“Whenever I have been asked in the past to tell my story I have always started with the day at the Paris Aquarium, that day changed everything.
But my journey started many years before that. It has been moulded by the slow realisation that the system which I trusted so readily is broken. And I am not referring to governments or social justice, but rather to brands and corporate responsibility. Brands which we trusted and would come across in every walk of life. We all have our favourite products, brought to us by well-known global brands. They are part of our childhood memories – we trust them. This feeling of familiarity with these brands that made me – maybe made us all – assume that they were good for us and therefore our planet.
Growing up in Germany, I was proud of the fact that we had, what I believed to be, a functional recycling system. We had lots of organic shops, or pharmacies selling high quality care products. I thought my lifestyle was environmentally friendly. I rode my bike, took the train, and spent my money on high quality products from well-known brands. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood that these products weren’t good for me or the planet, that realisation hit me hard.
At the age of 28 I met my husband and we moved to France. I was working as a graphic designer in a trendy design agency in the heart of Paris. One day, I was shown an application that analyses the ingredients that go into products and translates them into a language anyone could understand. A traffic light system: green being great and red being bad. Once you scanned the barcode of the product, you had the information at your fingertips. Initially this was only possible for food products. As a German who grew up with ‘Schwarzbrot’ and everything ‘whole wheat’, I was sure that all the food I would scan would be on the green list. But to my surprise, the first products rated ‘poor’ – I was confused. These brands were reputed for being healthy. Yet somewhere amongst the foreign words in the ingredients list were hidden additives: E-numbers hidden behind names like sulphur dioxide, carrageenan, potassium sorbate… it was like a foreign language. Thanks to the app though, I now knew these weren’t good products after all. From that day on, everything got scanned before I would buy it. Deep down though, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed and annoyed that I had to go through all this effort just to make sure I could eat healthy.
A few months later, the app introduced cosmetic products to the system. Again, what hit me the most was that the products I believed to be good – those sold in the pharmacies or in the upper price range – seemed to score badly. The sun screen lotion I was using contained Methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol (nano), which can actually be a health risk. One of the reasons was: “may accumulate in the tissue and cause DNA damage”. This was a product that was supposed to protect me! Later I found out that it was also extremely bad for coral reefs. The spiral of bad news on food and cosmetic product ingredients continued from there and the options of what I felt I could buy narrowed by the day.
One day I decided to scan my perfume and what came next shocked me. My expensive, high brand perfume contained Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)! Products that include substances with endocrine disrupting (ED) properties. Which I put on my neck and arms every single day! I suffer from an auto-immune disease (Hashimoto) and hormone imbalances are not fun. Studies claim that a small percentage of these substances are safe to use and harmless. Unfortunately, we know very little about the long term consequences of endocrine disrupters, but the application rated those substances as “bad” and I agreed. I felt a deep sense of broken trust.
Also most of these cosmetic products came in single use virgin plastic container. The impact of these products on our environment wasn’t so well documented at that time. Plastics are often endocrine disrupter and microscopic bits of plastic have been found in the tissues of humans. But back then I still believed that we lived in a functional system where our recyclable waste got recycled and where brands considered their environmental impact and sourced responsibly.
Following the birth of my first daughter, I started to write and illustrate children’s book, creating a series about a penguin who goes on adventures and discovers the world. But eventually I decided to become more creative in my illustration approach. I started to experiment with art techniques and came across fluid art. It gave me the sensation of being by the ocean and I was immediately taken by it. Being a life-long competitive swimmer, water has always been my element and a place where I feel safe and happy. I love the ocean and anything to do with it. So, my next challenge was to write a concept numbers book focussing on ocean life. Living in Paris and being far away from the sea, my best next option was to go to the local aquarium to get a feeling for how the creatures move, behave and the finer details of what they look like. I started to really enjoy going and spending time there and it was during one of these visits, accompanied by my family, that everything clicked into place for me.
That day, we sat down to watch a show that the aquarium put on to entertain the children. They were always fun shows but this time it was different. It was serious. A pirate came on stage and told us about plastic pollution and how it was killing all the animals and polluting their environment. Then he asked for some children to volunteer to help, and before I knew it, my daughter had raised her hand. I was so proud. That very evening, I went to my computer and started to research plastic ocean pollution. I was shocked to the core, and I felt betrayed. The images and numbers hit me – especially finding out that only 9% of all plastics have ever been recycled (with the rest burnt or still out there in our environment, polluting our oceans or in landfills). I was brought to tears seeing children living in houses surrounded by massive amounts of plastic waste. Women burning plastic and smelling it to know which recycling pile to add it to, in the process exposing themselves to toxins daily. I came across so many devastating images… but the one that stuck with me was the image by Justin Hofman of a seahorse with a cotton bud. I later I read that he doesn’t like it being one of his most famous images, but for me it was the image that set me on a new path. That day, I knew I had to adapt the book I was writing and focus on raising awareness of plastic pollution. And that image by Justin Hofman gave me my inspiration: sea creatures surrounded by our trash, who simply had no choice and were fed up!
By 2018 the media started to talk more and more about plastic pollution and people became more aware. The images I had seen when I did my researched caught me off guard and made me feel embarrassed and ashamed of being complicit. I thought I lived in a system that was responsible. But brands could produce a massive amount of plastic without being held accountable for polluting the environment, with the consumer expected to take responsibility for recycling it. If a brand exported its waste, it was allowed to place a ‘100% recycled’ sticker on its packages. Today we all know that the export of plastic waste was just an underhand business deal, with most plastics never getting recycled. So that day I swore to myself to go on a mission and change the world.
Once I had finished my book “123 Who’s Cleaning the Sea – a counting picture book about protecting our planet”, I began contacting ocean advocates and environmental speakers. However, as a nobody, hardly anyone replied to me or was interested in what I wanted to say. I eventually got lucky with two beach cleaners I discovered over Instagram, Anne Mäusbacher and Pat Smith (aka Action Nan), who were both extremely welcoming and encouraging. I think part of that is because beach cleaners are supportive of building a community of like-minded people. And both gave me the motivation to continue.
But now that I wanted to avoid anything packaged in plastic, going to the supermarket had become a lot more effort. It seemed to me that all items that were ‘good’ for the planet and for me were coming with a huge price tag, and my spending had almost tripled. It was clear to me that many families would simply not be able to afford these products. I struggled to understand how we could have failed to build the infrastructure to make packaging circular or based on ingredients that were harmless. I knew though that this was naive, and that capitalism was the driving force of our economies.
I came to realise that it also had a lot to do with education. A few years ago, I simply didn’t know better because I wasn’t educated on these topics. Even though I have a university degree, it never prepared me for how to respect the world’s resources and how to make educated choices about the products I consumed. I started contacting schools and giving talks to children about plastic pollution, to explain to them that our actions have consequences. I still clearly remember how, after my first school visit, I was left emotionally conflicted. The children understood so quickly and were asking me the obvious question: “if we know this is bad for us and our planet, then why are we doing it?”. But the reality is more complicated. Kids are not weighed down by habits or financial constraints, so for them the answer was clear. But the truth is that we are changing too slowly, and we are doing too little, too late. It is heart breaking to now that the great pacific garbage patch was discovered in 1997! Yet, 25 years later, we are still producing 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year!
It’s hard to not get frustrated when you watch things changing so slowly, but the kids have given me hope. One day, following a talk, they invited me back to come back to the school, and the entrance hall had been decorated with single use plastic sculptures. They had felt inspired to create this after my visits, where I had read them my book “123, Who’s Cleaning the Sea” and talked to them about single use plastics. It was clear that the children really cared about our planet not being polluted and enjoyed the work we had done together. They have been a source of inspiration for me and my fuel to continue on this journey.
Today, I work with schools all over the world, I have written a second children’s book about endangered sea creatures, and I am part of a supportive ocean community. But Anne and Pat will always be special to me. We need people that welcome others and understand that only together will we be able to solve this crisis and live in a world that finally puts our planet before profits.”
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If we reach our £3000 Goal I will donate 50% to a wonderful charity called Papyrus who focus on prevention of Young Suicide.
Stephanie Johnstone, Founder of A Million Voices