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Ian Kiernan, AO - Chairman, Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World

Ian Kiernan
'We've got to accept that climate change is here and we've got to learn to deal with it by using and developing new products and methods.'

Ian was a builder for 35 years before he sailed around the world and became concerned at the amount of rubbish clogging up the world's oceans. On his return, he committed himself to doing something about it.

Clean Up Sydney Harbour Day took place in 1989. A staggering 40 000 volunteers turned out to lend a hand. Two decades on, more than seven million people have contributed to annual Clean Up Australia Days, Schools Clean Up Days and even Business Clean Ups. The campaign has gone global and now 40 million people from more than 80 countries are involved.

How did you come up with the concept of Clean Up Australia Day?

I worked in building and development for 35 years before going away sailing for a year. I went to the 36 most beautiful islands I could find in the North and South Pacific. I then started to compete in single-handed yacht races, including the BOC single-handed around the world race. During that race I became really concerned at the state of the world's oceans. We had been encouraged to hold our plastics on board in order to educate thousands of school children, who were studying the race, about how much plastic we might have thrown in the world's oceans –but didn't. That was a trigger for me, because I started seeing plastics everywhere. I decided I would do something about it in my own backyard, Sydney Harbour, when I returned to Australia.

What did you organise?

We started the first Clean Up Sydney Harbour Day and its timing was absolutely spot on. At that time we had raw sewerage on the beaches and all these other environmental problems. There was anger in the community about the state of the environment. People wanted to do something about it and we gave them a mechanism to do that – we asked them to look at their environmental assets and to advise us which sites were in need of attention, and then we assisted them to clean up those sites. That led to action by government at all levels, and industry started to take more interest in, and responsibility for, the environment.

What was the public mentality towards the environment back then, compared to now?

There was not the level of understanding back then. Twenty years ago, I was pounding the table saying that we had to look at climate change and change our behaviour. I don't have to do that anymore because everyone is singing that song now.

Had you been actively interested in the environment before you started sailing?

No, it was pretty unusual for a builder to be an environmentalist – it proves that anyone can change their mentality.

How did you gather such strong support for your first Clean Up Sydney Harbour Day?

It was really through communication. The board I put around me were very good communicators and able to get the message out there. We got money together and we spent most of it advertising on television, radio and print media. We were able to target the kids and we got people to turn out in their thousands.

After the success of the first day, did you decide that this was going to be the new direction in your career?

We did it as a one-off event, but that wasn't to be, because the community grasped it and made it the success that it is. The timing was right and the formula was right. Cleans Ups then started to spring up all over the place and we helped them where we could. We decided to see if we could get a national campaign together and we got that up in the following year. I was still working in the building trade when it first started, but it soon became apparent that I either had to close my business or give up Clean Up. So I chose to close my business and started to work for Clean Up.

What's the secret to the ongoing success of Clean Up Australia Day?

The strength of Clean Up is that we are a wholesome NGO, apolitical and not for profit. We are non-confrontational and owned by the community. The volunteers who turn out are the ones who make it a success. We've never told people what to do, because Australians hate that. But, at the same time, they want to be informed so they can make their own decisions and that's exactly what we do.

Who have you got working for you at the moment?

I have a really good team of people around me, many of whom are over-qualified for the job. They should be in more senior positions in big organisations, but they choose to be here.

What are you working on at the moment?

We have our flagship event, Clean Up Australia Day, on the first Sunday in March every year, but every day is Clean Up Australia Day for us. We are working on fix-up projects, we have raised $35 million and put it into water re-use projects to demonstrate management of water, and we are now concentrating on Clean Up Our Climate. We've got to accept that climate change is here and we've got to learn to deal with it by using and developing new products and methods. As well as that, we now have Clean Up the World which is in 120 countries and in cooperation with the United Nations environment program. We've got more than 35 million people out there each year helping with Clean Up the World.

Are you pretty overwhelmed by the success you've had?

I'm certainly surprised; I never expected it to be the success it is. The campaign is alive and very well two decades on.

You've received an OAM and a lot of other awards over the years for your work with the environment. What has been your career highlight?

My career highlight is that Australians took my simple idea and made it work in a very Australian way. That's just great. Any of the awards that I've won, I really just share them with the people of Australia who have made it the success it is. As well as that, the awards are another tool we can use to change how we regard the environment and make it the big issue.

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