Anna Turns: Go Toxic Free!

Anna specialises in writing about sustainability, from climate change and renewable energy to marine issues, food and farming. She teaches journalism students at Plymouth Marjon University and helps them to build their portfolios, find their niche and develop their content creation skills on paper, on screen and on radio. Her first book, Go Toxic Free: Easy and Sustainable Ways to Reduce Chemical Pollution was published in January 2022.

Smiling Woman at Beach

You’re a journalist focusing on sustainability topics and just wrote a book on the very subject – what sparked your interest in sustainability and what’s your educational background?

From a young age, I have always loved spending time outdoors in nature. I grew up in the countryside in England and I think time spent in the garden or on walks really informed my love of the environment and my sense of needing to protect it in some way. I was always very curious – my parents joke that I asked a lot of ‘why’ questions and I loved finding out how the world around me worked. At A-level I chose to study Maths, Chemistry, German and my favourite subject, Biology. Then I continued my studies in biological sciences at Oxford University for three years which I thoroughly enjoyed. I considered doing a PhD but decided I wanted to know about lots of different things rather than be an expert in one subject area. I also loved sharing my passion and dreamt of working in wildlife television. So I worked as a TV researcher in documentaries and eventually on BBC natural history programmes such as Springwatch and Autumnwatch. After working in TV for a decade or so, I pursued writing more and worked in magazine journalism for a few years, then went freelance ten years ago. It was then I made a conscious decision to bring my biology back into my work more and write about sustainability, something that wasn’t being done enough at the time.

Why did you choose “chemical pollution” as the topic of your book and what are your views on sustainable chemistry?

A few years ago, I ran a plastic pollution campaign with my daughter called Plastic Clever Salcombe – it was all about engaging our local coastal community in ditching single-use plastics. But a couple of years ago it struck me that while plastic is so visible and tangible, there’s so much pollution that we don’t see or talk about. I wanted to find a way to make chemical pollution more relevant and engaging to a mainstream audience, so I have written Go Toxic Free…I found my research into this subject so fascinating and also far from depressing. There are so many solutions already being developed – we just need to make them the norm. I felt really inspired talking to sustainable chemists at ISC3 and around the globe, working to find ways to avoid chemical pollution and sometimes even have a regenerative impact on the environment. It’s definitely a mindset shift though – thinking about how we extract ingredients, create formulas that biodegrade, design out waste etc rather than that make, take, dispose model of consumption which is so destructive.

What’s the feedback on your book so far?

Brilliant thank you – I have had some great feedback about the book and the most exciting thing for me is hearing that people feel empowered to make really positive changes in their own lives and daily routines – quite a lot of people keep telling me they’ve ditched all bleach products for example, and it’s making people think about the impacts items they buy have elsewhere in the supply chain. Joining those dots is such a crucial step for all of us. I also think there is so much greenwash in the world and so many people misunderstand what chemistry really is. ‘Chemical-free’ claims on product labels for example, are just one sign that so many people think all chemicals are bad. So I have tried to debunk a lot of myths in the book and explain how to avoid the greenwash and ask for proof of claims. Hopefully that’s starting to have an impact and reframing possibilities so people know to look out for or ask for more sustainable alternatives.

Was it always easy to write about sustainability or did you find that placing the topic was difficult sometimes? Especially as a woman writing about chemical pollution etc, how easy was your research?

Research for the book specifically was global. I spoke to a hundred or so experts all around the world, as far flung as Japan, US, Peru and Scandinavia. I found that I had to do a lot of translation in terms of making sense of the complex science and explaining that to a mainstream audience without dumbing down. The way I did this was focus on the solutions rather than just the problems. I highlighted the progress and innovations, interviewed so many amazing scientists and changemakers to make it feel more constructive – it’s not all doom and gloom. In terms of my research, I don’t think being a woman made it particularly difficult, but I did make a conscious effort to include diverse voices in the book. I also made sure I referred to synthetic chemicals rather than manmade ones!

You also teach journalism at university, what do you think about the upcoming generations and their views towards sustainability and sustainable chemistry?

I strongly believe that sustainability needs to be much more embedded into education at all levels, from primary right through to university level. As journalists and communicators, sustainability will affect stories in all genres, from politics to fashion, economics to human rights. A lot of the students I teach at Plymouth Marjon University are sports journalist undergrads and I’m teaching them about how environmental issues will affect their work in the future – even at the Beijing winter Olympics currently, we see how snowfall is becoming less predictable. I am also talking to all of the students a lot more about solutions journalism – focusing on those constructive stories, still with a critical eye and rigorous reporting. I think sustainable chemistry falls into this category and as journalists, it’s about finding the really fascinating stories people can relate to that then illustrate wider themes of this field.

How can you envision the future of sustainable chemistry and the gender topic?

Equality is so intertwined with sustainability. For a greener, fairer future, we need to encourage diversity in all its forms. I also believe that having a balanced mix of genders throughout the industry will make it more creative and accessible to all. People can only aspire to be what they can see, so making women in STEM more visible to young scientists is really crucial. The sisters who run Le Qara are a wonderful illustration of this – young, enthusiastic, dynamic, pro-active and with a vision for a more sustainable future – this is what we need more of in the chemistry sector.