5.9 Editor's Pick
April 16, 2019

Weaponize your Privilege. ~ Plastic Free Mermaid


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I am an activist.

I have not used single-use plastics for a decade. I travel the world helping beach communities identify their worst offending single-use plastics and design strategies for alternatives. I use Instagram and YouTube to inspire others to quit using single-use plastics. To do anything to reduce our impact on our planet. To do anything to reduce our footprint.

As we watch the schoolchildren around the world strike for the lack of action taken to address climate change, it may be worth reflecting on what changes we personally are making. How are we contributing to a cooling planet? Are we even obligated to help? Is it up to the leaders to make the change? Up to the corporations to lead the way? What can one person do?

It is easy to slide into a comfortable apathy when we are not totally sure how we can help. Or perhaps it’s more of a paralyzing overwhelm. Either way, I do not aim to sound harsh, but I do think that is bullsh*t. The fact is, all of us here reading this, we are privileged. We are better off than the majority of the planet. To me, in this time of earthly crisis, our privilege obligates us to action.

This is privilege.

In the past year of my plastic activism, I have become increasingly aware of my privilege. I travel to learn the extent of the plastic pollution issue, meet the local heroes working hard for solutions, and fine-tune my messaging to inspire greater global change.

I am not special. I am not looking for fame or glory. I am just using what I have for what I know needs to be done. I am working my privilege for all I can. It is not always obvious, intentional, easy, or comfortable.

What is my privilege?

My privilege is showing up to witness the trash here on Lamu Island, Kenya and being able to leave. It is knowing the mounds and piles of plastic that clutter the children’s path to school, that cover the donkeys’ grazing ground, will be picked through and burned. It is flying in on a fuel-burning jet to Indonesia to take photos with smiling waste-pickers. Tromping through trash dumps in one pair of a hundred pairs of shoes I have owned. Walking through waste that arrived via a fuel-burning ship. Waking up on a plush hotel mattress with crisp white sheets, stepping into an air-conditioned taxi that carries us off to a village of homes built upon bamboo stilts hovering over a floating bed of plastic.

It is privilege to sit back and point the finger at Indonesia and the Philippines as the top sources of plastic pollution when the citizens are sifting through trash with labels from @traderjoes and @woolworths_au.

It is privilege to throw trash “away” and not have to wonder where it’s going. It is privilege to have a recycling bin and to blindly trust the service that swings by to collect the resources. It is privilege if your streets are clean and grass is green.

It is privilege to shop plastic-free. It is privilege to shop at farmers’ markets. Privilege to have access to jars and time to make DIY products and energy to prep zero-waste meals.


I smile here ironically. I smile to juxtapose our awareness against our actions. Our reality versus theirs.

I don’t mention this to guilt or shame. I mention this to inspire us all to use this advantage we may find ourselves having. Or as indigenous climate activist Zac Romagnoli-Townsend said at @newkindfestival, “Weaponize your privilege.”

Do not waste it. Do all you can with your privilege and place in this world to better humanity and our one, our only, threatened planet.


It can feel overwhelming, so I work hard to curate a community where you are safe to learn and grow and work together.



author: Kate Nelson

Image: @plasticfreemermain/instagram

Editor: Naomi Boshari


Relephant bonus:

Climate Strike.

Top 10 ways to get Plastic out of your Home, Yourself & your Children.

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Danny Saxon Apr 17, 2019 9:01am

Thank you for a wonderful article. I have been a world traveler for many years now and have seen appalling things regarding plastic in remote Tibet as well as in Antarctica which is supposed to be an extreme, leave no trace enviroment.
I ski at a small mountain in Colorado and one lift lines leading up to the continental divide has a tremendous amount of plastic Mardi Gras beads thrown into the trees. They will fall and be a problem for the environment and the wildlife there as the snow melts for many years. It is sad to see.
It is all about awareness of what we can do as individuals and as communities.
Thanks again fro bringing this to our attention. It bears repeating often.

William Peatman Apr 17, 2019 7:23am

Thanks for the post. Though I am not plastic-free, I am very conscious of the poison plastic represents for our planet and communities. One question I keep asking is why “organic” companies use plastic to package their products. Do they get a pass because they don’t use pesticides? We get tubs of organic lettuce in hard plastic containers. Is organic a marketing ruse or are these companies only committed to avoiding/removing one type of environmental poison? If Trader Joes can be convinced to reduce or eliminate plastic packaging, can we put the same kind of pressure on makers/growers of organic produce and other food products?

Janet Anderson Apr 16, 2019 9:34am

I really appreciated your article, Kate. I have to admit that the smiling face juxtaposed with garbage and an admonition in the headline to ‘weaponize’ your privilege was a definite ‘hook.’ You thoughtfully explores both the privilege that allows you to travel, your (our) privileged lifestyles, and the burden that our consumption habits have placed on the planet, with particular emphasis on those who don’t have the resources to overcome these challenges. It’s a wee-done social justice piece. I gave it a ‘heart’ right away. Your article is all that, and more. And then? I looked again. There’s this sign, on State Park lands, where I ride my bike to escape into nature. As the bike trailhead rejoins the main roadway, it’s posted. A simple, black and white sign that says ‘LOOK’ with small arrows pointing left and right. I grin every time I see that sign, because it reminds me of my practice. To be peaceful warriors, even as we struggle to comprehend social justice issues, our place and privilege in the world, and our ethical or spiritual imperatives, we have to remember to look both ways. The headline? And the indigenous environmental activist’s quotation, are thought-provoking. I struggle with this daily, as I try to grapple with my own mental formations and daily habits, so your article was very uplifting for me. And then? I thought about the term ‘weaponize.’ And I recoiled. I let the hook of my preference take hold. We’ve seen lifetimes generations, centuries, of weaponizing our passion. Turn on radio or television, any news or talk channel, even Facebook, and you quickly see dialog deteriorate into conversation, discussion and ultimately conflict. I almost want to cover my ears, thinking of all those voices creating information wars, for profit or simply ego. Each side, wrapped in ego preference, ready to fight. It’s the stuff wars are made of. The stuff of divorce, misunderstanding, separation, suicide, abuse. Once, a social justice activist was speaking to me about what love is. And the phrase ‘Love conquers all’ came up. My acquaintance asked, “So Love is a weapon, now Is it?” I have to admit never having forgotten that comment. It’s been a koan, for me. Once, not so long ago, when I was teetering on the fringes of social activism, a group of friend were getting to know some street folks, homeless ones, and cleaning up the park where they quite literally lived, out in the open, in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. day. At the end of the cleanup? One particular friend wanted to pile up the collection of garbage bags, assemble some of those who were less fortunate than us, to be living on the streets, and photograph them to post online. He was passionate about the situation, and I felt so, too. But after having spent some few days with these people, having listened to their stories, and having heard their feelings of exploitation, I begged my friend to refrain. The action, was right action. And bringing attention to the situation was right speech. But, having looked both ways? I found that in that particular circumstance, the social media coverage was viewed negatively by the very people it was intended to help. There are lots of reasons why, every situation is different. I only point this out, to say that looking at how we use our privilege and exhorting us to do it with passion, compassion and action is beautiful. But I’m cautious about using the word ‘weaponize’ in tandem with acts of love, kindness and concern. It’s a challenging concept. I love hearing that you are holding community and space for other of like mind. I look forward to following you. You work is inspiring.

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Kate Nelson

Kate is an avid water woman, magical mermaid, and yogi goddess inspiring activism online as Plastic-Free Mermaid. She has been disposable plastic free for 10 years and teaches her lifestyle, environmental activism, and deep ecology via courses, social channels, and mermaid retreats. You can connect with her on Instagram.