Plastic Free Seas founder rallies support for green cause at home

Plastic Free Seas founder Tracey Read tries to make eco-lifestyle fun for her children too, writes Joanna Hewitt

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 11:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2014, 9:14am

Former nurse Tracey Read could have had a less busy life in Discovery Bay. But the mother of two has become an environmental activist who fully walks the talk.

While most people are reading the Sunday papers, she is often hard at work on a beach somewhere, rallying volunteers to clean up plastic rubbish that is a blight on the coastline.

Tracey is the founder of Plastic Free Seas, a charity that promotes clean beaches through a reduction in plastic pollution. The cause has not only taken up a lot of her time, it has taken over most of her rooftop patio.

You can do as many beach clean-ups as you like but that’s not going to sort out the problem

The space where her husband, Jeff, once envisaged he might be relaxing in a hammock, is now occupied by boxes of neatly sorted plastic waste.

Such commitment can be trying for family members but Jeff, the managing director of an engineering firm, is fully behind his wife’s green campaigning.

“Tracey is not the type to lunch and shop. She wants to go out and do something,” he says. “I tried to steer her into investment banking, but she chose to set up her own nongovernmental organisation and save the planet.”

The couple relocated from Australia eight years ago, and weekends in their household haven’t been the same since Tracey joined neighbourhood environmental group, Discovery Bay Green, in July 2007.

“It all started with talking in schools about why I volunteered my time. Then I began researching plastic pollution online and that’s where I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” Tracey says.

“This is an area of the ocean where a slow-moving spiral of currents has concentrated marine litter into a growing mass, mostly made up of plastic.

Tracey decided she had to see it for herself, and in the summer of 2012 joined an expedition organised by 5 Gyres, a group researching the global impact of plastic pollution.

The plastic “soup” they sailed through made an enormous impression. “Plastic waste has been entering the oceans through accidental and purposeful dumping for more than 50 years,” Tracey says.

“Over time, the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces through photo degradation and wave action. This is what is floating in our seemingly pristine oceans.

“The microplastics are consumed by fish and are obviously entering the food chain. We are eating our own trash.”

Tracey returned from her trip to find an environmental disaster had struck Hong Kong. Typhoon Vicente swept 150 tonnes of preproduction plastic pellets off a container ship in the South China Sea in July 2012, and much of it had washed into surrounding waters and beaches.

She quickly alerted the authorities, and was instrumental in working with government departments and the plastics industry to clean up the shoreline.

The experience left her convinced that more had to be done. The result was Plastic Free Seas, which she set up last May. Within six months she had inaugurated a youth conference that brought together more than 100 secondary school students from across Hong Kong.

The three-day event tapped the expertise of green activists, government officials, plastics industry representatives and recyclers, who discussed potential solutions to pollution.

Tracey hopes to make the conference an annual event. “Education is my biggest thing, getting people to understand there are consequences to their choices,” she says.

“You can do as many beach clean-ups as you like but that’s not going to sort out the problem. And the children are ultimately the ones who are going to have to effect change.”

She encourages her children, nine-year-old Finn and Evie, six, to adopt a green lifestyle, although the youngsters don’t necessarily embrace her ecowarrior status.

“My children just accept a lot of things. We’ve ingrained habits within the family. The kids automatically take their own water bottles out with them. Finn goes to the bakery on a Sunday and remembers to take reusable bags. And at restaurants they ask for their drinks without straws.

“But it’s not always easy. I try to lead by example. But I don’t want this to be the only thing we talk about, or for them to be resentful about constant pressure from me to do the ‘right’ thing.”

Enthusiasm for beach cleanups, however, is a little harder to drum up. “My favourite part of a beach clean-up is playing. I only do a bit of cleaning,” says Finn.

Tracey says: “Sometimes, they don’t want to go and it’s a battle, which is why we encourage them to come along and play with their friends. Friends generally end up helping and learning a bit in the process.”

Still, some of mum’s concerns have rubbed off. “When I grow up I want to be a scientist,” Finn says. “Wait, no. I’m going to study why people are using deathly gases to destroy the ozone layer and melt the polar ice caps.”

Tracey works from home out of necessity – it allows her to be available for the children.

But finding the balance can be tough.

“I have a very busy work life Monday to Friday and I do everything I can to protect our weekends. Unfortunately, Tracey’s job, which she describes as a lifestyle, is seven days a week,” says Jeff.

Which is why Tracey dreams of owning a trawler one day.

“I want to turn the trawler into a floating office and education and research vessel. I could take it to remote schools and poorer communities with a strong association with the sea,” she says.

That would also clear their roof for Jeff’s hammock.

Currently, “I use the rooftop plastics to highlight particular types of trash that end up on beaches; for instance, children’s toys,” Tracey says.

“If it’s not medical waste, the children often help me sort it, and have been known to fight over particular treasures the sea has thrown up. We use our collection for displays at events. It’s a great way to get people thinking and asking questions.”

For instance, she gave 700 bottle caps to an artist to use for an art installation.

Her family says they don’t notice her “plastic obsession” any more. “Discussing packaging is normal for the kids. Every household has its quirks. Some households might have collections of commemorative plates; ours just has a collection of the discards of modern life,” she says.