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, - Posted on August 20, 2021

Meet the Climate Activists Doing Brand Audits

BFFP changemakers Laura and Mary Lou first met 9 years ago, when Laura joined one of Mary Lou’s beach cleanups at their local beach in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, USA.


Mary Lou has led cleanups and collected litter data at this particular location 45 times since 2011 with her volunteer-run nonprofit, Be the Solution to Pollution. After years of collecting litter data, however, these changemakers took their activism to the next level with brand audits. Doing a brand audit takes that citizen science one step further by identifying the companies that are responsible for the plastic waste washing up on beaches and littering communities worldwide. 

Recently, both Mary Lou and Laura became Climate Reality leaders through the Climate Reality Project and are founding members of Climate Reality Massachusetts Southcoast. They have both become increasingly aware of the multiple connections between plastic and climate change so the brand audit was a joint effort between the two organizations, Be the Solution to Pollution and Climate Reality Massachusetts Southcoast. They also collaborated with youth leaders from our local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate justice network advocating for a Green New Deal in the USA.

We decided a Brand Audit would be a helpful activity to educate people about where plastic is coming from and why we need corporate responsibility for plastic pollution. Often, beach cleanups focus on personal responsibility and curbing littering, but with the brand audit, we shifted our focus to the companies responsible for creating the plastic in the first place. The audit gave us the information we needed to specifically call out the brands responsible for the disgusting beach litter you see above in our photos.

We had 62 volunteers of all ages participate in data collection and several helped sort plastics by brand onto a tarp so we could mail representative samples back to the companies that produced the plastic. It’s time these companies clean up after themselves, instead of us always cleaning up after them! We have done countless cleanups for years; more plastic debris always washes up soon after our cleanups.

Our volunteers recorded a total of 1,859 plastic waste items.  The top polluters were Dunkin Donuts, Poland Springs and Pepsico. We gathered plastic into boxes and mailed it back to these polluting companies with a letter created using the template from BFFP, which was especially empowering. This is called a return to Sender! Check out the Brand Audit Toolkit to learn more, so you can do this too.

The Brand Audit takes data collection to a new level by adding brand names to as many plastic waste items as possible.  As we entered names into the spreadsheet provided by Break Free From Plastic, parent company names popped up.  It was shocking to see the number of brands all owned by a small number of parent companies like The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo and others. 

Following the beach cleanup and brand audit, we had speeches from three local youth including a nine-year-old, two middle schoolers, and a college student from our local hub of the Sunrise Movement. Their speeches ranged from a detailed explanation of how plastic and climate change are intertwined (complete with citations!) to an impassioned plea to companies to break free from plastic and stop polluting and littering our world. One of our speakers even came up with her own acronym to help solve the problem! Empowering our youth to speak up about the problem and how it makes them angry is an important part of our mission. You can see their speeches and more about the day here.

We were fortunate to have a reporter from the local paper stay for our entire event.  She was very observant and asked great questions.  We ended up on the front page of the Sunday paper! We followed our brand audit up with a webinar later in the month about Toxic Plastics and Climate Change that featured Mary Lou, as well as BFFP’s global brand audit coordinator Sybil Bullock, and recent Goldman Environmental Prize winner Sharon Lavigne. And our work continues - we have plans to do our next brand audit on August 8, 2021!


About the authors:

Mary Lou Nicholson - Founder of Be the Solution to Pollution shoreline cleanup group, Climate leader with Climate Reality Project Southcoast MA, member of the education committee for Operation Clean Sweep in New Bedford, MA and professional nanny for 28 years.  On a mission to persuade people to switch to reusables and skip single use plastic since 2011. On Instagram as @marylou4oceans.

Laura Gardner- Chair of Climate Reality Massachusetts Southcoast, a new chapter in 2019. Teacher Librarian at Dartmouth Middle School in Dartmouth, Massachusetts and mom to two fabulous kids. On Instagram, Twitter, and Goodreads as @LibrarianMsG


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