Authors4Oceans: The children's writers raising awareness of plastic pollution

The writer Lauren St John — best known for her children’s novels, The White Giraffe series — has always been obsessed with the natural world. 

She’s been saving animals since she was a kid. She had a pet giraffe, Jenny, when she was growing up on a farm and game reserve in Zimbabwe. 

Now she’s started a campaign with fellow writers to stop the destruction of our oceans by people littering plastic. The idea came to her out of the blue.

“Not long after BBC’s Blue Planet II, I was in a bookshop and I ordered a lemonade and it came with a plastic straw in it,” she says. 

“I just sat there thinking a percentage of bookshops every single day would be dishing out straws or plastic bags. 

"On my own there wasn’t a lot I could do about it, but I thought if some of my children’s book author friends — all of us are passionate about the environment and animals — got together we’d have a little voice.”

St John has marshalled 60 of them — including Chris Riddell and Roald Dahl’s illustrator Quentin Blake — to raise awareness through the organisation Authors4Oceans, which will host an event on Sunday at the International Literature Festival Dublin. 

They know that children are their most powerful weapon.

“What was very interesting to me from the start is how incredibly shocked children were by this issue,” says St John. 

“I can address an assembly of 300 kids and when I ask ‘Did anybody watch Blue Planet II?’ almost every hand would go up.

"Before I say a word kids would be falling over themselves to tell me, ‘I went into a café at the weekend and they tried to give me a milkshake with a straw. I cried and begged them not to.’

“Kids are really, really upset. They realise what kind of earth we’re handing to them. 

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"It seems nobody had an idea about the scale of it until David Attenborough addressed it in Blue Planet II. It’s been a revelation how engaged children are.”

St John urges people to make small adjustments in their behaviour. 

She gives an example of the danger of ring-pulls on cartons of milk, orange juice or cans of Coke. 

Baby fish or birds growing up — birds will often add them when they’re building nests — have been choking on them.

“All you have to do when you take that ring pull off is to take one second and cut it with a pair of scissors,” says St John.

“It’s hard to imagine when you’re standing in your kitchen that your plastic bag or your ring pull is going to end up in the ocean but the facts are that it does. 

"And if it does wouldn’t you like to know that because you took a second to cut it, it won’t end up choking a fish or a bird?”

Not Preachy

The American-born Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series, is also a member of the Authors4Oceans campaign. 

She will join St John at the Irish event. She’s conscious about the importance of squaring the need to raise awareness without sounding too preachy.

“I tell kids that pester power is really important,” says Stevens. 

“Bothering your parents and the adults around can sometimes be a useful thing but also you can be too focused on the ideals rather than the lived experiences and what happens day to day.

“Of course some people have disabilities where they need plastic drinking straws to be able to drink. A lot of medical devices are wrapped in single-use plastic to keep them sterile. 

"It’s something you have to be aware of. It’s a more complicated story than just saying, ‘We must get rid of everything plastic.’ 

We have to keep in mind the complexity of everyday life and balancing it with speaking out and trying to make change.

“But plastic is a campaign that everyone can get involved in. Everyday people use so much of it. It surrounds us.

“We can make tiny choices that means we’re surrounded by less of it. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. It sticks around forever.”

Stevens says she was shocked recently to realise that every single toothbrush she’s had since she had my first teeth as a baby are still around in landfills, and often seeping into the oceans.

“We eat fish and crustaceans so it’s going back into us. That’s true for every single person. 

"You start thinking about all the toothbrushes you’ve used in your life. 

"We think we throw away plastic and it’s gone but it’s not gone — it’s just somewhere else. “

What a World! Authors 4 Oceans: Robin Stevens and Lauren St John with Flossie Donnelly (see right) as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin, 12pm, Sunday, 19 May, Smock Alley Theatre, Lower, Temple Bar, Dublin 8. See: ilfdublin.com

Flossie and the beach cleaners

Flossie Donnelly

My name is Flossie Donnelly. I am 12 years old. 

I started collecting rubbish on the beach when I decided the problem was really bad after a holiday in Thailand two years ago. 

When I got back and saw all the rubbish on the beach in Sandycove, Dublin I decided I’d start a beach-cleaning group.

Things just took off from there. We do it once a month during the winter. 

During the summer we do a beach clean every Friday. Different people come to help me every beach clean.

Sometimes when people see us beach-cleaning they walk away and look disgusted. We’ve had people come up and hand us the rubbish they’ve had from just eating.

Sometimes they walk up to you and say: “You’re doing a very good job,” and then walk off! You just feel like saying, “Oh, thanks. Would you like to help?”

Some of my friends like to come on beach cleans with me but I’m trying to keep it a bit private from most of my friends. 

I like having two different lives – I have my activist, beach-cleaning life and I also have my childhood life.

The best things about our campaign is that we’re getting the word out there and it’s hilarious the things we’ve found on beach cleans – men’s pants, shopping trolleys, a bike, credit cards, a driver’s licence, plastic bottles, cans, Christmas hats, Christmas lights, fishing lines, ropes, broken lobster pots, millions of cat-food packets, a bit of a scooter, a TV, a child’s car seat.

The bad things about the campaign are when people think you’re crazy or it’s just my mum and dad who are behind it and I’m just like “a photo person” and when you see that the rubbish is just continuing to build up, but I like focusing on the positives.

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