Opinion

Q&A with Harriet Spark: grass-roots activism & environmentally conscious business

Harriet Spark, a business owner and diver, witnessed the damaging effects of plastic pollution in her local area of Manly and wanted to do something about it – she co-founded the clean-up initiative Manly’s Operation Straw, which aims to address the amount of plastic found in Manly Cove, a hotspot for plastic straw pollution. Just 12 weeks into the initiative, volunteers collected more than 2000 plastic straws from the area, and the campaign has resulted in over 40 businesses to stop supplying single-use plastic straws. SEI talks to Harriet about her advocacy.

'The Plastic Straw Problem' via Flickr Commons.

Harriet will be speaking about the role of individual action in environmental progress at our upcoming public seminar ‘Environmental Behaviour Change: Harnessing the Power of Volunteers and Grass-Roots Campaigners’. For more information and to register, click here.

What is Operation Straw and what inspired you to create the initiative?

Operation Straw is a clean-up project designed to tackle the prolific amount of plastic straws found in Manly and beyond. A friend and I used to regularly snorkel in Manly Cove, where we run our STRAWkles, and we were shocked by the number of plastic straws we found there. I thought that if we could count how many straws we found over a specific timeframe, we could illustrate the impact a ubiquitous item like a plastic straw can have on our waterways. So, every weekend over Summer, we ran an underwater snorkel clean-up (affectionately known as STRAWkling) with the community to collect and count how many straws were in the waters around the area. The project harnesses the energy and enthusiasm of volunteers to then go and engage with local businesses and provide them with the information they need to remove plastic straws from their operations.   Initially designed to run over Summer 2017-2018, Operation Straw has had such a great uptake by the local community that we’re looking to expand it.

The initiative is based in Manly. Do you think that the initiative could be successfully rolled out to other areas, and is this something that you have considered doing?

Definitely! We’re working on developing a model that can be used around Australia, and even in areas that are not directly connected to the sea. Because the project starts with a series of clean-ups, people involved can see which kind of rubbish they’re finding the most of and then develop localised solutions from there.

Your company Grumpy Turtle Design is an environmentally conscious business that aims to advocate for a variety of environmental issues. How effective has design been in communicating the environmental conservation issues?

I’m a dive instructor turned graphic designer. When I was dive instructing full-time, I started hosting clean-ups and other environmental events in my spare time. Because these were done on a shoestring, I created all marketing material myself and soon realised just how important executing this aspect well really is. This is when I decided to become a designer. We’re fed so much information every day, and we have it constantly at our fingertips so creatively communication environmental issues is absolutely essential.

What drives your environmental advocacy, and what is some advice you would give to people wanting to start an environmentally conscious business?

My love for the ocean drives me, but also the sense of urgency I feel from issues like plastic pollution and climate change. We’re at this key turning point where we can halt and minimise the impacts of these, and I want to do all I can to help. My advice for anyone interested in starting an environmentally conscious business is to start with the ‘why’ behind what you’re doing. Having a strategy and a reason behind why you’re deciding to run with x, y or z is key to keeping you on track and ensuring you’re actually going to be able to solve the problem you want to solve.


Harriet Spark fell in love with the ocean while dive instructing on the Great Barrier Reef. Experiencing the beauty of the underwater world first-hand, and learning about the threats this ecosystem faces, led her to swap her fins and mask for a pencil and computer. Harriet believes in conservation through creative communication. She has worked in communications and design for some of Australia’s leading environmental organisations, including 1 Million Women and Taronga Conservation Society Australia, and has spearheaded several environmental initiatives, the most recent being Operation Straw. Harriet now runs Grumpy Turtle Design, a creative agency working businesses, companies, and organisations that are doing good for this blue planet of ours.