Natalie Fée is an award-winning environmentalist, author, speaker and campaigner. In 2015 – after her ‘plastic awakening’ she founded City to Sea, a UK-based organisation running campaigns to stop plastic pollution at source. She talked to FRANK about her work.
Hi Natalie. Thank you for talking to Frank. How are you and where are you today?
Natalie Fée: I’m actually a bit achy today, I did a workout last night barefoot (I’m exploring the joys of natural shoes and going barefoot!) and my calves are hurting in new and mysterious ways! I’m in Bristol, UK, working from my home office.
Can you tell us how your plastic free journey began when you saw the trailer for the film Albatross in 2014?
Natalie Fée: Sure. I didn’t set out to be an environmental campaigner! I was working in TV here in Bristol. I didn’t swim, sail or surf. I’m not a marine biologist or scientist either and I had a proper phobia of the sea.
One day in 2013 I was on Facebook and a trailer for the film Albatross popped up on my feed. It was a life-changing moment, showing me how a third of Laysan Albatross chicks were dying in their nests, in the Midway Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with their bellies full of our plastic rubbish. I felt a huge surge of grief wash over me. I think it was something about seeing everyday items that I used – my brand of toothbrush, ink cartridges, bottle caps – causing the death of something so beautiful – that woke me up to what I was doing.
I knew then that I couldn’t just sit back and allow this to happen. It sounds super-cheesy and clichéd, but something rose up inside me and said ‘not on my watch’. From that day I set about doing something about it.
You started your Refill campaign back in 2015 in Bristol. Can you tell us about it and how that City to Sea campaign has grown to be a global one?
Natalie Fée: Yes! We’re really proud of our Refill campaign and all the volunteers around the world making it happen. It started as a simple idea – to connect people to thousands of places they can refill their water bottle for free, through posters, window-stickers and an app. Then it really took off, with communities and councils around the UK wanting to run their own schemes and add places to the Refill app. We secured funding from local water companies and raised money through product partners like Chilly’s bottles to enable us to scale.
Now we’re in seven countries, showing people where they can eat, drink and shop with less plastic. We’ve got over 250,000 places listed on the app globally and over 400 Refill community schemes just in the UK. We believe that by providing a framework and platform for communities, businesses and individuals to take action, we’re supporting the transition towards reuse systems, a circular economy and tackling the global issue of plastic pollution at the same time!
Are you naturally confident in front of the camera and speaking to audiences? If not, how did you grow and develop these skills?
Natalie Fée: I mentioned that I used to work in TV, so that definitely helped in terms of being comfortable in front of a camera! But I still get nervous sometimes if it’s a live broadcast for Sky News or BBC. Generally, when I am in the moment, I remind myself that it’s not about me – it’s about the message and the cause. I often bring the Albatross to mind before going on stage or on camera, and kind of give it a nod, as if to say, ‘this is for you!’.
I’d also done some presenter training and enjoyed acting and singing as a kid. And still do! I still think it’s funny that my initial response to ‘just doing something’ about plastic pollution was a music video and a song, which is how City to Sea started. And interestingly now, six years later, that’s what I seem to be circling back to.
At FRANK we all recycle a lot. But at City to Sea you argue recycling is not really the answer. Can you tell us why recycling is only half the picture?
Natalie Fée: It’s definitely part of the solution, but the focus needs to shift to refuse, refill and reuse.
Of all the plastic that’s been produced, only 9% has ever been recycled! Around 79% has ended up in landfill or our natural environment – including our rivers and seas – leaving the remaining 12% being incinerated, which is also bad news for air pollution.
Here in the UK we also export most of our plastic recycling and it often ends up in poorer countries, where waste pickers, often from marginalised communities, bear the brunt of having to sort through our dirty plastic exports! So currently the recycling system is broken, but things like a deposit return scheme in the UK could radically change that.
You are also not convinced by Bioplastics. Can you tell us why?
Natalie Fée: Mostly because they’re just another throw-away product. We live on a finite planet with a growing population, so we have to rapidly adopt refill and reuse systems instead of using single-use products.
The issue of bioplastics is complicated – just because it’s made from a plant doesn’t it will degrade like a plant. In reality, most bioplastics need to be composted at very high temperatures over several weeks in an industrial composter, which certainly doesn’t happen on our high streets! Generally, it is just best to stick to reusables.
Can you tell us more about the City to Sea Plastic Free Periods campaign? Why is this so important?
Natalie Fée: At City to Sea, we’ve been working on #plasticfreeperiods since 2017 when our film about hidden plastic in period products – and the solutions to period plastic – went viral. Since then, the campaign’s won awards, got plastic-free period products on supermarket shelves, helped change the narrative around reusable period products and developed an education programme.
Last year the campaign stopped over 4.7 million pieces of plastic from entering the waste stream and in 2020/2021 our Rethink Periods education programme trained over 600 teachers and nurses, reaching over 120,000 students. The team of City to Sea is very proud of the (re)education of young people around their periods and our success in disrupting the corporate, biased and outdated period education in the UK.
Period plastic is still a big polluter. Big-brand disposable period products are a potential health hazard (due to the plastic and chemicals found in them), cost us around £4,800 over the lifetime of our periods, and are bad for the planet. Menstrual products are currently the 5th most common item found on European beaches – more widespread than single-use coffee cups, cutlery or straws!
You are living proof that one person can make a huge difference. What would you say to anyone reading who is suffering eco-anxiety or feel they can’t make an impact as an individual?
Natalie Fée: I’m biased but I think anyone wanting to make a difference to their lifestyle and understand how to amplify that and feel like you’re making an impact on a global scale, should read my book! I wrote How to Save the World for Free as an antidote to eco-overwhelm and anxiety and it’s designed to support you on your journey to being greener.
Next, it’s all about taking little steps and getting involved with a community – that could be online or in your neighbourhood. Linking up with community schemes, growing food, campaigning for cycle lanes – whatever you’re passionate about – really helps you feel like you’re doing what you can, and hopefully having lots of fun along the way!