northsider meets the locals leading Australia’s next generation of eco-warriors
First published in northsider magazine Autumn 2020
Lower north shore locals Pip Kiernan and Sophia Skarparis are on a mission.
As chairman of Clean Up Australia, Pip is leading the charge at the organisation founded 30 years ago by her late father, the environmentalist and ‘average Australian bloke’, Ian Keirnan AO, who passed away in 2018.
And at just 16 years of age, Sophia, or Plastic Free Sophia as she’s also known, is perhaps Australia’s most prominent member of ‘Generation Greta,’ the movement of young environmental activists named after Swedish teen Greta Thunberg. As well as being a Youth Ambassador for Clean Up Australia, Sophia was named both North Sydney and Willoughby Council’s Young Citizen and Australian Geographic’s Young Conservationist of the Year in 2018. She received the latter from Meghan Markle at an event attended by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Both passionate campaigners for the planet, Pip and Sophia hope to inspire people to think twice about the ever-increasing amount of waste being produced, and to get hands on in doing something about it.
“I remember Dad just ‘doing’,” Pip says. “Clean Up wasn’t about lecturing, it was always about positive action, being hands on in making the change.”
Keen sailor Ian was inspired to start the community movement after being horrified at the state of the world’s oceans, the water clogged with plastic and pollution.
His vision struck a chord and at the first ever Clean Up day over 40,000 people participated in a mass litter pick. It became an annual event, held on the first Sunday of March, and the number of people taking part has snowballed ever since, with 17.7 million Aussies volunteering 35 million hours of their time to clean up 365,000 tonnes of rubbish over the past three decades.
Now, as well as spin off Clean Up days for schools and businesses, the event has been adopted internationally. Known as Clean Up The World, 133 countries take part and over 35 million people have been involved.
“Wherever you are, wherever you come from, whatever age, race or religion, you can get the gloves on and get out and make a difference,” Pip says.
The Clean Up campaign feels more relevant than ever in 2020.
“Dad was an absolute pioneer when he started this,” Pip continues. “But 30 years on and we’re producing more waste than ever. Clean Up is all year round now and our focus is as much on preventing rubbish entering our environment as it is removing what has already accumulated. We’re encouraging everyone to think about individual things they can do to make a difference, from using reusable cups to avoiding single-use plastics.”
"It was always about positive action, being hands on in making the change”
Pip’s father predicted that plastic would be the problem of this generation and Clean Up statistics confirm it’s the most common category of rubbish found on Clean Up Australia Day. Over the past 10 years it has accounted for a third of all waste collected and alarmingly this figure is growing year on year.
For prominent anti-plastics campaigner Sophia, the statistics are galvanising. The Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College year 12 pupil has always been passionate about the environment. But it was a school project in year 10 that really spurred her into action.
“I started a petition to ban single-use plastic bags in NSW,” she explains. “At the start, I didn’t really think anyone would care.”
Sophia’s stall at the Northside Produce Market; sharing her plastic free message on Channel 7’s The Daily Edition, and meeting with NSW Minister for Energy and Environment, Matt Kean
That quickly changed when Sophia set up a stall at the Northside Produce Market. Talking to locals, she collected over 1000 signatures in a single morning.
Over the next few months of passionate campaigning, Sophia’s petition received over 12,000 signatures. It was enough for her proposal to be tabled in Parliament. Yet despite overwhelming public support, NSW still remains the only state in Australia that has not banned single-use plastic bags.
“We need to step up our game to save the environment”
“It was really disappointing,” Sophia remembers. “People think ‘she’s just a school kid’ and ‘it’s just a school project’. But I’m not going to go away. I’m not going to stop until positive change is made. We need to step up our game to save the environment.”
The decision in Parliament has made Sophia more focussed on her goals. She has helped her school go single-use plastic free, is in demand for public speaking and received support from the Duke and Duchess, with Harry giving her speech at the Australian Geographic event a big thumbs up.
“Change is slow but you have to start somewhere,” she says. “And small changes, like taking your own reusable cup, cutlery, straw and container everywhere you go, can lead to big changes which spread to others in the community.”
“As a community we have influence,” Pip adds. “We have power. What do we support? What do we want to spend our money on? The message will eventually get through.
“Teamwork is what we need to solve the waste problem. We all have to care about it and we can all be hands-on in making a difference together.”
To take part in Clean Up Australia Day on Sunday 1 March and to get more info on how you can reduce waste year round, head to cleanup.org.au
Words: Anna Gordon Main photo of Pip and Sophia: Belinda Spillane. Shot on location at the Sydney Flying Squadron.