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Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Business, Law and Governance

Publish Date

30 June 2022

Laying the foundations for the next generation

After graduating from JCU and leading a career in finance all over the world, JCU Alumni Geoff Donohue has seen first-hand the damage that plastic is doing to our planet. Now the Chairperson of the Plastic Free Foundation, Geoff says he wants to help create a world that is free from plastic waste.

After studying his first year at another university, Geoff says he made the switch to studying a Bachelor of Commerce at James Cook University in Townsville to be closer to his family, where he completed the last two years of his degree and then graduated in 1979.

“I love JCU and I think universities are really unique environments,” Geoff says. “In those days JCU was relatively small. I played rugby league and union for JCU and was also a regular at St. Mark’s College events as I had lot of friends living there, even though I didn’t.”

“Coming from a small town, I fit right in at JCU because of my background. I grew up in a little town called Boulia, which is halfway between Mount Isa and Birdsville. I left home at about the age of 12 to attend boarding school in Charters Towers,” he says.

“JCU is a great place to study. It was an intimate university which allowed students to get to know the tutors and lecturers really well.”

After graduating, Geoff says that his studies at JCU set him up for life and helped him to develop his strengths and talents. He now gives the advice to others to do the same: “All of my life I’ve always played to my strengths. At university I did the best in financial accounting, macroeconomics and law subjects. So, my whole life has been based around those areas of love and strength; I’ve used that knowledge and built on it solidly over the years.”

Geoff’s career has taken him all around the world, from Carlton United Breweries in Townsville right after he graduated, to the rest of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and back again.

After further studies in corporate finance, Geoff and his family settled in Perth and he began working as a stockbroker. “I did that for about ten years before going out on my own in 1996. I’ve been doing that ever since,” he says.

A group of five people standing and smiling next to a banner that says Plastic Free July.
Plastic Free Foundation founder Rebecca Prince-Ruiz smiling and holding takeaway food in a reusable bowl.
Left: The Plastic Free Foundation team at the launch of Plastic Free July, with JCU Alumni and Chairperson Geoff Donohue at far right. Right: Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, Founder and Executive Director of the Plastic Free Foundation (Credit: Tashi Hall). Supplied by Geoff Donohue and Rebecca Prince-Ruiz.

It takes many to make a movement

After seeing plastic pollution all over the globe during his career, Geoff says that he wanted to make a difference.

“I’m deeply concerned about what we’re doing to this planet and what we’re going to leave behind for the next generation,” Geoff says.

Hearing about an opportunity to become the chair of the Plastic Free Foundation, Geoff met with the founder Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and was inspired by her passion, knowledge and what she had achieved with such modest resources.

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz is the founder of Plastic Free July, which became a global movement to refuse single-use plastics and create a world free of plastic pollution.

“Rebecca had 40 people taking the challenge to refuse single-use plastics in the first year in 2011 and that was largely her circle of friends. Over 140 million people around the world are now estimated to be taking up the challenge each year. To me that is just unbelievable,” Geoff says.

“She created change in real terms with very little resources. Her dedication and passion is just inspiring.”

Plastic Free July eventually grew to form the not-for-profit Plastic Free Foundation, with the challenge going live in July every year. In his role as Chairperson, Geoff manages the governance of the foundation and works closely with Rebecca and other members of the Plastic Free Foundation team.

“We’ve got a very small team of people, with about six or seven people who work all over Australia,” Geoff says.

“I chair meetings, attend launch events with Rebecca and other significant meetings with our major donors and sponsors,” he says. “We also have strategy meetings and have recently been through a detailed strategic review. We’re aiming to have the organisation properly funded so that we can scale it up and increase the Foundation’s impact.”

“The Plastic Free Foundation is an organisation that connects people and shares stories and informs people about how they can reduce plastic waste. The Foundation’s mission is to see everyone living in a world free of plastic waste.”

JCU Alumni and Chairperson of the Plastic Free Foundation, Geoff Donohue.

Three people sit at a table drinking coffee in mugs and reusable coffee cups in front of a small coffee van while a man in the background has a single use plastic coffee cup.
A reusable shopping kit laid out on a wooden table, with a woven shopping bag, metal water bottle, reusable coffee cup and cutler, and a bag of mandarines in a reusable produce bag.
Left: Rebecca encourages people to avoid single use coffee cups and switch to reusables or spend an extra ten minutes dining in at your favourite cafe. Right: Rebecca's reusable shopping kit, which includes reusable shopping and produce bags, reusable cutlery and straw, a coffee cup, water bottle, and beeswax wraps for bringing home any leftovers. Supplied by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz.

From micro-changes to macro-differences

A critical part of the Plastic Free Foundation’s work involves measuring the impact of its global social movement. “We’re very focused on measuring our impact and outcomes every year,” Geoff says.

The Foundation’s recent 2021 Impact Report found that 29 per cent of global consumers — equated to 313 million people around the globe — in at least 190 countries were aware of Plastic Free July. They provide resources and share stories of people and organisations get involved such as hosting a Plastic Free Morning Teas, school challenges, corporate employee engagement initiatives and even hospitality venues taking on the task.

“It was amazing to see somewhere like the State of New York proclaiming in July 2021 that July would become their official plastic free month,” Geoff says.

One of the most important things to measure is behavioural change among consumers, which Geoff says is something that collectively creates massive change. “It’s about making choices about what you purchase and what types of products you use, right down to coffee cups and plastic bags. When we change our behaviours, together as a community we start to influence business and government and create systemic change”

Their recent impact report found that 87 per cent of Plastic Free July participants had made at least one lasting change in their habits, with an estimated total of 301 million behaviour changes since the beginning of Plastic Free July.

These small behavioural changes are the key to creating a larger movement towards a plastic free future.

“Plastic Free July is about creating movement and the goal is to get as many people taking up this challenge so that it becomes a snowball of change. This snowball of collective action creates a voice that makes organisations and governments become aware of these problems.”

JCU Alumni and Chairperson of the Plastic Free Foundation, Geoff Donohue.

Above all, Geoff says that eliminating single-use plastics is the key to a plastic pollution free future, not recycling or cleaning up our beaches continually. “Just over 90 per cent of the world’s plastic does not get recycled. We simply cannot let ourselves believe for a second that we can recycle our way out of this problem. We have to turn it off at the tap and stop the single-use plastics from being used in the first place.”

Want to go plastic free?

If you’re wanting to take on the Plastic Free challenge in July, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, the Founder and Executive Director of the Plastic Free Foundation has shared some popular ideas and solutions for people wanting to get started.

Firstly, Rebecca suggests taking a look around you: “Look at the plastics in your life; check your fridge, your pantry, and even in the bin. Choose one or two items to reduce first.”

You can also make other small changes around your home. “Switch from liquid soaps to solid bar soap, and even solid bar shampoo and conditioner,” Rebecca says. Many of these items are now readily available in your supermarket, but you can also find them at other specialty and bulk food stores.

“Make sure you remember your reusable items for when you leave the house, such as reusable bags and water bottles. Keep them somewhere handy so you don’t forget them.”

This year for Plastic Free July, Rebecca says their efforts are particularly focused on helping people avoid the single-use coffee cup. “Recent estimates put our national takeaway coffee cup consumption at 1.84 billion cups per year — making them the most used single use plastic item in the country,” she says. “It’s not just the lids that are plastic but even paper cups are lined with plastic and most end up in landfill or are littered.”

“Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives: BYO reusable cup, borrow from the growing number of cup share schemes or sit down for ten minutes and enjoy your daily brew for a less wasteful coffee.”

Want to learn more about how to cut out single-use plastics or take on the Plastic Free July Challenge? Head to the Plastic Free Foundation website where you can take the Pesky Plastics Quiz and find resources and ideas to help get you started on your plastic free journey.

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