Welcome to the FTO Journal

Interview with Nicholas Mallos, Ocean Conservancy

At International Coastal Cleanup, Santa Monica CA

Hi Everyone,

I’m so excited to begin sharing interviews with inspirational people in the ocean activism space and beyond. I hope you find their experiences, wisdom, and thoughts, as fun to read as I do! 

For the first FTO interview, I spoke with Nicholas Mallos, from Ocean Conservancy. Ocean Conservancy is an amazing organization working to protect the ocean from today’s global challenges. I had the pleasure of meeting Nicholas at last year’s International Coastal Cleanup, in Santa Monica, CA. 

Here’s what he has to say about the issue of plastic pollution and why we should still be hopeful for the future…

Can you start by explaining your role at Ocean Conservancy? How long have you been with the organization?

From the Arctic to the equator, the beach to the gyres—I’ve had the great fortune to research ocean plastics all around the world at Ocean Conservancy for nearly 10 years. In my current role, I lead the Trash Free Seas program’s collection of initiatives aim to stop plastic pollution from entering the ocean by 2030. These efforts include the International Coastal Cleanup, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, the Trash Free Seas Alliance and a portfolio of policy-relevant scientific research.    

 What has been your most rewarding experience with the Trash Free Seas program? The most challenging?

Reward: Getting to meet and work with people all around the world to research and reduce ocean plastics has been a truly life changing experience. I’ve made lifelong friends in some of the most remote places on the planet, and I carry their inspiring work with me wherever I travel. From creating inspiring works of recycled art in Kenya to going zero waste in the Philippines or phasing out single-use plastics on St. Helena, people of all walks are turning the tide on plastic pollution. 

Challenge: I believe people want change, and that companies need to lead the charge. The onus has to be on companies. But change is hard and not all plastics are created equally. Finding the right balance between products and packaging to eliminate with those that simply need better recovery and recycling is challenging. At the same time, we also need to optimize product design so materials can be collected and fully recycled after we use them, enabling a truly circular plastics economy. And lastly, we need to evaluate any alternative materials that might be used in place of plastics. Climate change is especially devastating to the ocean, which has so far borne the brunt of our fossil fuel dependence, so we need to ensure we’re not trading one environmental impact for another when phasing out plastics. 

In your opinion, what is the greatest consequence of plastic pollution?

The ocean faces so many challenges from overfishing to acidification and climate change. Ocean plastics aren’t complicated; we know the solution—we simply need to turn off the tap. So in the face of all these other global challenges, we simply cannot afford to let plastics pollute our ocean and jeopardize animals and habitats, livelihoods and even global food security.

The issue of plastic pollution can be disheartening. What brings you hope in your work?

 People. Ten years ago when I spoke to people about ocean plastics I spent all my time informing them of the problem and why it matters. Some people had heard of the “floating island of trash twice the size of Texas, better known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (which btw is not a real island; far more complicated), but most people simply were not aware that our ocean is polluted with plastics. Fast forward to where we are today, everyone I speak to knows about ocean plastics/plastic pollution and they immediately want to talk actions and solutions. That type of transformation within a decade is unbelievable, and we’re seeing the tides turn every day from individuals refusing bags and straws to cities, states and countries phasing out certain unnecessary single-use plastics. The problem is without question still a big one, but I am more hopeful than ever.

“The problem is without question still a big one, but I am more hopeful than ever.”

Do you believe one person can make a difference? I’d love to hear ways you believe we can inspire one another to help “turn off the tap” and create change.

 Hell yes!!! It’s easy to think that my one simple action doesn’t matter—it’s too small and the problem’s too big. Think about this—if each person takes one reusable bag and skips one straw each day, we’ve avoided nearly 16 BILLION items of plastics in a single day!!! So again, yes—every single person matters.

At the same time, I think it’s critically important that we all “teach” rather than “preach” others about why we need fewer single use plastics. Meet people where they are and have a conversation about plastic pollution and the ocean, and bring them on the journey in understanding why we can do with a little less.

 What is your favorite thing about the ocean?

My earliest memories are of the ocean. To this day, nothing much has changed—the ocean is still my happy place and I have the great fortune of calling it my profession. My favorite thing is the simple fact that the ocean is a living environment; every wave is different, every one offers a new challenge and reward. There are few other experiences in life that require you to wholly live in the moment, and so for me surfing is a magical almost spiritual experience that lets me forget about the world and live in the now.