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The Power Behind a Not-So Rubbish Cause

4 March 2019 at 8:45 am
Maggie Coggan
For 30 years, the first weekend of March has brought Australians of all walks of life together to do a simple, yet effective act – pick up rubbish. As CEO of Clean Up Australia, Terrie-Anne Johnson is leading the charge. She's this week’s Changemaker.  

Maggie Coggan | 4 March 2019 at 8:45 am


The Power Behind a Not-So Rubbish Cause
4 March 2019 at 8:45 am

For 30 years, the first weekend of March has brought Australians of all walks of life together to do a simple, yet effective act pick up rubbish. As CEO of Clean Up Australia, Terrie-Anne Johnson is leading the charge. She’s this week’s Changemaker.     

While picking up rubbish with a group of people might not sound appealing, clogged waterways and litter-filled natural spaces don’t either.  

It’s this idea that has inspired individuals and communities in Australia and around the world, to participate in the mass act of community-led conservation.

As Johnson explains, Clean Up Australia is only there to educate and facilitate, it’s the volunteers, putting their gloves on and picking up the rubbish, that are the real custodians of the organisation.

While the movement is inspiring, Johnson says the amount of  rubbish has increased in her 15 years at Clean Up, and she is battling to change industry practices and attitudes around going waste-free.

In this week’s Changemaker, Johnson talks about how she was hooked in by Clean Up, making waste-free fun, and why Clean Up Day is more than just picking up rubbish.  

How did you first get involved in Clean Up?

I started with Clean Up in 2003, when I was recruited to do some pro bono work identifying how the organisation would deal with a crisis, looking at everything from managing media to volunteers. While I was doing that, I just got hooked by the organisation, and eventually took over as CEO in 2007. I have been there ever since. It’s pretty easy to get addicted to this place.

Why is that?

It delivers real outcomes. When you go out there and remove rubbish, it’s very visible. We also work with really visible waste management issues, so plastic bags, bottles and cans, which people know are damaging. It’s not something ephemeral, it’s quite tangible and that makes it very rewarding.

Clean Up Australia Day

What was your first Clean Up Day experience like?

My first experience was a local community event, where everyone ranged from really small children to quite aged people. The group was made up of very diverse backgrounds Korean, Iranian, Japanese, and they had all been brought together under the one banner of cleaning up their local riverbank. What really amazed me, was these people did a clean up every single month, and each month, their numbers grew.

When I asked them why they were out there doing it, they said they wanted to give something back to the country that had adopted them, and I was quite awestruck by that desire to be involved in a broader community. Most of us are running around like chickens with our heads chopped off, too busy to even stop and talk to our neighbour, never mind getting involved in community activities. Here were all these people, young, old and everything in between, and they were really committed to getting out there and doing something good.

The other thing that knocked my socks off was the volume of stuff we were finding back then and how much of it was plastic. It did make me really angry, but instead of just getting angry and ranting, cleaning up me a chance to do something about it, so I could actually be part of the solution.

How do you keep the momentum going throughout the year when it’s not Clean Up Day?

Clean Up Day is everyday of the year! Whilst the national event is the first weekend in March, where we have roughly 7,000 locations that host events, we have more than 1,000 locations across the country that run events all year round. There is also our international event, Clean Up the World, which is a year round event in 130 countries, with roughly 30 million volunteers. So there’s plenty to keep us occupied! That’s in addition to advocating for waste management reform.

What work are you doing around waste and plastic reduction?

In the end, you can’t just keep cleaning the waste up, you’ve got to stop it getting there in the first place. We are working with supply chains, manufacturers, packaging companies, and the waste management industry, to see if we can influence change or work with them to promote the changes they are already making, to keep up better with new technology to better sort waste at the source.

We are also working to reduce the elements in packaging, so if you look at a plastic bottle, it’s got four pieces of plastic on it. There’s the lid, the bottle and the label. All of that has to be processed differently. We are trying to talk with packaging business’ to try and get that down to one, because it becomes a more valuable resource on that basis.

Cleaning up the Cook River

Do you feel positive about the change you will be able to make in your time at Clean Up Australia?

I’ve been there 15 years now and it’s getting worse, not better. The proliferation of especially soft plastic is making it really difficult to avoid it when you do your grocery shop. What we as shoppers need to do is consciously stop buying things that are packaged. It’s all being packaged for our convenience, but the reality is, it’s being packaged because it gets more of it out the door quicker, with a barcode.

What we tell people is stand naked in the fruit and veggie aisle, and I don’t mean take your clothes off, I’m telling you to avoid the pre-packaged fruit and vegetables, and buy the naked ones.

We’re also trying to make going waste-free fun, and not about reducing your lifestyle, because people won’t, but we can get really sexy looking water bottles, reusable keep cups. If you’ve got a nice, stylish coffee cup or water bottle that you’re proud to use, then more people will get on board, because it’s not a sacrifice.

What does your day as CEO look like?

I generally start in the morning at 6am, and do all the bookkeeping through from 6 to 8. Then I answer enquiries… we have a hotline for enquiries so I answer a lot of enquiries. At the moment, we are answering phones from people who are registering locations or finding a location near them for the national day. I’m writing press releases, doing interviews, picking up signage for the day.

When you’re the CEO of an organisation with five people in it, you do the cleaning, the washing up, bring home the washing. You’ve got to be prepared to get in there and get stuff done. But it’s so rewarding, because I get to meet the most amazing people, and work with some incredibly passionate volunteers. So I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

How would you say working at the organisation has changed you and your outlook on the world?

It certainly has reinforced my belief in the power of people, and what we are able to do. In some ways, it makes me angry too that people take what we’ve got for granted. We live in the Garden of Eden in Australia, and the fact people think it’s okay to drop rubbish in that garden infuriates me, because this is such a precious place to be. When I hear about how there is a good chance that koalas will be extinct by 2050 because of human impact, that makes me furious, because how dare we think we are better than any other species. We are supposed to be smart, so we should be coming up with better solutions.

It’s a real mixed bag, but you know today, spending time with volunteers will just remind me about why we do what we do, and how important it is to continue to support them, because they so willingly give their time and their passion and commitment to making this place better than when they found it.

Do you think your late-founder Ian Kiernan would be proud of what the day has become, and how many people are getting involved?

Absolutely. When Ian died, the response was just astounding. He would have been overwhelmed at the outpouring of national grief. We loved him dearly, and we knew the people who worked with him on a regular basis and the volunteers loved him. He made it very clear that Clean Up belonged to the volunteers, it was never his. He was prepared to pass the magic wand to the next generation, which means every single volunteer that participates in Clean Up is Ian’s successor.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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