CERES Education Interview with Chris Kemp
Co-Founder and Managing Director, Bottle for Botol
1. How did you first get started with environmental education?
I often wonder that myself, I have no formal qualifications or experience in environmental education. Three years ago I was working in the city, in a foreign exchange role for one of Australia’s big banks and environmental education or issues were not on my radar.
For me, it all started when I took up a year-long Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development assignment in a business development role for a community radio station in East Bali. As a keen surfer I spent a lot of my free time that year travelling around Indonesia and Bali visiting some of the more beautiful marine environments I have ever witnessed. Unfortunately, as I visited these amazing places I was confronted with some of the pollution that single-use plastic packaging is creating over there. The contrast couldn’t have been stronger with the pristine beaches I had enjoyed in Australia as a kid. Single-use plastic waste is a huge environmental issue in Indonesia that didn’t seem to be being tackled in any meaningful way.
At the same time, a fellow volunteer and marine scientist Christine Parfitt was working on an assignment with an inspirational environmental education teacher Pak Yasa at local school in west Bali. Together they were writing an eight week environmental education curriculum around single-use plastic waste and made plans with the canteen to switch to gallon water dispensers instead of selling the single-use plastic water cups that are the main source of drinking water for most schools in Indonesia. Upon completion of my assignment I approached my old high school with an ambitious plan to have the students design stainless steel water bottles which they would sell through the school and for every bottle sold we would donate one to their partner school in Bali… A Bottle for Botol.
They said yes to the idea and before I knew it Bottle for Botol was born and I was working in environmental education.
2. What have been the biggest highlights of your journey so far?
Reconnecting with my old high school Billanook College and running a really successful pilot program between them and our first Balinese partner school SMPN#1 Mendoyo was a huge highlight. Then taking that pilot and expanding it to now be in 15 schools in Australia and 15 schools in Indonesia has been an amazing journey.
The greatest thing about working with young people in an environmental organisation is that the highlights are constant and so many people want to volunteer and come along for the ride. Every week something new and exciting is happening from revisiting Bali and seeing the students using their new water bottles every day and the canteen plastic water cup free, to hearing our social entrepreneur Australian students nail their ‘pitch’ about why buying a Bottle for Botol water bottle is important for reducing plastic waste in our oceans, to seeing our bottle in the hands of the Australian ambassador to Indonesia Greg Moriarty, or reading the more than 7,000 environmental messages from our Australian and Indonesian students on the hand drawn “symbols of friendship” that adorn all of our bottles.
The Bottle for Botol program has been delivered by teachers in our Australian schools from prep through to year 11 business management. The feedback and stories that schools are providing us about how the program has connected with their students in terms of engagement with their sustainability program, social enterprise, cultural awareness and the boost in confidence that they can ‘make a difference’, is the fuel that keeps Bottle for Botol moving ahead.
3. What has been the biggest obstacle? How did you/are you overcoming it?
Like many start up not-for-profit environmental education organisations our biggest challenge so far has been funding and keeping Bottle for Botol operating on a shoestring budget. So far not a single member of staff has been paid for the thousands of hours of work that we have put in to make Bottle for Botol a success. If I knew 20 months ago that I would still be working in hospitality on weekends to fund my full-time volunteer work on this project I’m sure I would have had second thoughts.
To be honest though, I’m not sure that we would have wanted to build Bottle for Botol any other way. This was always a really ambitious project with a lot of questions to be answered. The program is very time consuming, would it be adopted by Australian schools? Would anyone buy the water bottles? Would we be able to import the water bottles into Indonesia and if we did would the students use them? Will this program actually reduce the consumption of plastic?
Now that we can answer all of those questions with a degree of confidence and our partnerships with CERES in Australia and the Centre for Environmental Education (PPLH) in Indonesia have a steady stream of schools looking to take part in the program in both countries, we are looking to build up the long-term sustainability of the project. Bottle for Botol managed to win the School for Social Entrepreneurs and Macquarie Group Foundation Kickstarter Program social enterprise business plan competition which will provide us with enough funding to pay for three months of staff wages.
Beyond this we now have a large enough inventory of bottles that if sold will fund our forward operations as well as a number of councils and corporates beginning to support our schools with bottle purchases. We are also developing and recruiting a more experienced board of directors that we hope can help us attract and maintain longer term funding sources from within the public, private and philanthropic sectors.
4. What future plans or goals are you excited about?
We have some really exciting partnerships coming up with YMCA Victoria, the Green School in Bali, the online social enterprise website Good Spender and the Clean Coast Collective’s “Trash Tribe” trip to clean up waste on the beaches of Cape York. All of these projects have the potential to greatly increase Bottle for Botol’s reach and exposure whilst really aligning with the changes that we are trying to achieve.
For everyone at Bottle for Botol though, the plans that we get most excited about centre around our school program. We look forward to working with our schools this year to align their activities to the ResourceSmart schools program here in Australia and the ADIWIYATA sustainability framework in Indonesia. As we work within these fantastic existing programs it really gives us the opportunity to scale up our impact.
If our current schools continue to do a great job selling bottles and we add 10 schools in both Australia and Indonesia as planned in the second half of this year we will stop the consumption of over 3 million single-use plastic cups by the end of 2015. By the end of next year, should we continue to grow steadily that figure will be over 10 million and there will be over 40,000 students working together in Australia and Indonesia on the program. That is a solid base upon which to build a generation that questions societies need for single-use plastics and actively seeks alternatives that are more environmentally sustainable.
5. What advice would you offer to someone wanting to begin a sustainability program at their school or organisation?
Think big. It takes a lot of work to get a small scale sustainability project happening within your school or organisation. Once you have something that works within your community see what you can do to share your experience with schools or communities nearby. The difference in effort involved in scaling existing projects rather than having individual schools and organisations each start from scratch is huge and the more collaborative you can make your project, the better.
The biggest surprise I have had since starting Bottle for Botol is the massive amount of people and organisations willing to help young people with a great cause become successful. If you have a project you believe in and are willing to work hard to see it happen, make sure you let your wider community know as there are a lot of people out there looking for an opportunity to support students creating a more sustainable future.
CERES Education would like to thank Chris for sharing his story.
For more information, visit the Bottle for Botol website