Clean Up Australia: conservation in the current climate

Jenny Geddes
Jenny Geddes
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With growing concern for the environment and the implications of climate change, it’s important to consider how we can reduce our impact on the planet.

As Clean Up Australia Day 2024 is just around the corner, we spoke with Jenny Geddes, CEO of Clean Up Australia, to discuss conservation in the current climate and how we can lead more sustainable lives to benefit future generations.

In this episode, Jenny discusses the importance of sustainability, the impact of fast fashion on the environment and the role of individuals and businesses in reducing waste.

To join Clean Up Australia on Sunday 3 March 2024 and get engaged in impactful community activities to create a cleaner, more sustainable future for our planet, register at the Clean Up Australia website.

Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or within your browser.

For more information on Clean Up Australia, click here.

Read the full transcript

Rebecca Archer
Welcome to 2024 and Season Three of The Remarkables – Grant Thornton’s podcast that seeks to uncover stories about remarkable people doing incredible things for their community, bettering the world for future generations and inspiring others to do the same.

This season promises to be even more remarkable than the last, with a lineup of guests from across Australia who will share their stories of making a difference in their communities. Tune in to hear how our guests are changing the world, one community at a time.

I’m Rebecca Archer, and in recognition of Clean Up Australia Day 2024: Step Up to Unite on Sunday 3 March, I’m joined by Jenny Geddes – CEO of Clean Up Australia.

Welcome Jenny – thank you for joining us on the podcast today!

Jenny Geddes
Thanks, Rebecca. It's great to be here.

Rebecca Archer
Now, before we get right into things, Jenny, we love asking our guests what they're reading or listening to or watching at the moment.

Jenny Geddes
I love listening to podcasts. It's sort of my daily routine. I'm a daily user of podcasts on the trains and public transport. So, I've found this podcast at the moment called ‘Plant Strong’, which is all about just eating more vegetables.

Also, I picked up a book which is called ‘Prima Facie’, and it's by a great Australian playwright, actually, and this is her first novel. So, the lead character is a really fantastic, experienced barrister, but she finds herself on the other side of the legal system as a victim of sexual assault. So, it's got me in, which is challenging, I think, at the moment with books; they have to fight really hard against all the other forms of media that we've got in our lives. So, I'd highly recommend it.

Rebecca Archer
Great recommendations. Thank you so much, Jenny. Now, what can you tell us about exactly what Clean Up Australia aims to achieve?

Jenny Geddes
Probably every Australian has heard of Clean Up Australia, and I know that millions of Australians have got involved in our work. In fact, 21 million Australians have volunteered for Clean Up Australia Day. So, we've got a really bold vision and mission.

So, our vision is obviously for all communities to care for and protect our environment for future generations. So, I liked your introduction, Rebecca, in your podcast, which know thinking about future generations, and that's exactly what Clean Up Australia is all about. How do we make our environment, our world better for people coming after us?

So, the way we do that is really to inspire and mobilise communities to improve and conserve our environment, eliminate litter and end waste. So, it's an enormously challenging mission, but we're all behind here at Clean Up Australia.

Rebecca Archer
I certainly have fond memories of the Clean Up Australia Day activities from my childhood going back into the sort of late 80s, early 90s, I believe, and I guess that there would be a real sense of nostalgia for a lot of people around this event.

Jenny Geddes
Yeah, I mean, we actually did a really large brand sentiment survey last year, so it's the first time we've ever done that. So we surveyed a thousand Australians on what they felt and thought about Clean Up Australia and it really showed that we're one of the most loved and trusted brands in Australia. Doesn't mean we don't have to continually work hard to remind Australians that we are here – the not-for-profit space is a very cluttered space – and I think we were just really heartened by that, that we hold a place in people's hearts. I'm glad to hear that you did a Clean Up, Rebecca. Over 4000 schools get involved every year in Clean Up Australia's work. So, it's a really simple thing for schools and students to do. It's not just the Clean Up.It's also we provide fantastic lesson plans for the school system during our week of clean up action the lesson plans, which are on a website called cool.org, are the most downloaded lesson plans on their system.

So, it's teaching children about sustainability, their role in this planet, how to conserve waste, reduce waste, and it's often now that children are actually being the ones in the households which are reminding their elders around what to do, why to recycle, why? It's important. So fantastic that you've been involved and you're part of a great campaign that has gone on and on now for 34 years. So, I'm sure it will continue to grow within schools.

Rebecca Archer
And you're right, I think it is for the generations that are coming through now that are really in touch with how important the environment is and making sure that we look after the world. I'm curious about your journey. How did you end up as CEO of Clean Up Australia?

Jenny Geddes
Well, I feel very lucky to have this role for a start. I'm a relatively new CEO and I have to stop saying that; I've been here for over a year now. So, I started off as a girl in the outback. I grew up in northwestern New South Wales on a very remote property. We all had to go to boarding school. So, I went to boarding school at age eleven. It was an all girls school, but it was quite a progressive school in that they really were fostering – the world is your oyster, sort of the early 80s, my high school years, and I just had a real drive to get to university. So, it wasn't something in my family that many people had done from a farming community.

I went to university at ANU, and it really opened my eyes to what's possible, and I started off in Government Affairs in Sydney, and from there I started a really fantastically fun and amazing career in public relations. I ended up as the Head of Corporate Communications at Sony Electronics, and we had started a foundation, which I was heavily involved in called the Sony Foundation. And that really started my understanding of not for profit. We started from scratch. How do you actually get a charity up and running in this country? What builds a great charity? How do you get people to follow it?

From there, I took on the role as CEO of an organisation called Workplace Giving Australia. I was there for ten years, and as part of that journey in encouraging corporate Australia to get behind corporate giving, I had met our chair of Clean Up Australia, Pip Kiernan, who is the daughter of our founder, Ian Kiernan.

So as much as I loved the concept of joining Clean Up Australia and environmental care and conservation is part of my DNA,  I really relish the thought of actually working with her and the Chair CEO position and understanding and working really well with a great Chair is something that really appealed to me.

Rebecca Archer
And Jenny, what would you say are some of the greatest challenges, both here in Australia and globally, in terms of waste and how we manage it?

Jenny Geddes
I think we're all aware of the environmental crisis that we're facing – 2023 was actually declared the hottest year on record. Australia is one of the hottest countries or continents in the world. So of course, we see it every day, we feel it, so every day we're experiencing it, and I know that your customers are also facing those significant challenges. So, it's often hard to understand where waste fits in climate change wasted product or coffee cup. Okay, so that seems like a relatively…We understand we've got an environmental footprint. How do we actually reduce our consumption of waste?

But it's not just the reducing our consumption, it's the production of all the products we use, whether or not that's clothing, packaging. Every single product is a resource, and that resource requires energy to produce and grow and then turn into the products that we consume.

So, we're also trying to make the link that we all have a role. We can do a lot of simple things every day. I'm sure we'll talk about that, Rebecca, around what we can actually do to reduce our consumption of resources.

Rebecca Archer
You mentioned clothing there. Of course, fast fashion may seem like a fantastic bargain, and that little thrill of, oh, I've acquired something new and I feel good about myself. But what can you tell me about maybe the high cost to the environment, and also, let's not forget the people who make those clothes?

Jenny Geddes
There's a social contract there, isn't there, around who makes the products and how we actually receive them. Following back supply chains can be a very challenging thing for organisations to do.

I think if we actually understand that a lot of it is oil based product; that's not really apparent and easily understood for a lot of people, and then it is potentially the cheapest form of fabric that organsations can use. If you're buying a product for $4, then if you think about just in reality, well, how much is the person getting paid who's actually made that $4 product? How much will we value it? And then what happens to it?

If we only pay less than a cup of coffee for a t-shirt, we're not really going to value it, and I think that's what we're trying to every day share that we generate, [10.21] on average, 23 kilograms of clothing waste per person in Australia every year. So that is largely ending up in landfill. Thinking about continually consuming that amount, it also has incredibly bad environmental impacts; a lot of it does end up in landfill, and then it's just like any other plastic product. It takes generations to actually break up, and it doesn't break down. It never breaks down into the environment if it's plastic based product.

So, we really encourage as part of our work, how can we live more sustainably in every area? Fast fashion is a great one. We all have to wear clothes. So, thinking about buying things that last, repairing, looking at a second life for products, getting them back into the system through, if they're of good quality, through the thrift shops, the Salvos, Red Cross, those sort of things, [11.19]and really thinking about giving things a second life, potentially renting products is a great idea.[11.26] I've got a 21-year-old daughter, and thrift shopping and also renting, recycling clothing has become something that they really enjoy.

So, I think we can learn something from younger generations around that as well. We understand there's an economic crisis as well, and the cost-of-living pressures on Australians is immense. So, buying a product, if it's a pair of cotton pajamas for your children and handing them down to the next child. Of course, that's not fast fashion anymore. It's thinking about, what can I buy? What can I afford? Will I be able to give it a second life?

Rebecca Archer
Those are all really good points and most definitely a cost-of-living crisis that we're hearing about on a daily basis in the media certainly puts pressure on families, but it just highlights how simple it can be to perhaps not fall down into that pit of fast fashion. And I love that idea, too, of repairing items or even refashioning them if you've got the ability to do that, and the creative streak as well.

I wonder, in your opinion, if we look at the policies around conservation, the environment, waste management, is there anything more that the government should be doing to encourage sustainability initiatives?

Jenny Geddes
At every level of government, it's certainly something that they're all really thinking very deeply and hard about. One of the challenges in Australia, and it's not the sexiest topic, Rebecca, but we talk about it a lot, is how can we harmonise our system of waste collection?

There are over 500 local government areas or councils in Australia, and practically every single one of them has a different strategy for waste collection. It makes it very complex for us all to get it right. I think we probably all – you know I went to Toowoomba for Christmas this year and had a completely different set of bins. I really had to look at it, look up the website and go, what goes in that one? What goes in that one? And from suburb to suburb, they can be quite different. Some have implemented green waste or composting systems. There's no national system.

So, an incredibly complex thing to do, but one that we think would make a massive difference, is to harmonise our waste collection, and that leads into recycling practices. Australians love recycling and they want to recycle, and they tell us how important it is. But it's complex, and often we get it wrong through no fault of our own.

Rebecca Archer
How much dialogue does your organization have with government bodies at all levels to encourage a bit more of a streamlining or across the board approach when it comes to waste management and recycling?

Jenny Geddes
We're constantly talking to them. We've also got partnerships with the federal government, who's been a great supporter of Clean Up Australia and EPAs around each state, the environmental protection agencies also ask us what consumers and Australians and individuals and volunteers think. So, I think it's certainly in their valley wick. They understand Australians want change. It's just complex in terms of how long change actually takes.

A new term that I'm sure many of your listeners have heard is circular economy. The Federal Government has created a whole area within the environmental department around how to actually foster circular economy habits, and that is as simple as you're reusing your drink bottle, collecting your beverage containers, drink bottles and taking them back to your container deposit scheme.

Every state in Australia except for Tasmania has a container deposit scheme. We know those schemes really work because we've put a value on products again; it's not waste anymore. It's a valued product. So, producer responsibility is another thing we talk about is how do we get the organisations that have produced the packaging to take responsibility for taking that packaging back?

Rebecca Archer
I wonder if we look at beyond government and putting it back into the individual – our responsibility. Many people are probably thinking, oh, it's just so overwhelming when it comes to climate change, the environment, what could I possibly do that will make any difference? I wonder what are some tips you might have for people who are thinking, surely there's not much that I could possibly do in my household?

Jenny Geddes
So, yes, I think one of the things at Clean Up Australia, which is so encouraging, is that we really foster the belief that every day we can do something really positive for the environment, and over a million people every year register and get involved in a Clean Up. So, we'd encourage you to do that.

You can do that any time of the year, any day. It doesn't have to be on Clean Up Australia day, and I think one of the things that I've really learned in my heading up with volunteers to clean up is that once you've done a Clean Up, it really changes the way you see and view waste. A lot of people say to us, oh, but it's so clean, then you step out and you realise, oh my goodness.

So, we did a Clean Up with our office group. One block around our office, and we picked up three and a half thousand cigarette butts, and one thing I learned in my time at Clean Up is that cigarette butts are actually plastic waste because the butt is actually made of plastic. So not a lot of people are aware of that.

So, even if it's as simple as picking up five to ten cigarette butts with your gloves – no one wants to pick those things up without your gloves – that can really make a difference. And then stepping up every day for positive action around, remembering to bring your reusable coffee cup – we were great at that, and then unfortunately, COVID hit, and we all went back to, unfortunately, using the disposable cups. So, a sad statistic is that 50,000 coffee cups go to landfill every 30 minutes in Australia. it's really sort of unfathomable, and we just don't appreciate that little action of bringing our reusable coffee cup can make a massive difference. It's your reusable water bottle.

And then taking it one step further in thinking about our purchasing decisions. How can we buy in bulk? How can we buy loose fruit and veg? Doing simple things at home as well around recycling really carefully. Simple tips around rinsing out bottles and cans, making sure they're dry, separating different materials, such as the glass and an aluminium lid, things like that.

Getting it right makes a difference because one of the things that the recyclers tell us is that if there's too much contamination in trucks, it's simpler for them just to put it into landfill. So, it does make a really big difference, but it's simple things. And of course, no one is perfect, and I'm certainly not perfect either, and we need millions of people giving it a go, not just a couple of people being absolutely perfect.

Rebecca Archer
There's also, of course, been a shift in business and the private sector. ESG principles are now a huge part of the way that companies operate. What can businesses do to try to reduce harmful waste and really get involved in making a better, environmentally conscious society?

Jenny Geddes
There's a great role for business. I mean, they are absolutely aware that this is what their constituents want, of course.

Our brand survey actually reflected on that and showed that people were so much more inclined to purchase from those organisations when they knew they had a really great environmental footprint. So, listening to your team members; your team members will tell you what they want, and there's some great businesses doing really innovative things around reusables, phasing out single use, making sure that reusable coffee cups are available, even if people want to take them down, have a coffee.

Thinking about every element of business, reducing carbon footprint around paper supply. All those things do make a massive difference. So, I think that we see those organisations who are stepping ahead and really being very bold in what they are doing are being embraced by their team members.

There's no resistance from the team to actually get involved. So, I would say, don't wait – jump in. Of course, there's also getting involved in doing business Clean Ups. Thousands of businesses do that. So, business Clean Ups also help Clean Up Australia fund our model. So, we charge a small amount for businesses, which then allows us to provide all our materials free for communities and schools. So, it's a great way of paying it forward, if you like.

Rebecca Archer
Now, I'm curious as to whether Clean Up Australia has any exciting projects planned for the near future? What can you tell us about that?

Jenny Geddes
We absolutely do. I mean, next year is our 35th anniversary. I think that we will continue to refine Clean Up Australia Day.

One of the exciting things we've done this year is translate all our materials into eight different languages. So, we have some incredibly supportive community groups right across Australia – very multicultural support. In fact, two of our largest supporters are from the Korean and the Amadai Muslim community. So, they run hundreds of Clean Ups between the two of them and just ensuring that our materials in different languages, we know we're loved and trusted, so we want to ensure that we're loved and trusted for all elements of society across Australia. We're such a multicultural country. Increasing the lesson plans for schools and then also this year – we love talking about rubbish bags, Rebecca. We've changed our bags and we've gone with 100 per cent recycled plastic bag this year as well.

So always looking at how we can refine what we do. Last year, we had a record participation. 750,000 Australians got involved in Clean Up Australia Day. So, we're hoping to beat that this year. I think when we think about what we can do, simple things like picking up litter really do make a difference. One of the sad statistics is that by 2050, there'll be more plastic in the ocean than fish. So, when we try and think, is this really making a difference? It really is.

And I'd also say you see a lot of rivers in third world countries which are actually full of plastic, and you just think, oh, I have to go somewhere else and fix the problem. But I've done a couple of Clean Ups, one along Parramatta river, and one of the team members in Melbourne has done many along the Yarra river, and the state of some of those areas of that river is just really confronting – layer on layer of plastic waste, polystyrene, drink bottles. We don't have to go to another country to fix up their problems. We've got significant problems in our own backyard.

Rebecca Archer
And just to finish off, Jenny, I'm wondering, what's the most remarkable advice you've ever received?

Jenny Geddes
This is such a tough question. I think I'll probably pick a personal piece and then also a professional piece. So maybe on the professional piece, when I started at Clean Up Australia, a very wise person said to me, we have to understand there's no away. There's nowhere to throw things away. It's a piece of advice which has really changed my thinking dramatically. It sounds so simple, but if we just think about there's one planet; we all live on it. It's our home. There's nowhere for this waste to go. So, it sounds trite and maybe very simple, but if we think about it really deeply, the just throw it away mantra just doesn't work anymore.

And then, on a personal note, some wise people in my life have always said, just really listen to your gut and your heart, and if it's saying something's not right, it's probably not right and don't ignore it. So that's hard to do. Very hard to do. But something I try and do is go, okay, yeah, my gut is saying, I think this is a bad idea. Perhaps I should listen to that.

Rebecca Archer
Thank you so much for your time today. I just wonder how we can continue to follow you beyond today's podcast episode or perhaps even get involved in Clean Up Australia Day 2024.

Jenny Geddes
So, LinkedIn is probably the best way. Or reach out directly through Clean Up Australia. We'd love to see all your listeners and the Grant Thornton team getting involved in Clean Up Australia Day. It's free. Sometimes I do have to remind people that participating in a Clean Up is a free activity. So, you can just register Clean Up.org au and we'll send you the free kit, which is bags and gloves and sharps kits and such, supervisor vests. Whatever you need to do, a Clean Up will be there.

It's a fun day as well. I have really enjoyed my Clean Ups. It's a great way to meet new members of the community. Just hear stories as you're walking along. It's a good workout after a couple of Clean Ups, why my legs so. Oh, that's right, I did a Clean Up yesterday. So, look, have some fun. Register.

We have another part of the Clean Up, which is a litter report. We encourage people to actually fill that in. That really helps us to understand what are the most littered items. Across Australia, it's plastic – all forms of plastic. So yeah, I would just encourage you to get involved. It doesn't have to be a whole day. It can just be a morning activity and then a BBQ after that, or anytime.

And it doesn't have to be on that Sunday, the 3 March. So have some fun with it, meet some new people and do some amazing things for the environment.

Rebecca Archer
If you liked this podcast and would like to hear more remarkable stories, you can find, like and subscribe to The Remarkables podcast by Grant Thornton Australia on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Leave us a review or ideas on who you’d like to hear from next. I’m Rebecca Archer – thank you for listening.

Remember to join us throughout 2024 as we explore the stories of everyday people who are doing extraordinary things. From environmental activists to social entrepreneurs, our guests will inspire you to take action and make a difference in your community.