A Plastic Free St Andrews: Behind the Scenes with Daphne Biliouri-Grant

Interview with Daphne Biliouri-Grant, co-ordinator for the ‘Towards a Plastic Free St. Andrews’ initiative. The initiative is led by the St. Andrews Environmental Network, the local environmental charity, in partnership with the Environmental Office of the University of St. Andrews and Transition UStA, a community interest company promoting sustainability.

Interview conducted by third year student Annabel Personeni, studying Sustainable Development at St Andrews and actively participating in the initiative as a ZeroWaste intern with Transition UStA

1. What does Single-Use Plastic mean?

Single-use plastics, also known as disposable plastics, are plastic items that are used only once and then thrown away or in some cases recycled. Some of the most prominent single-use plastics include bags, straws, disposable cutlery, water and soft drink bottles and food packaging. It is estimated that over 180 million tons of disposable plastic is being produced on an annual basis and on average less than 10% of these items are recycled globally. Given that single-use plastics have a long lifespan and release toxic chemicals into the environment, it is imperative that disposable plastics are replaced by alternative sustainable products.

2. Why do you think St Andrews is a good town to implement this in?

St. Andrews is quite a unique town not only in Scotland but in the UK as a whole. It is one of the most prominent towns in Scotland due to its internationally renowned university and also because it is ‘the home of golf’. Because of its international presence, it attracts over a million visitors on an annual basis and with a student population of approximately 10,000 it could become a great example for other towns throughout the UK to follow.

3. How does your past professional experience help you in leading this movement?

I have been passionate about the environment all of my adult life and over the years I have worked closely with numerous environmental groups worldwide on a voluntary basis. Both my academic background and my professional career have focused on environmental politics and corporate governance.

I have spent the past 25 years advising governments, corporates and SMEs worldwide on reputational risk management with particular emphasis on stakeholder engagement. Therefore, having managed numerous stakeholder analysis projects and conducted reputational assessments on several corporates in terms of their corporate governance and sustainability objectives both on a national and international level, I have developed the skills essential for co-ordinating this initiative.

Over the past couple of years, my focus has been plastics pollution as I consider this to be one of the most urgent environmental issues that plagues the world. Single-use plastics represent the main cause of plastic pollution on a global scale and no country is immune to the devastating effects of this unprecedented level of pollution. While international initiatives are being considered, the urgency of addressing the issue of plastic pollution requires immediate action at all levels – local, national, and international – simultaneously. I have been working closely with various NGOs and conducting extensive research on what the government and the business community can do to provide viable solutions to the issue.

In terms of the St. Andrews initiative, my goal is to help develop and co-ordinate a strategic plan that will help all the involved stakeholders to eradicate single-use plastics. I want to share my knowledge with like-minded people and motivate others who are keen to get involved!

4. Who are the most important stakeholders in your opinion?

The most vital stakeholders are the local business community, Fife Council, the University of St. Andrews and the R&A. Within the business community, although the food and drinks sector is the most prominent due to the amount of single-use plastics used, it is of equal importance to engage with the retail and hospitality sector.

5. How are you getting local businesses on board with this campaign? Why are you engaging them rather than pressuring them?

As part of this initiative we want to ensure that St. Andrews will become single-use plastic free by engaging with all these stakeholders in order to promote behavioural changes and a better understanding of why reducing and eventually eradicating single-use plastics is the best option moving forward.

We feel that the best way to achieve results is to educate about the long-term impact of single-use plastics and recommend to all stakeholders, alternative products that could replace single-use plastics for the long-term.

We have already conducted an extensive survey to determine the level of awareness that exists within the local business community and the interest in replacing singleuse plastics. The survey indicated that over half of the businesses in St. Andrews are already seeking to replace single-use plastics within their businesses – an encouraging finding!

6. What are the barriers to making St Andrews Single-Use Plastics Free and what measures are you implementing to overcome them?

The survey that was conducted indicated that some businesses are reluctant to pursue alternative sustainable products because business owners are not aware of what other options are available. Therefore, part of the initiative will be to educate the business community on the benefits of investing on alternative products.

The main issue that has been identified in discussions with the business community is the higher cost of alternative products to single-use plastics. We hope that local businesses will be able to pursue alternative products to single-use plastics at comparable prices that will become available to them through the initiative.

7. How will this affect student life and the St Andrews community as a whole?

I think that the student population will benefit enormously by such changes as this initiative could play a major role in changing the behaviour of students towards single-use plastics. Hopefully the students’ attitude towards single-use plastics will impact their behaviour and actions on a daily basis and will continue beyond their university life, into their professional and personal life. This generation of young people will then influence others; their family and friends, their colleagues and in time their children and the generations to come.

8. How can students and townspeople help this movement accelerate?

This is a great opportunity to demonstrate a collaboration between students and the town. Working towards the same objective could actually provide a reason for strengthening the ‘town and gown’ relationship. We also hope that by establishing the initiative as a partnership between some of the most prominent stakeholders, it has already given a sense of ‘togetherness’ between the students and the local residents. At a time, when often relationships between the two groups have been strained, this initiative could unite them in eradicating single-use plastics and tackle plastics pollution.

9. Do you think this plan is too ambitious/idealistic?

Of course, any initiative of such magnitude is ambitious and idealistic. But action needs to be taken as change can only be implemented through individual action that can galvanise other individuals and ignite their passion in realising such as plan. In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ and that’s what should drive us all.