Alison Foley - EarthTech

Alison Foley

Alison Foley

‘Step into the fear, and you can do so much good in the world’: a chat with Alison Foley

Ali Foley is the founder and director of Ten Little Pieces, a movement that empower ordinary people – especially families – to help solve our litter and marine pollution crisis. On the back of that, she’s now set to embark on a high seas adventure in 2020, as one of 300 women selected to crew the eXXpedition, researching and advocating for solutions.

She joined EarthTech founder Ant Moorhouse to talk about her approach to environmental action – and why it’s crucial to ‘step into the fear.’ Listen to our full chat, or read some highlights below.

Ali Foley is the founder and director of Ten Little Pieces, a movement that empower ordinary people – especially families – to help solve our litter and marine pollution crisis. On the back of that, she’s now set to embark on a high seas adventure in 2020, as one of 300 women selected to crew the eXXpedition, researching and advocating for solutions.

She joined EarthTech founder Ant Moorhouse to talk about her approach to environmental action – and why it’s crucial to ‘step into the fear.’ Listen to our full chat, or read some highlights below.
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Q: How did you first get into the environmental space?

A: Ten Little Pieces came about one beautiful summers day on Noosa Main beach. I had my kids and they were hot and tired and cranky and wanted ice-cream. So I said to them: an ice-cream was going to cost them ten little pieces of rubbish.

To my astonishment, from just about 30 metres of beach they came back to me with three bags full of straws, bottle tops, cans, little plastic spoons, cigarette butts. I was shocked, because Noosa is a national park and I hadn’t noticed the rubbish before that. And then we got the ice-cream, my five year old said to me he didn’t want the little plastic spoon – and I realised, by picking up a few pieces of rubbish, my kids had made the connection between what was there on the beach, and what they consumed.

It got me thinking: we can actually do something.

Q: And how has Ten Little Pieces grown since then?

Well, a few weeks later we did Clean Up Australia Day. And talking to the other parents there at our local park, I shared the idea of ‘picking up ten little pieces.’ And then we posted about it on social media… and suddenly people started sending in photos from all over the world of their little legends with their ‘ten little pieces,’ the Netherlands, Vietnam… it just took off.

Mums and dads were saying that it got them to start conversations with their kids about regenerative practices, reducing waste – not scaring them but helping them take action. It’s really simple.

So that’s how it started. Now I’ve been invited to come into schools, all the way from preschool to grade 12, so I’ve had to keep learning myself! I’ve done the UN Environment Program Marine Litter open course, and some of the science is quite confronting once you encounter it. It makes it difficult not to take action.

A: Simplicity is power, yes. The problem can seem so overwhelming, particularly for young kids.

So true. And they drive the conversation, they ask the questions. As parents we need to be ready to let them come up with solutions, and solutions from four year olds are brilliant!

Q: And so that has led to eXXpedition. Tell me about that.

A; Well, before I became a mum I cruised the world on superyachts and motor yachts, some of the most beautiful places. My husband is a diver too. So we really appreciate so many of these places that are under threat.

So having done quite a bit of study in the field of marine ecology and plastics, I applied for eXXpedition, which is a two year pioneering ocean sailing mission crewed entirely by women from all over the world.

Over the two years these 300 women are going to be researching and analysing plastic pollution and they – we – are going to be talking to the local governments and community groups about the effects of plastic pollution and what we can do about it in different environmental and social settings.

The thing is, none of us have all the answers, but there are hundreds of us. We were all selected to be part of this because we all have a superpower – filmmakers, artists, teachers, activists, scientists. And if we approach it from all of these angles, we have a shot at bringing it under control. The potential is enormous.

If you’d told me five years ago I’d be sailing around the world picking up garbage, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now it brings me so inspiration knowing that I’m contributing to something that could forward solutions on this issue.

Q: I love the ‘eXXpedition’ branding. Why is it all about women?

There are two reasons.

One of the scientific threads running through the mission is to research the effects on plastic as an endocrine disruptor – hormones to do with sex characteristics. Historically the research on that has been focussed on men. But studies are starting to show that the effects are different on women. We’re now suggesting that when women consume products contaminated with plastic pollution, particularly fertile-age and pregnant women, it passes those toxins directly on to the foetus, eventually. We’re not sure what’s going on, but we need to find out what’s happening. So the crew will be providing hair samples as part of an ongoing data gathering in this area.

The other reason is that only 13% of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals are women. There’s a lot to be said for encouraging and supporting young girls to use their skills and problem solving aptitude in this area.

Because we need everybody. We don’t have time to delay and be afraid of trying. If you can think of a solution to a problem, speak up. That’s the message for women. It’s collaboration that will help us solve this situation. 

We’ve all got a superpower. Mine is talking! Talking to kids in a way that helps give them a way to feel empowered and effect change.

Q: The flipside of that statistic about women in STEM is that donors to most not-for-profit organisations are 75% women. So women have the empathy, but need more opportunities to get involved in the tech.

A: Yes, and both eXXpedition and EarthTech are about making that leap and overcoming the fear. With a peer group supporting each other and cheering on.

It’s scary to do things like this that are out of your comfort zone. But that’s how you learn and grow. Step into the fear, and then you have the opportunity to do so much good in the world.

Q: So what are you going to do when you get back from eXXpedition?

A: I really want to incorporate these experiences and the photography I’ll take on board into our classroom presentations for Ten Little Pieces.

The place I get to go is between Tonga and Fiji, 500 nautical miles through waters affected by the Southern Pacific Gyre. These communities don’t create the plastic pollution that’s devastating their environments, but they have to deal with it.

So I don’t think we can event talk about sustainability any more, we need to think about regeneration. We need solutions that knock over multiple problems with one solution.