Image for The woman who sparked a plastic-free revolution

The woman who sparked a plastic-free revolution

Four national campaigns, millions raised in corporate funding and a charity that employs 30 people: not bad for four years’ work. But as Natalie Fee will tell you, if she can do it, anyone can

Four national campaigns, millions raised in corporate funding and a charity that employs 30 people: not bad for four years’ work. But as Natalie Fee will tell you, if she can do it, anyone can

OK, you want to save the world. You want to clean up the environment, and curb the plastic waste that’s trashing our planet and our bodies.

You know that doing so means shifting a nation’s ingrained habits, while also taking on some pretty powerful industry lobbies.

But you’ve just given up your job, you’re a single mum, surviving on benefits. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, right now, this is probably someone else’s task, right? Especially if all of your early efforts bomb?

Not if you’re Natalie Fee, you won’t.

Fuelled by righteous anger and a hefty dose of chutzpah, this one-woman dynamo from Bristol has launched a series of campaigns that aim to change everything, from the way we drink to what we stick in our ears – or flush down the loo.

And if you haven’t heard of her yet, that says more about her than the scale of her achievements. Because she’s quick to credit colleagues and supporters in City to Sea, the organisation she founded four years ago, for the seismic shifts it has triggered. Chief among these is the Refill campaign, which encourages people to eschew bottled water by using a tap instead. You can now do so at more than 15,000 ‘refill stations’, including cafes, corner shops – even branches of Specsavers – all of which are shown on both a sticker in the establishment’s window and on an app.

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Local supporters’ groups – now numbering 250 across the country – help populate the app by persuading more locations to sign up. It’s an idea that’s almost laughably simple, which doubtless explains why it’s taken off, yet until Fee and friends came up with it, nothing of the sort existed.

Then there’s the slew of campaigns against single-use plastic, many of them pre-dating the Blue Planet-inspired surge of concern. Take Switch the Stick: this targeted plastic cotton buds and, by persuading supermarkets to switch to paper ones, helped trigger the recent ban announced by the UK government. It also won City to Sea the Sheila McKechnie Award for Environmental Justice in 2017. Others followed: the Plastic-Free Periods campaign, for example, tackling a topic often avoided by green activists, and now being rolled out to schools across the country.

It’s a campaigning record that many established NGOs would envy. But Fee’s life to date followed anything but the conventional path of a career campaigner. After dropping out of university, she temped in an IT recruitment agency, ended up becoming a recruiter herself and, as she puts it, “having this weird, executive-by-day, hippy-by-night lifestyle”. The hippy side triumphed and she went travelling in Asia, trained as a yoga teacher and – pregnant at 23 – washed up in Glastonbury where she combined the roles of single mum, life coach and ‘sacred site tour guide’.

Natalie Fee runs City to Sea from dockside offices in Bristol. Image: Gareth Iwan Jones for Positive News

“But as a kid, I was always putting on shows, larking about and wanting to be on camera, and at 33 I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing!’” She put herself through a crash course in TV presenting and found work with a few small production companies, eventually becoming the anchor on the evening show of a local cable station.

A fledgling media career was cut short, however, by a nagging sense of environmentalist fury – fuelled by an albatross on Facebook. Or rather, a group of albatross chicks, filmed “dying a horrible death in their nests with their bellies full of plastics. My reaction to that was visceral – I felt it in my body, so strongly that I couldn’t ignore it”, she says.

Overwhelming grief quickly turned to rage: “These creatures were innocent, and were being killed with plastics that could have been mine. I just knew I had to do something.”

The obvious first step was to use her TV platform to spur action, but the station’s managers preferred “entertainment and trashy stuff” to green awareness-raising. So Fee took the plunge and quit to be a full-time – albeit skint – activist. “I didn’t have a clue where to begin, though, because I’m not a campaigner.”

Tenacity and empathy

She is a musician, though, and decided to harness that by writing a song and crowdfunding a video. “Being naively optimistic, I fondly imagined it would go viral and have this huge impact.” And did it? Fee laughs: “It bombed, because, funnily enough, I am not Beyoncé!”

Undeterred, she reached out to local ocean conservation groups – “to see if there was a role for me, or if I could align with them somehow” – but came up against closed doors every time.

So, she went it alone, setting up pub meetings, getting people talking, doing beach cleans locally and eventually forming City to Sea. “We decided to formalise it, though we didn’t really know what it would become.” With virtually no backing, they still managed to launch Switch the Stick.

We’re up against people locked into a convenience mindset and that will take time to change

“Then I wangled my way into water companies and asked them for some money; after all, the sticks were clogging up their sewage system, and it costs them millions every year to unblock it.” After much badgering, they said yes – just about. “I’d hoped for £45,000, but ended up with just a third of that, because I was a nobody,” Fee says.

And then, in her own words, “it just snowballed”. The case against plastic was so powerful, and the alternatives so obvious (a paper stick is just as effective), that retailers started to come on board. This was just the start. “I went back to the water companies and said: ‘There’s more plastic than cotton buds going down the drain, now can you give me more money and we’ll do more with it?’” And, now she’d proved her case and was most definitely a somebody, they stepped up.

Having proved how effective it could be, City to Sea was on a roll. So when it came to launching the Refill campaign, Fee had little difficulty attracting grant funding and sponsorship, with water companies among its key supporters. No surprise, she points out, “as we’ve basically been marketing their product – tap water – for them!”

Choosing carrot over stick

Now its influence is spreading, with refill points being set up across the capital by the Mayor of London in partnership with Thames Water, and Network Rail installing water fountains at stations – all to be included on the Refill app.

But these campaigns are just the start: Fee’s sights are set on shifting consumer habits away from a single-use, throwaway culture, towards one where packaging is either reused – like the old glass bottles, redeemable for a deposit – or done away with altogether and where flush-away sanitary products are replaced by reusable ones.

She doesn’t underestimate the shift required. “We’re up against people locked into a convenience mindset and that will take time to change.” Attitudes towards hygiene have to shift too: “People flush away things like condoms, wipes or plasters because they think it’s somehow yukky just to put them in a bin.”

But she takes heart from examples such as Lush’s reusable packaging, Marks & Spencer’s plans for something similar and brands such as Häagen-Dazs considering deposit schemes. There is a slow but growing interest in a greener approach to personal hygiene, too.

These creatures were innocent and were being killed with plastics that could have been mine

Meanwhile, the accolades continue to flow. Fee was named as one of Nesta’s 50 New Radicals in 2018 and this year she won the £60,000 Sunday Times Volvo Visionaries Award, which she plans to put towards a new campaign extending Refill to food and household products, offering discounts to those who take along their own containers.

For someone who, by their own admission, “hadn’t got a clue” about campaigning a few years back, Fee has come a long way. In the eyes of green activist, writer and broadcaster Lucy Siegle, “her strength lies in the fact that she’s able to put herself in a lot of other people’s shoes. She matches empathy with pragmatic, evidence-based choices. That means the advice she provides is relevant, accessible and makes a difference. It’s also very difficult to argue with, which is why Natalie gets great results.”

Now Fee has pulled all that advice together in a book, How to Save the World for Free. This pretty much does what it says on the tin, with tips on everything from happy, healthy eating to cleaning your house without resorting to chemical warfare; from the joys of cycling (one of the lesser-known benefits of which, apparently, is to make you a better lover) to how to green your love life (and enjoy it more too). The accent throughout is very much on saving the world as a pleasure, rather than a pain in the neck – let alone the purse.

‘Despair won’t save the world. Beauty, on the other hand, might,’ says Fee. Image: Gareth Iwan Jones for Positive News

She’s quick to acknowledge that the little matter of healing the planet for us and all creatures cannot just be rosy, feel-good stuff. Faced with climate breakdown and pervasive pollution, it’s easy to despair.

But as Fee points out, “despair in itself won’t save the world. Beauty, on the other hand, might. If we’re not enjoying ourselves by making those changes, then we’re not going to be very good champions of them.”

And the best way to persuade the unconverted, she adds, “is to show them that we’re having a lot more fun than they are!”

How to Save the World for Free is published by Laurence King and out now