Joanna Poulton is an environmental activist and production coordinator living and working in Bristol. Becoming increasingly aware of the issue of single-use plastic pollution affecting the city, in 2017 she started Waste Not Bristol ‒ a campaign aimed to provide opportunities for positive change and to raise funds to create and donate eco friendly starter kits to charities across the South West. We caught up with Joanna to find out more about her low waste journey, the ethos behind her inspirational initiative and her green goals for 2019.
For people who don’t know you, who is Joanna Poulton? Tell us a bit about your background.
That’s a tricky question as it’s something I am constantly asking myself ‒ who is Joanna Poulton? I’m currently 26 years old and living on a friend’s canal boat in the centre of Bristol and working at an animation studio as a production coordinator making an international children’s show (that touches on green themes, yay!). I grew up in a tiny village in North Lincolnshire called Goxhill with my twin sister, older brother, deaf mother and hearing father. It was a really beautiful start to life ‒ roaming around on neighbours’ farms ‒ with my mother organising a whole host of community events. When my sister and I were 6 years old we moved to Birmingham ‒ where I first started feeling passionate about waste. My mum would do a litter pick every morning as she walked the dog and living in the city really highlighted the amount of waste there was about. I became head of my secondary school’s eco-committee at the age of 16 and even wrote an adapted version of Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs pantomime in sixth form ‒ with Snow White wearing a dress entirely made out of recycled crisp packets and instead of picking flowers in the forest she was picking litter! After leaving school I studied Scriptwriting for TV and Film at Bournemouth University as I had romantic ideas of becoming a screenwriter. I was president of The Alternative Performing Society for a year or two and loved organising and directing performances and fundraisers. I remember celebrating handing my dissertation in by organising a beach clean on a glorious summer’s day.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
At the age of 3 I remember being on a ferry heading to Amsterdam ‒ standing on the railings watching the icebergs float passed and thinking this must be really noisy for the fish!
When and in what context did you discover your passion for sustainable living?
I have always cared ‒ from as young as I can remember ‒ about the planet. As a young teen I used to watch Planet Earth avidly. In the past few years I found myself staying up late at night ‒ reading and researching about the impact humans are having on this Earth and I felt compelled to do something. When I moved onto a canal boat 3 years ago (for the first time) I discovered that I felt a deep satisfaction in having minimal impact on the planet ‒ which propelled me to volunteer at a range of eco-homesteads in Sweden and Germany and finally in India. India was a true turning point for me ‒ I lived in a community of over 100 people called Sadhana Forest where they practice Ahimsa (non-violence in thought and action to all beings) and have beautiful circular processes that lead to minimal waste creation. It’s when I returned from India that I felt I could do something to limit the amount of waste created in my Bristol community.
Tell us about the inception of Waste Not Bristol. How did it all start and what inspired you to embark on this journey?
My aunty bought me a bamboo toothbrush for Christmas in 2016 and I really think this is what kickstarted it all. It was the first time I looked at an item and realised there were alternative ways to consume and live. I had already been avoiding plastic bags for a few years but in the winter of 2017 I really started to reduce my waste through some simple first steps; investing in a reusable bottle, a reusable coffee cup (although I no longer drink coffee), replacing makeup removing wipes with coconut oil and reusable cotton face rounds, buying a mooncup, using solid soap and shampoo, making my own wax wraps to avoid cling film. Little by little I started to reframe the way in which I thought about products, the way I consumed ‒ I became more mindful and grateful for what I made and owned. I also felt hugely empowered to be able to reject what society tells us we ‘need’ and make things myself that functioned perfectly with a much more manageable price tag!
What was your biggest challenge starting out?
Habit changing takes time. I remember feeling frustrated that I was still creating waste a few weeks into the big shift ‒ I think that was the biggest challenge, my own expectations. We have to remind ourselves that a series of small changes amount to a big impact ‒ to just be patient and trust in the process entirely.
Tell us about your Zero Waste starter kits. Who are they aimed at and why is it important to implement this kind of sustainability initiatives?
The more I followed the ‘zero waste’ movement online, the more I began to feel a little jaded by the greenwashing of #zerowaste products and the apparent wealth of the bloggers showcasing these ‘eco’ lifestyles. It made me think about people who want to make more considered choices but didn’t have the initial funds to be able to invest in items such as reusable bottles or bamboo toothbrushes. I still felt like the sustainable lifestyle I was trying to achieve was inaccessible to a large number of people within our Bristol community. I did a trial run with my own savings in the summer of 2018 and created 20 kits that I took with me to an amazing charity called Refugee Women Of Bristol. I was so inspired by the response that I set up a crowdfunder at the end of 2018. I was able to crowdfund enough to make 120 zero waste #accesskits that I’ll be donating to Refugee Women of Bristol, Creative Youth Network, Help Bristol’s Homeless and Gloucestershire based community group All Pulling Together. I’m just at the stage where I have ordered all of the products. Although we are told ‘it’s too late’ to make the changes we need to make in order to prevent climate catastrophe, I think it’s crucial that we continue to try with everything we have ‒ first looking at our own lives ‒ how we can change the way we live to reduce our impact on the Earth and then to others ‒ how can we help other people do the same?
Some people might be worried that living a more sustainable lifestyle can be a tiresome and costly venture. Can you give us some tips on how to save money whilst avoid using single-use plastic? What are the first essential steps one should take in order to embark on their low waste journey?
First, reduce; ask yourself with every purchase: do I really need that? This thought alone has probably saved me hundreds of pounds buying items I didn’t really need. Then fabric tote bags ‒ they will save you money in the long run as they last for years. A reusable water bottle ‒ there is an incredible scheme run by City To Sea in Bristol called Refill which makes it super easy to avoid plastic bottles and save loads of money with local cafes/shops/offices offering free water refills whether you’re a paying customer or not (there’s also a wicked app that shows you where you can refill). Even if you bought just 4 drinks a week in plastic bottles you would save on average £10 which is £40 a month, £480 a year, it all adds up. Makeup wipes were a huge one for me. I used to spend £8 a month and create heaps of waste ‒ switching to coconut oil and reusable cotton face-rounds that you can put in the wash has saved me almost £100 a year. Reusable sanitary products! I switched to a menstrual cup when I was 22 so have spent £20 on my period in the past 4 years whereas when I was using tampons I was spending £12 a month = £576 over 4 years. The moment you start to invest in reusable items is the moment you are going to be saving money for years to come.
Cities around the world have different sustainability identities. How would you define Bristol’s green voice among other cities, and what more can be done to make the Bristol a greener city?
Bristol’s green voice is loud and I am so happy to find myself in the midst of the green shouts! We were the second city in the world (following my aunty’s council in Melbourne) to declare the goal of reaching Carbon Neutrality by 2030. There are so many amazing initiatives at play in this City that it’s really difficult to not feel inspired all the time! From Boston Tea Party ‒ outright refusing to sell disposable coffee cups, City to Sea’s ever impressive campaigning, the Refill app, a handful of great zero waste bulk stores (Zero Green, Smaller Footprints, Scoopaway, Wild Oats, Better Food) where you can refill anything from olive oil to shampoo. I would love to see our council ban single-use plastics especially for take away foods; polystyrene ‒ the amount of it that I see floating past the boat every day is really disheartening. It would be great to see more funding going into community energy; solar panels popping up on all warehouses/roofs; more community gardens ‒ I really think growing our own organic food and making our own clean energy is the only way we can reach the goals we’ve set ourselves.
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worthwhile to you?
When I returned to The Refugee Women of Bristol charity 4 months after my first visit where I donated 20 kits, I asked the women there if they were still using any of the items in the kits. Many said their sons liked their bottles so much that they took them for themselves and one women said she hadn’t bought a plastic bottle since the day she was handed my kit. That’s what makes it all worth it for me. Providing opportunities for positive change ‒ the opportunity alone is enough.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
I don’t know how long it will be until we start seeing the negative impact of our overconsumption. I don’t know if all of our combined efforts will be able to change the course science has clearly mapped out. But I do know if we’re going to go down, we may as well go down fighting: tote bags and reusable bottles in tow!
Your green goals for 2018 were: buy nothing new, collect 100+ litter, plant 50+ trees, fly less, clothes swap and be plastic free. How did you go about achieving them and what are your green goals for 2019?
On the whole, I was really glad I set myself the intention of the green goals but it was tricky to stick to them. I did buy a few new things last year, but every time I did I would take something else to a charity shop. I collected over 500 pieces of litter throughout the year when I was on any beach or in any park and I would comb it for waste and try and dispose of it in the best way. I volunteered on a beaver reintroduction programme in Truro last year and managed to plant 100 willows and whilst at Sadhana Forest (a reforestation and water conservation project in Auroville, India) I planted 10 trees. I did go on two long haul flights last year and a few short haul and I didn’t feel OK about it. So this year I am committing to #nofly2019 and will only fly if it is absolutely necessary in case of an emergency (my twin sister lives in Sydney). By not eating meat/dairy and not flying is the most effective way of reducing our carbon emissions. Getting more politically active is a big thing I want to improve on this year ‒ going along to local Extinction Rebellion meetings and voting with your money by trying to buy as much local/organic produce as possible is a great start but we need the people who make decisions for us to know how serious this issue is. Through all my weekends of volunteering and long hours in the office I noticed my self-care was slipping so it was something I really wanted to prioritise this year ‒ if we don’t look after ourselves with the care we give to the Earth we won’t be able to help anyone. Also, being more loving, not judging other people’s choices, just being happy with what you are doing ‒ closed hearts will not save this planet.