Interview with expert Elizaveta Merinova. Part 2: From personal experience to community building.

Updated: Oct 7

Elizaveta Merinova, Program Coordinator for Microplastics, Marine Litter, Waste and Conscious Consumption at Friends of the Baltic, spoke about the specific work of eco-communities and the role of leaders in them.


Photo from the personal archive of Elizaveta Merinova


Tell us how the "Microplastic - an invisible problem" community was created?


EM: It happened a long time ago. At that time, I had not yet been to Friends of the Baltic. There was another girl, her name is Daria Mytareva. Daria attended an international conference on the topic of climate and heard the term "microplastics". In Russia in 2015-2016, no one spoke about this yet, there were no materials in Russian on this topic. As a result, she created a VKontakte community, she announced a gathering of volunteers and offered to check if there is microplastics in our cosmetics. She also began to talk about this topic to a wide range of people and draw attention to it. Subsequently, a guide appeared on the independent study of microplastics in cosmetics. It raised questions such as: which components should be considered microplastics and which ones should be discarded. There is a whole list that is now online. We also educate people about household methods for reducing microplastics, such as how to wash clothes so that fewer microfibers come off. We also talk about what filter systems are available for home use. Then in 2016, together with research institutes, we developed a method of public observation, so that people themselves could check if there are microplastics in the nearest water body.


If we talk about "Microplastics - it is an invisible problem" this community initially appeared as a VKontakte page for volunteers and all those who were not indifferent, who began to research microplastics in cosmetics. Then it grew into an educational project, which is now supported by the Friends of the Baltic organization. Friends of the Baltic is a non-profit organization with a long history, there are now about 10 great experts and more than 300 volunteers, supporters and those who are inactive.


Microplastics in cosmetics. Source: https://the-challenger.ru/


What eco-practices exist in the community?

EM: In the place where the Friends of the Baltic employees work, of course, a separate collection is organized, we have coolers, a set of reusable glasses that we bring with us to events, a set of tea strainers, etc. In addition, we conduct an energy audit in order to not use excess energy, and we tell people how to conduct energy audits, if it is possible to reduce energy consumption by insulation and simply by using energy-efficient materials. We have several educational materials on energy efficiency in housing. We also host an annual SPIRE competition, in which we are coordinators. In this competition, schools present their energy efficiency projects. A large number of schools are already conducting energy audits and insulating windows, replacing light bulbs with energy-saving ones. Largely, thanks to such educational materials, the attitude towards energy efficiency has already changed, also in large institutions.


Penetration of microplastics into water bodies. Source: VK group Microplastic - an invisible problem


How do you attract new participants to the project?

ЕМ: If we talk about the "Microplastic is an invisible problem" community, the group mainly consists of students and young people who actively use cosmetics. We distribute information mainly through this VK page and through Friends of the Baltic. And they, in turn, work with the topic of microplastics through mailings. We are trying to make sure that in all regions there are people who can be contacted on this topic with any question. Friends of the Baltic is a large umbrella organization that includes NGOs and social movements from all regions of Russia. We work with these activists and send a lot of research data there, practices that can be implemented for microplastics reduction. They use our materials locally, begin to update them to the local context and develop their own. For example, Ecological Movement 42 from Arkhangelsk, last year they conducted their own research on microplastics in the White Sea. The plastic trade show we have developed shows where plastic pollution comes from. Another channel of communication and a large target audience for Friends of the Baltic are schools. It so happened that Friends of the Baltic began their work, namely working with schools. At that time, Olga Nikolaevna Senova (founder) was just working in the organization of additional education, they were engaged in ecotourism and began to study the water quality of rivers with schoolchildren. From there Children of the Baltic appeared and then Children of the Baltic grew up and Friends of the Baltic appeared. Since then, the topic has gained interest, and the target groups have expanded, but we still have schools. We have a database of contacts with schools, which we constantly attract to our events, this is a visit to preferential trips, where we study the state of the environment with children and teachers, tell them how to conduct experiments. The fact is that teachers and schoolchildren are interested in this themselves, because now in the senior grades it is imperative to do research work. There are often not enough tools for this, and we give them, responding to the needs of society.


Illustration from the collection of environmental advice "Act ecologically"


What does your community need to work?

EM: First of all, we are based on people, on experts who have knowledge on different topics. Of course, we need resources for holding events, for providing materials for the schools, and of course, financial resources are also needed for the work of any organization. In addition, we need relationships and mutual understanding with decision-makers, for example, with the Committee for Environmental Management of St. Petersburg. In the past few years, very energetic people have come there, and they began to actively engage in environmental education. They offered us to publish a joint book, which included different environmental practices, it is called “Act green. Collection of environmental advice ”. Accordingly, they made it possible to reach a wider level of the population and more Petersburgers learned about what practices can be introduced. This book has been distributed through the municipalities and is available electronically and on the Infoero website.


What difficulties does the community face in implementing their practices?

EM: Regulatory difficulties often occur... For example, we want to help install separate collection tanks somewhere, we simply cannot do this, because the regional operator is responsible for this. We had such a story with a hotel. That is, infrastructural facilities, they sometimes cannot be located on some territory, due to the fact that there is already some kind of regulation. Mental complications are also common, especially in the human mind. Naturally, not everyone is ready to implement the practices that we are talking about, and when people are not ready, they often try to find some weaknesses in our message. But of course our expert capital allows us to answer this. But all the same, if people did find some weak point, for example, I know everything about springs, but I don’t know anything about other underground waters... and they are like “That's it! You are not an Expert! " That sometimes happens.

Not all people are ready to somehow change their lives and say that, after all, we need actions “from above”, and not start an initiative from below. There are many such thoughts that personal actions will not help and all this is a drop in the ocean, but this is corrected by personal examples.

For example, Irina Kozlovskikh from Greenpeace who collects garbage into a jar and lived for a year without shopping. In addition, now we see serious legislative difficulties associated with foreign agents and amendments on environmental education that are now coming into force. These amendments, of course, greatly limit the activities of eco-educational organizations, because it is very difficult to coordinate all of this, it is simply impossible, I guess. We do not yet know how the law enforcement will be implemented, but it all sounds ominous... This limits the work of not only public organizations, but also schools and their ability to work with us, use our materials and universities, as well.


How has the difficult period of the Covid-19 pandemic affected your personal eco practices and how has it affected the work of the community you represent?

EM: In the beginning there was a period when the habits associated with disposable goods stopped working. Because you couldn't leave the house, and you could only order delivery. Not all shipping is available without packaging. It is clear that zero waste stores continued to deliver, but they had a rather limited assortment, so some goods had to be bought in the same Samokat, Yandex store and so on. It was a huge amount of packaging, it was unpleasant and there was no way to take out the recyclable materials. Huge heaps of packaging piled up at home. Otherwise, personal practices have not changed in any way. It seems to me that consumption, on the contrary, even decreased, due to the fact that I was at home. I did not use any means of transport and I only consumed what was needed at home, that is, water, electricity and that's it.


As for the organization, of course, we were hit by a pandemic, because we could not organize and participate in events and this large channel of communication was temporarily lost for us. Also, communication with each other and communication with our supporters because of the constant zoom calls, it was not so well maintained, because personal contact is still necessary. But at that moment, we were able to reorganize to an online format of work and we greatly improved our communication through groups in social networks, we made a new website by the end of this year. The lack of events was compensated for, in the end, due to online communication. Indeed, the first two months it was something scary, because it was not clear how to work, but we quickly adapted, started meeting with all our supporters online, telling everything online, and everything came in the format of electronic versions. It seems to me that we even had a peak in the creation of various educational products and enlightenment.