Free the Ocean Interviews

Interview with Rafael Bergstrom, Executive Director, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii

Mimi and Rafael at a cleanup in Oahu, HI.

1. How long have you been working at Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii?

I am just about to reach my one year anniversary as the Executive Director, but I have been volunteering for SCH for over 7 years in various capacities.  

2. As Executive Director, what are your main responsibilities?

As ED for a small non-profit I work across all levels of our organization. At the higher level I am working on strategic plans to keep SCH relevant and dynamic. I also work on partnership development, grants, and fundraising to expand our reach and develop the capacity for program growth. In between there are all the logistical necessities of putting on large-scale cleanups and coordinating multiple programs that I work on with our Operations and Education Managers. And the best part is that I don’t lose the grass-roots level efforts –  I’m there on the beach with our volunteers cleaning the beaches whenever I can and doing presentations all over the world to help tell our story.

3. What do you think the most important thing is for people to know about the issue of plastic pollution?

That we have a choice in solving the plastic pollution issue. Though the problem is massive and global, ultimately we created the problem and therefore we can reverse it. Plastics are made from fossil fuels and as we grow more of a movement towards not wasting these resources, we build the tools for us each to make individual change. It starts with us – with our ability to reuse rather than waste, with the opportunity to use our consumer choice to vote with our dollars, with our civic engagement that pushes civilization towards zero waste, and with our humanness that ultimately can unite a global community around the cause.

4. SCH is focused on creating awareness – have you seen tangible changes in behavior from this increased awareness?

We see behavior change at all levels. Volunteers who join our beach cleanups follow up with us all the time by saying they have never thought of plastics the same and that they now have engaging conversations with their family, friends, and community on ways to make positive change. While plastic production continues to escalate due to greed and power structures, the awareness for a movement away from plastic grows stronger. In Honolulu, Bill 40, a recent ban on single-use plastics was signed into law and became one of the strongest bills in the nation. There is unquestionable correlation between the community who continues to show up and volunteer with us in thousands and the number of people who wrote in support for the legislation. Beyond Hawaii, our story is spreading too. From the Ellen Show to National Geographic, images of Hawaii’s plastic covered beaches are spreading and inspiring people to make the change.

“Just in the first half year of Free the Ocean being launched, the amount of people participating in the daily questions means that every day people are tuning in to a connection with the ocean.”

5. Can you explain what ‘turn off the tap’ means?

While we love to gather community to clean up, our messaging never waivers – cleanups are reactive and not the solution to the mounting problem. Beach cleanups are merely an educational tool and a space for community to gather and connect around a cause. Clean beaches start at home where we have to turn off the tap of plastic rather than constantly bailing out the bath water. Turning off the tap means collectively working to stop plastic pollution before it starts. Some examples are: personal choices like using reusables whenever its possible (put a fork in your backpack, purse, and car); voting with your dollar – every choice matters and the more we support businesses that choose to eliminate plastics, the closer we come to solutions; volunteering with organizations like SCH; getting civically engaged so that we elect leaders who care about our human and environmental future; and making sure you share your stories with as many people as you can – this challenge is an opportunity not a burden.

6. You’re constantly seeing plastic pollution firsthand – both on the coastlines and in the ocean. How do you keep hope?

Two major things: 1) We get thousands of volunteers each year who show us that community matters and that giving back is fun and rewarding. Each and every one of them who show up inspires me to look towards optimism 2) The next generation gets it. From plastic pollution to climate change the next generation of leaders doesn’t consider these to be partisan issues to bicker about, they see a necessity to act as humans to take care of our world.

7. What’s been the most difficult plastic product to give up in your quest to go plastic-free?

That’s a great question because we like to emphasize that none of us are perfect, even those of us who work on the issue every day, we have our slip ups, our wants, and our moments when convenience wins out in our mental battles. One of my biggest struggles is that I grew up picking wild blackberries and I love all types of berries. In Hawaii, the only way to get blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries is in a plastic clamshell. I sometimes let my berry love win out. There are so many more examples as plastic still permeates our daily lives in ways we all struggle to control.

8. What makes you most excited about SCH and FTO’s partnership?

SCH and FTO have the opportunity to dramatically extend the reach of our story. Just in the first half year of Free the Ocean being launched, the amount of people participating in the daily questions means that every day people are tuning in to a connection with the ocean. Awareness is the seed to revolutionary change. The plastic pollution issue may be exponentially more visual in Hawaii than most places, but to save our coastlines this will take a global effort. FTO has the power to reach people in all corners of the world and while they spend time on the site, SCH is supported, not only financially, but more importantly in the impact that comes from more eyes and ears connecting with our work. Mahalo Mimi and FTO for being a vehicle of information to tell our story beyond these beautiful islands in the Pacific.