastated by see this pollution wash ashore on their traditional lands. However, it is a privilege to have the capacity to take action and have the resources to deal with these amounts of waste. And at the end of the day, 'we' the urban middle-class are the ones who have created these problems—our overconsumption is creating demand for commercial fishing and products to be shipped all over the world. We, the west, designed all these plastic goods that are now manufactured and consumed across developing nations who do not have the waste infrastructure to deal with it, and now it's washing out to sea and landing back in our laps.
You have a collection of reusable lifestyle accessories that negate the need for common single-use plastics. Do you think human behaviour is slowly adapting towards these alternatives? What is your prediction for consumerism in 2019 and beyond?
In the Australian market we've definitely seen a shift towards reusable products that avoid single-use plastics. For the most part, people don't want to do the wrong thing, they just have the knowledge or access to alternatives required to make changes. My assumption (and hope) is that as we see the impacts of climate change more and more, Australian consumers will want to live more lightly on this planet, we just need policies and products that make that shift easy. However, I think we need to be really conscious that we don't try to 'consume' our way out of environmental problems—we need companies that provide ethical and environmentally-friendly products, however we need to make sure we aren't just making purchases because it's a 'good' product, we need to curb our obsession with consumption completely. It's something I've been mulling over a lot and I'm not sure what the solution is yet!
Do you believe Australia can ever achieve a single use plastic ban (potentially starting with South Australia)?
Sure I think anything is possible! However it is more complex than we probably think—for example, many people rely on plastic straws to drink and eat if they live with a disability or are recovering from a spinal injury. I think bans are an easy way to force behaviour to change (I love plastic bag bans), but I'm conscious that we need to consider all people in our communities when these bans are created. The last thing we want to is to further exclude people who are already excluded from so many spaces and activities.
What is your understanding on micro-plastics? How big an issue to you perceive this to be for our oceans?
Plastic photo-degrades, which means that it doesn't 'break down' it breaks up into ever tinier and tinier pieces of plastic, so micro-plastic is a symptom of plastic pollution where one piece of plastic can become millions of pieces. The scary thing about microplastics is that they have been proven to have entered the human food chain—the seafood we eat consumes microplastics, the sea salt we add to our dishes is laced with plastic particles, to the point where even beer has been proven to be impacted by microplastics. Unless we clean up the big stuff and stop it at the source, the problem with microplastics is only going to get worse and worse.
The other source of microplastics, which might be relevant to your audience, are the plastic microbeads that many companies have banned from cosmetic and skincare products. Honestly, I think it's incredibly irresponsible of manufacturers to be adding plastics to any product, particularly ones that are washed down our drains. And there's no way I want plastic beads in my skincare.
You may like to read Kat Guerrero’s article ‘Microplastics: an inescapable truth’ which explores this issue in greater depth.
Can you name 1 – 3 small but impactful changes we can make every day to reduce our plastic consumption and output.
Ditch single-use items—get a reusable coffee cup, bag, cutlery, straw and water bottle.
Swap cling wrap for containers or beeswax wrap.
Buy unpackaged produce wherever possible.
What are your greatest learnings since founding Trash Tribe and Clean Coast Collective and how have these changed your perspective on work, people and life in general?
No one person or organisation has all the answers and solutions to the world's problems. Always listen to each other and find ways to complement each other's work rather than compete.
Can you explain the transformation that participants experience on your Trash Tribe expeditions? What enlightenment, motivation or learnings to people usually walk away with?
I think they go home with a sense of empowerment—they've just spent a week cleaning one of Australia's dirtiest beaches, with a group of strangers, and when they leave the beach is spotless because they have worked together. I hope they leave knowing that they can always make a difference to whatever issue they are passionate about.
Do you have any personal practices (learnt or self-developed) that allow you to perform at your optimum each day and achieve equilibrium between work and life?
Hmm I'm probably the least efficient person I know and definitely don't feel like I'm working at my optimum every day. Two things I have learned and have adopted is every day writing down the three things you want to achieve that day, but also, that it's not about what you achieve in a day but what you achieve in a week—some days are just more about thinking and letting your mind wander, other days are super productive, so give yourself space to work with how you feel.
How can we foster a sense of community and human connection within the workplace, at home or amongst the broader community?
I think we all need to talk to one another more—like really talk. Listen when someone tells you how they are, ask questions, check-in, and on the flip side, answer honestly yourself when someone asks how you are. It's so easy to give the throwaway 'good thanks!' when actually we probably don't feel that at all—I've been a serial 'good thanks' person for years and it's only when I am speaking to people that open up to me, that I then feel ok to open up too. So let's all start talking about how we really feel, because often we're all feeling as tired, rundown, stressed, bummed or anxious as each other. That's what sparks connection.
Could you recommend a publication, learning platform, class or the like which has been highly influential to your life?
So many podcasts! Right now I'm listening to Oprah's Supersoul Conversations, Dumbo Feather podcast, Hurry Slowly, and Pretty For An Aboriginal. We are SO lucky to have all this wisdom and inspiration at our fingertips for free!
What mindfulness practices have you integrated into your life that may be effective for others pursuing an all-encompassing sense of wellbeing?
Leaving my computer at the studio is a huge mindfulness practice for me—it's so easy to keep working when you work for yourself. And then making sure I go jump in the ocean if I'm feeling stressed, anxious or worn out. And I'm reading a lot again! Which fell by the wayside recently when I was working too much.
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