Kate Yeo: Plastics and Climate Youth Activist

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Kate Yeo is an 18-year-old Youth activist from Singapore who found her activism feet in the fight against single use plastics in Singapore. She created the ‘Bring Your Own Bottle’ Movement, a national campaign against single-use disposable plastics that encourages Small and Medium Sized Businesses to offer customer benefits for bringing their own reusable products to their outlets. Since then she has co-founded an international NGO called the Re-Earth Initiative, who are working to make the climate movement more accessible and inclusive in their climate activism through awareness building and education. In their Earth Day Event this year 100,000 people worldwide joined their event that was supported by the UN, Amnesty International, Extinction Rebellion and a number of celebrities. Kate is also a Youth member of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and was selected as a Youth Representative in their Global Town Hall in June this year. Speaking alongside officials from organisations like the World Economic Forum and UNEP, she represented Youth across the world, pushing for the end of the tokenism of Youth for publicity and instead promoting meaningful involvement of Youth in environmental decision making.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Kate about her experiences as a Youth activist over the summer as part of my ongoing ‘long-blog’ interview series with Youth Activists.

R: I’ll start with the Bring Your Own Bottle campaign – your flagship activism moment. When was the moment that you decided you really wanted to create this initiative? 

K: So, the surprising thing is that I wasn’t passionate about environmental issues up until I’d say 2018. And I think what really sparked me was the ‘Straw-free’ movement that was growing in Singapore, and worldwide as well. I would always see people posting on Instagram of a photo of a metal straw, but it would be in a plastic cup and a plastic carrier with a plastic lid. I just thought that was so ironic, and that people could go further. That’s how it really started – it wasn’t out of a real deep interest for the environment, it was more of just seeing that there was a gap that needed to be filled. And someone had to do it! Then as you dive deeper into environmental issues, it’s just really hard not to care anymore. So, I basically fell down the rabbit hole from there on and then that’s when I decided to launch a campaign.

R: The BYO Campaign works with Small and Medium Sized Businesses. How was the process of engaging with them? Did you find it quite easy or quite difficult? Were businesses quite willing to be involved?

K: It was definitely difficult. At the start I was emailing businesses and I would send hundreds of emails – literally 100 at a time and I would only get three replies. That was really difficult. I think, especially because I was just a Youth who was 16 years old, there’s very little credibility in that. But then one business picked it up and they were pretty huge chain in Singapore, and I got to meet their chief operating officer. Once they jumped on it, other people saw it and then they started coming on board as well. So, it really started from one and it was a ripple effect. Then nationally the entire sustainability movement was growing, so businesses were looking out for ways to collaborate with environmental groups and when I offered to help them with that, they saw it as a good CSR opportunity for them. It’s been going well up to Covid. Unfortunately, because of the whole Covid situation quite a few businesses have taken a few steps back and reject BYO for hygiene reasons. So that’s been a bit of a disappointment, I guess, a setback. But moving forward, we’re still collaborating with businesses because the Singapore Food Agency has come out to say that BYO is perfectly hygienic and acceptable here. So that’s one of the points that I’m using to negotiate with businesses. We’re also hoping to expand to the more heartland areas of Singapore, like our food courts and hawker centres – which is like a huge food centre, basically.

R: You mentioned you’re expanding the campaign and I’ve seen online that you were expanding your team. How’s that going? How will it be managing this team of people for the campaign alongside your other commitments?

K: So, the past year I have been running the whole campaign myself. That was because firstly I was pretty new to the environmental scene and I was just exploring a bit – I didn’t know how it would turn out. And secondly, because I was studying for my A-levels and in Singapore that basically the biggest exam of our lives, so I had to dedicate a lot of time to that. Now that that’s over I can dedicate more time to my activism work, which is why I decided to expand my team, because now I have more time to actually engage with the team. We went from one person to 30 people overnight. That was really exciting. We really needed that because previously a lot of my outreach was done digitally through email. But with the hawker centres that I mentioned, most of the stalls are run by senior citizens who may not have as much experience with technology or they don’t have a direct contact email on them. We have to physically go down to the stalls and speak to them. Having a team is very helpful because then we can split the load across thousands of stalls in Singapore – it would have been impossible for me to do it alone.

R: How much do you use social media through your campaigning? Is that a big part of it? Do you think environmental movements need both the online component and the physical outreach component?

K: Yeah, definitely. I think social media ends up in an echo chamber at the end of the day. And if you want to reach out to different demographics, different age groups, people from different backgrounds, then I think having that offline outreach is really really important. I only use online I to update people on what the campaign is doing and also to reach out to people from other countries. But if I’m looking at the effectiveness [of campaigning] I would definitely say physical outreach is the most important.

R: Let’s move on to the Re Earth initiative. It’s a big initiative and it’s very international. How does organising and working with activists across all these different borders actually work?

K: In the core team, we have about 14 members and we are all from different continents – it’s a really diverse and huge team. The core team we have weekly meetings, every weekend, so we have to find a time that works or everyone. That was really difficult – I think that’s the biggest difficulty. I’ve had to stay up till like 1:00 AM to accommodate people from the time zones but that’s a small sacrifice. It’s just an hour every week. Then we have different working groups and each of us take charge of one working group. So, we have a working group for school kids, for outreach, one for social media, etc. I’m actually the volunteer manager – we have about 300 to 400 Youth from 50 countries in the entire organisation, and we allocate them a task to do each week and it’s up to them to find their own time to do it.  I think it’s pretty flexible and we don’t really calls with the entire team together because that would be too much to manage, so we try and have calls in our working groups and then bonding through social media and WhatsApp.

R: What have you gained from being involved in an initiative that is so international?

K: I think definitely about how environmental issues are really localised. The context in each country is so different that there isn’t a one specific form of activism that can fit everyone. For example, what works for someone in the U.S. in lobbying the governments or corporations probably wouldn’t work in Singapore and even other regions. I think it’s always good to find a local community as well. And the benefit of the internationality is really in experiencing all the different cultures and getting to know people from different places. Also learning how to, I would say, empower marginalised groups together. Sometimes the climate movement takes a certain person who’s the face of the entire movement – there are certain types of groups that shape the entire movement and I think that that can be dangerous. Last year, there was an incident where an activist from Africa got cut out of a photo at the U.N, and that’s the first thing that happens when you have certain people leading the entire movement. I think working internationally has helped me seeing that that’s a lot of diversity out there and there’s a lot of power from different Youths regardless of where they’re from, and we really need to learn to leverage that better.

R: Earlier you were speaking about the need to reach down to local communities to target certain demographics in activism or outreach work. In the ReEarth Initiatives (or any other of your initiatives), how do you balance the need individual and local change against big systemic changes that need to happen?

K: That’s a really good one. So, we have an initiative we did for our Earth Day campaign. We asked people to make one pledge for individual action and one pledge for systemic action. The messaging behind that was that both are important, and you can’t give up one to focus on the other. I think what we try and push for is for people to leverage their power, as a consumer or as a voter. And that means instead of just rejecting a plastic carrier, you can go one step further and write to the store to stop using plastic carriers. Or instead of just writing about climate inaction on your social media, go one step further and write an E-mail your local politician. I think that’s where it’s important you’re doing both individual and systemic action at the same time. They’re equally important and we have to keep pushing for both. That’s why as an organisation, we’ve been trying to get that message out to all our followers and all our members that both are equally important. When we do panels or webinars with schools, that’s the message that we push for as well. We keep telling students, you can’t stop bringing your own bag or cup just because you want to focus on systemic action. Both are important.

R:  You mentioned your outreach in schools. I wonder what state the planet would be if we found about environmental problems when we were in school. It would be interesting to know when you’re doing this outreach, what sort of age group are you focusing on?

K: For ReEarth initiative so far, all our panels have been with high schools – so that’s in the teenage years. Then locally I have also done some with people younger, from 10 onwards. But I also think there is a lot of untapped potential younger than that, so nursery age even. I have some cousins who are really young and they actually learn about recycling in school – and they’re only 5 and 6. They have songs about recycling, they do it in school, they learn how to sort the trash. I think that’s something I hope to do as well, outreach to that age group. But for now, a lot of our energy is focused on 14 years old onwards just because I think that’s the age where you also get people to listen to you more, especially like politicians and corporations.

R: How much does the balance between social issues and environmental come into your activist work?

K: I think the concept of climate justice has been growing a lot. I’m sure you know about how that’s definitely a very strong intersection in climate justice. That’s something that I try and bring up my outreach, which is to show people how climate change impacts them personally. So, for example, in Singapore, we basically don’t have any natural resources. We import all our food and water. And so, when climate change hits, that’s going to be one of the major impacts – water security and food security. When the prices start rising, which there have been, it’s always the low-income groups that get hit first. I think that’s something that I try and highlight to people. That’s, of course, locally. But when it comes to specific environmental issues like plastic, for example, Well, I think that’s a bit harder to highlight the social and environmental link. That’s something that I struggle with sometimes just because, how do you tell someone that microplastic goes into your food? Sometimes the impact just isn’t as significant. I think it is a bit of trial and error trying to figure out what works for each person, and how to impact them the best. But climate justice is very, very important topic, and I’m really glad to see that it’s been growing a lot, although we also have to make sure it’s not just going out in an echo chamber and the message getting out to people who really need to hear it. It’s something that’s consistent throughout my activism. And I’ve been trying to make a deliberate effort to show that intersection.

R: How did you get to be involved in UN Level work and advocacy?

K: OK, so the U.N. Environmental Programme has a Youth constituency, we call it the Major Group for Children and Youth. They have several different major groups – one for women, one for farmers, for indigenous people, and then this one for Youth. The sign up process is really simple. You just register online, submit an application. I think they do some kind of screening process and then if you pass that, you’re in. I think really the barrier to entry is really low so it’s easy to get involved. It’s just, for example, the WhatsApp group has hundreds of people, but not everyone is active. Not everyone can commit their time to it and I think I was lucky in the sense that it happens to be the year after finishing high school when I had time to spare. I was able to commit more time to it, so in June, we were organising a Youth environment assembly and I was able to take the lead in organising it and get things going. Putting up the website, sending out invitations, things like that. I think because I was able to coordinate that, then I was also given more opportunities to participate and contribute in different campaigns. For example, getting to speak in the global town hall. I was also one of the moderators for our opening plenary in the Youth Assembly in June this year, alongside the executive director of the U.N.E.P and several other High-Level policymakers were there. As long as you take the time to contribute, they also open more doors for you.

R: Do you think time is a barrier to Youth activism? Kids under the age of 18 don’t have a job, but you’ve got a lot of other stuff, like doing A-levels, trying to figure out what you’re doing with your life.

K: I think it is. We have things like we have to focus on school work and finance may be a concern as well. But then again, I think at every age you have that issue. If you’re a working adult, you have to balance your financial security with job and activism. So, Youth does have our own set of challenges, but so does every other age group. And it really boils down to how much you prioritise your advocacy work and contribute to environmental issues.

R: Just going back to Global Town Hall you moderated for, how did that go? I’m always quite intrigued to see how these kinds of high-level policy makers respond to Youth requests. I don’t know want to say empty sentiment, but you know what I mean.

K: So just to give a bit of background. This was the Virtual Youth Environment Assembly and it was organised by the Youth constituency of the UNEP. It was really exciting because we had Youth from a hundred plus countries. We also had ministers of environment join us and it was good because they got to interact directly with Youth. For example, if you’re a Youth moderator, like I was, then you get to pose questions to them. We also opened up the floor to the public for Q&A, so all the Youth participants got an opportunity to ask the question. I remember somebody asking the Norway Minister for Environment about coal and about fossil fuels. That was, I guess, a politically sensitive question but he did address it publicly. I think in general, we got the sense that policymakers are listening. And to all those participating, they also reassured us that Youth is a very important demographic going forward and that more attention will be given to us, more space for feedback and consultation. I think overall it was really effective and really hopeful for a lot of us, because sometimes you get the sense that they’re not really listening. But this time it was different because they were actually responding to us and telling us that they are listening

R: I think that’s great because Youth have to be involved in these discussions to act as a bridge to address idea of intergenerational equity. They’re going to be the ones driving the climate effort because they’re going to be the ones living with the impacts and consequences of things like climate change. It’s so promising to hear that they were actually really engaging with you.

I’m just going to go into some broader questions about being an activist in your experience with activism. What would you say your proudest moment has been in your activism work so far?

K: I would say getting selected to speak at the town hall. That was really a huge opportunity because I was really speaking on behalf of Youth, basically all the Youth in the world. And that’s a huge, huge responsibility. I really liked it because there was no screening process or approval process, so I could be as honest as I wanted in my speech. And that was very blunt – I talked about how Youth are tokenised for publicity purposes and about how even at an international level, we see initiatives like REDD+, that is said to be pretty successful, but I also talked about how it’s been criticised for violating indigenous rights. I was basically pretty critical in my speech. And the best part of it is that I know people were listening because afterwards the chief of the REDD+ from the U.N., he actually reached out our Youth constituency after my speech because he wanted to hear our thoughts on it. Then the U.N.E.P. has a midterm strategy with the outline with what they want to do going forward and the initial draft had zero references to Youth. After that town hall they announced, six references at least – so that’s like a tangible change, and, yes, I think that’s my most fulfilling moment.

R: Do you feel pressure when you’re doing these kind of things? Is it a bit stressful or are you just so passionate about it that you put your blinkers on and just get on with it?

K: I think it’s definitely stressful. Firstly, because Singapore is a pretty conservative society, you could get thrown to jail for being too critical. So, in my activism, I always have to fact check everything and make sure that what I’m saying is accurate and won’t get me in trouble. I think the other form of pressure is in ensuring that my, like all my work is inclusive. It’s pressure because there are a lot of things I don’t know about other cultures and I have to make sure that I’m not unintentionally leaving a certain group out of advocacy. I think that’s what the most stressful part actually.

R: What’s been one of the more difficult experiences in your activism? Did you learn anything from it?

K: I think the most difficult part of like activism, not just an in the environmental scene, but anywhere is the problem of being burnt out. Especially for Youth, because you come in with so much hope and idealism and all that. Then when you really get to speak to policymakers, you realise there are so many trade-offs or considerations they have to make. It’s not really as simple as we think, sometimes.  I think that’s been one of my issues, trying to remain hopeful and still passionate even in spite of the all the difficulties, and these are like real life difficulties. I’ve just had to learn how to take a step back. Sometimes you kind of just have to learn how to prioritise. When I had my A-levels coming up, I set my advocacy aside just because my school definitely came first at that time. Or if you feel like you’re struggling with burnout, then take a step back from social media – that usually helps. Or stop reading all the news because it can be really negative sometimes.

R: What does being an environmental activist or advocate mean to you?

K: Like, it’s just as the definition of activisms suggests. It’s really just speaking up about environmental issues and thinking about social issues as well. Racism, capitalism because it’s all interlinked. It’s about sharing what I believe in and about what other people can do to contribute to the solving the issues.

R: What is kind of the best part of being an environmental activist?

K: For me, it’s like the sense of community. I only join the international climate scene this year and I already feel so included. There are so many activists out there, I think seeing all that brilliance and all that power is the best part.

R: Has being a young female activist affected how you have been able to advocate for environmental issues? Either positively or negatively?

K:  I think the interesting part is that two years ago, when I started the Bring Your Own Bottle campaign, being a Youth was a disadvantage because there was no credibility in it. And this year, now, it’s actually an advantage because people have started to see potential in Youth. It’s just so exciting to witness that transformation. I would say that a young woman has actually been a plus nowadays.

R: So, let’s talk about what’s in store for you in the future. You mentioned you applying to uni. Are you seeing yourself in an environmental career in the future?

K: Honestly, at this stage, like, I’m not really sure. I think in college I’m definitely pursuing environmental studies, but where that takes me in a future is still a question mark. I’m considering like corporate sustainability because I think that has huge potential if you’re working a huge corporation. But then there’s also like policymaking too and there’s the NGO route. I think one thing I can say for sure is that advocacy will be present regardless of whether it’s as a career or as a side hustle.

R: You’re obviously doing so well, it’ll be such a shame if it wasn’t at least a side hustle in your future. Just as a rounding off question, how could somebody get involved in environmental activism, especially at the minute when we’re locked away for Covid at the minute. What are the first steps or options that would suggest for someone?

K: This is a good one, because I get this question a lot. And I think a lot of Youth have ideas and different initiatives they want to push out. But my biggest advice is always to first see what platforms are already available because there are so many campaigns and organisations, doing good work. I think being a volunteer, joining them, volunteering with them is great, because you already have access to all their resources and their audience. I always advice Youth, before you launch your own initiative, see if it’s already being done by someone else and see how you can contribute to that instead. There are a lot of international organisations run by Youth, aside from ReEarth Initiative, there is also This Zero Hour, Fridays for Future Digital, there’s Polluters Out… these are all different avenues. It’s great for Covid-19 because it’s international so most of it is online anyways. If there is a Youth out there with an idea that no one else is doing, then I would say really just take the leap of faith and go for it. I always hear people being too scared to do things. And I was like that, too. But then you realise that you’re never really be ready for it, so you might as well just do it anyway. I guess that’s my biggest piece of advice.

R: I mean, things can’t get any worse, so you may as well give it a go!

K: That’s so true.

You can find Kate on Instagram @byobottlesg to keep up to date on her amazing activism and outreach work in Singapore.

Keep an eye for future interviews with Youth Environmental Activists on the Blog! You can find me on Twitter at @law_rwilliams.

(This interview was completed in late August 2020)