We spoke to Prof. Gatrad about his humanitarian work over the last 25 years and the start of WASUP – World Against Single Use Plastic
What is your ethnic and professional background?
I am a British Indian born in Malawi, educated in Zimbabwe and obtained my medical degree from the University of Leeds. Now I am a Consultant Paediatrician and Professor of Paediatrics, still working for the NHS after 50 years, to continue what I enjoy – looking after sick children and at the same time having a base from which not only can I draw a salary to support my projects, but also continue to strengthen my network to support these projects.
What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?
I have been doing humanitarian work in over 20 countries over 25 years: www.miatwalsall.org.uk. In 2017 I broke my leg in a rural village in Malawi but unwisely carried on to finish my work.
When I returned to the UK, I had to have an operation and was off for five months with some of the time spent in the hospital, as I had developed sepsis. Whilst I was there, I watched the Blue Planet documentary series by David Attenborough, which was hugely eye opening. Then I noticed that the food that arrived from the catering department at the hospital was full of plastic containers, plates and cutlery. This is when I knew that something should be done by someone – and that was me!
What is WASUP? How did it come about?
Initially not many people were interested but slowly after 6 months I had a few people who I thought that I could work with – one of them was Balbir Seimar who is still with me on this campaign.
I soon created a working group of teachers, faith community leaders and a representative from the local council. It was at this meeting we came up with ‘WASUP’ – Walsall Against Single Use Plastic. My friendship with Aziz Tayub helped and his company brought the vision for the logo to life, with the posters and leaflets that followed. That was a huge start.
One year on, I had been to many schools, places of worship and businesses resulting in an official launch of WASUP, by the Lord Lieutenant to Her Majesty. By this time, we had set up a website, social media accounts and had regular canal clean ups.
At the launch, as more people and organisations from beyond Walsall were getting involved, I changed the name to World Against Single Use Plastic. The 4 principles of WASUP include:
- Raising awareness in all sectors of the community (schools, businesses, places of worship etc) through talks, events and social media.
- Educate children in schools about the dangers of plastic and teach them about recycling.
- Litter picking both in streets and the waterways by all sectors of the community.
- Putting pressure on manufacturers to use less plastic in their packaging or in some cases none.
You can find out more here: www.wasupme.com
How are you engaging the NHS and wider South Asian communities with the WASUP campaign?
As a result of WASUP, the CEO at the Manor Hospital appointed a Sustainability Manager who was astounded to find that all the plastic, litter and food was dumped into landfills. I had many meetings with various departments and now the procurement and the catering department are recycling more items and not much food is going to landfills, as discussions have taken place to redirect the waste to companies who use it to make energy.
In the catering department the first thing that happened was that plastic straws disappeared. Little Aston Hospital in Sutton Coldfield engaged even better and got rid of all single use plastic from the kitchen and the dining room. In both hospitals WASUP posters were put in strategic places and I gave talks to various departments on the 4 principles. Litter picks were planned by various departments once a week but then COVID-19 happened.
One important example of Reuse is collecting pairs of glasses from various opticians and sending them to poor countries through my Charity – Midland International Aid Trust. I have now sent thousands.
I have been on various radio shows and Asian TV programmes talking to the audiences about WASUP and raising awareness about the single use plastic problem.
How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?
Production of plastic involves burning fossil fuels, so not only is there microplastic entering our seas and thus food chain, but also the problem of carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
Simple things like cleaning and washing what is recyclable and putting it in appropriate bins, changing to drink more coffee than tea (some tea bags have plastic), using bars of soap instead of plastic soap containers are a few of the many changes I have made. Using less water and decreasing the amount of meat is a small step in decreasing my personal carbon footprint too.
Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities?
I’ve found it’s most difficult to engage with my own community of South Asians on this topic and unfortunately there is a common mindset that someone else will sort the problem. For example, talking to store keepers to decrease or stop the use of plastic bags has resulted in me being told they would lose customers.
What has made WASUP successful?
Leading it from the front and making personal visits to various institutions, including over 100 schools in the West Midlands gave WASUP huge credibility.
My friendship with a fellow DL who is Chairman of the Canal and River Trust led to regular canal cleans by various sectors of the community – where often the Asian communities weren’t present, but things are beginning to change slowly as greater awareness is occurring. There’s still a long way to go but as an organisation, we have conducted over 40 canal cleans and launched WASUP in Coventry, Worcester and soon Leicester.
On one of my official visits I met the director of the Miss England pageant and our friendship took root and grew in strength. Now 15 Miss England finalists are working up and down the UK, promoting the 4 principles of WASUP and encouraging positive change.
It was through the Lord Lieutenant who is also the Chairman of the Commonwealth Games that WASUP was invited to be branded with the Commonwealth Games and therefore has a potential for reaching other 53 countries in the Commonwealth.
My continuing to spearhead it and not letting anyone interfere in the progress has been most important in the success of WASUP so far. I spend my own money that I donate to MIAT which then provides WASUP with financial support.
The WASUP song, the very powerful website and now my book the Story of Three Bottles should go global. It is only £5.99 to buy and one can contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment?
They are the custodians of the planet that we have messed up, in more ways than one. They need to learn and tell others about the danger of plastic to the environment by Refusing, Reducing, Reusing and Recycling plastic.
Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?
An image that deeply touched me was a swan pulling out plastic from a canal to ensure its babies did not ingest any of it. I could almost hear the swan say to me ‘if you lot can’t do it – I will show you the way.’