Planet Ark's new CEO Rebecca Gilling shares her hopes for the future

Planet Ark's new CEO Rebecca Gilling shares her hopes for the future

By Pamela Jolly  April 20th, 2023

From grazing her knee making cubby houses in the Australian bush to studying horticulture and gaining a Master of Sustainable Development from Macquarie University, CEO and Planet Arker of over 20 years Rebecca Gilling discusses what sets this environmental organisation apart and her sources of hope for the future.


You’ve been at Planet Ark now for over 20 years. How has the organisation changed? 

It's grown substantially, probably about three times the size it was when I joined. Also back in 2002, when I started here, we were principally involved into recycling programs, or product stewardship programs as they've now come to be called, as well as National Tree Day of course, which is an institution and has been there for most of Planet Ark’s history.

But more recently, we have really expanded our brief to move up the ladder of Rs to deal less with recycling (although it remains important) and focus more on the top of the waste hierarchy. So really targeting those top elements of the pyramid such as refusing, reducing, rethinking and redesigning. Then recycling comes way down the list. That's where the Australian Circular Economy Hub comes into play. As well as that, we are very much interested in carbon neutrality. This is on the agenda for a lot of businesses who are really focused on Environmental Social Governance (ESG). We're keen to make the transition from burning fossil fuels for our energy to renewables.

What do you think makes Planet Ark different to other organisations working to bring about positive action for the environment?

It is really defined by what we are for, rather than what we are against. We really appreciate the value of organisations that are bringing attention to the problems that we face. That's really important that people understand that we're not messing around here and we have some really serious problems to deal with.

But we're in the business of empowering people to give them hope and a sense of their own capacity to make change.

I guess that's the difference between us and many other organisations.

We are also nonpartisan. We used to say we're non-political, but everything is political as we know. We work with whatever government is in power at the time, all parts of the business community and everyday Australians in order to engender change.

What will Planet Ark’s focus be in 2023? 

We have gone through a strategic review over the last year or so. While we haven't changed at our core, I think the way we enunciate what we do, that's changed. We now think of our activities as revolving around three spheres, if you like, and they are carbon neutrality, circular economy, and connecting people with nature. And that of course, takes us back to National Tree Day, but we really understand the importance of people feeling connected to nature, because otherwise, they won't have an investment in what it is we're trying to save.

The circular economy obviously is an emerging area of interest and concern particularly for businesses and governments and this is where we like to think of ourselves as transition brokers. Essentially, we're bringing parties together to work on common problems and find common solutions.

The carbon neutrality piece is relatively self-explanatory. In the era of climate change, we must move towards a carbon neutral society if we are to protect our natural capital and ourselves, especially those among us who are most vulnerable.

What do you think will have the most positive impact on stabilising our climate? 

I think it is the combination of carbon neutrality and a circular economy. There is a lot of focus on the net zero by 2050, which was the government's goal. Switching to renewable energy, we'll deal with about 55% of getting us to that point of net zero. The other 45% is about how we use products and materials.

This is where the circular economy comes in. We've really got to rethink the way we extract raw materials from the earth, turn them into things, use them, and then in many cases, simply discard them. We've got to keep those valuable materials in circulation at their highest value for as long as possible. The combination of carbon neutrality and a circular economy are really critical towards addressing and arresting the impacts of climate change.

What would you say to those that don’t see the point of recycling? 

Recycling is really important. It's an action that we've surveyed people and we know that they value the action of recycling because it is one of the simple things they can do to contribute to a better world and a better environment.

It is really important, but it's only a small part of the puzzle.

We like to say that recycling isn't complete until you buy recycled products. You need to buy products that contain recycled content. Close the recycling loop.

We need businesses to include recycled content in the products that they produce, so that we reduce the dependence on virgin materials and keep those valuable materials in circulation. So recycling is a really important piece of the puzzle, but it's not enough on its own.

Can you talk about one of your first experiences in nature?

Apart from the camping holidays that I enjoyed as a child, I vividly remember trying to grow pansies in the sandstone soil of my neighbourhood. But with a singular lack of success of course. But I think that desire to sow a seed and see it grow into something beautiful was possibly innate.  

My mother was also a very keen gardener. I learnt a lot at her knee. However, my mother had a talent for making exciting things a bit boring. If we were complaining about being bored, she'd say, well, there's always the path to sweep or the lawn to rake. It wasn't really until I had my own garden as a renter, that I was able to exercise my love of growing things.  

Rebecca waters a plant at Schools Tree Day

Rebecca waters a plant at Schools Tree Day

Who inspires you?

It may sound a bit trite, but I think the person who most inspired me is my dear departed mother, who had an incredibly generous heart and taught me frugality. She abhorred waste.

I can remember she used to save milk bottle tops and wash them out and keep them in a string bag in the cupboard. I'm not even sure that there was a recycling program for them back then. But she felt there was value in them, and so they needed to be saved for some other purpose.

I can remember her stopping the car one day and much to my eternal shame, forcing one of my friends to get out and pick up something that they'd thrown out of the window. She couldn't stand littering. She made things last, she had a great talent for making the most of whatever she had at hand and always welcomed an extra mouth at the table. So I think that ethic of care, you know, making do with what you have, and appreciating what you have was something that I got from her very strongly.

In terms of environmental inspiration, I'd have to say that my dear friend and colleague Paul Klymenko, former CEO of Planet Ark, has been and continues to be a great inspiration to me. It's not just because of the depth of his knowledge, but also the way in which he has shaped this organisation over his thirty years with the organisation and more than ten at the helm. I feel humbled and gratified to have taken over from him but I think he's a wonderful resource for information and he has that great talent of storing it in his head. He may have forgotten where he left his glasses, but he always knows the detail of the most important statistics we need to keep in mind.

Do you have any books, podcasts or other resources you would recommend to those wanting to learn more about taking action for the environment?

I would start with Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. It frames the problems, environmental and social, and the limits of what the Earth can manage. It then balances that with what our political and social systems need to provide for all generations present and future. 

I'm really impressed with the work by Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists, it is a wonderful book. His more recent book Humankind is fantastic. In terms of framing how we can live fairly, equitably and comfortably on this wonderful infinite planet.  

I was led to Rebecca Solnit’s work, Hope in the Dark, which I think is a must read for anybody who cares about the environment or works in the environmental field. Because the risk of eco-anxiety or eco-despair is real not just for us who work in this area, but for people generally. Her approach really says the future is an unknown. That's the dark, but it's not scary. It's unknown. What we do with it is up to us. Hope implies action. She says hope is the axe that you use to break down the door when the room is on fire. It really requires action from all of us. But despair, you might as well not get out of bed in the morning. That sense of hope is hugely important, I think for all of us.  

Finally, I would add Sam Harris' work. Firstly, his Waking Up app. This has been hugely beneficial to me, in terms of trying to keep things on an even keel, but also his podcast Making Sense. He attracts the most brilliant minds on issues of the environment and moral philosophy and the ethics of living a good life has been hugely influential on me as well. 


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Pamela Jolly

Pamela is a Marketing Communications professional with over 10 years experience working for both agencies and organisations in communications, travel, finance and retail industries. Pamela loves to be in nature riding a bike, skiing, appreciating the trees at her local park or exploring wild places abroad with her family.

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