Prince Charles: I was considered 'rather dotty' for worrying about plastic 50 years ago

Prince Charles on holiday in Bermuda, 23rd October 1970. On the left is the Prince's equerry, Nicholas Soames. (Photo by David Cairns/Express/Getty Images)
Prince Charles made the speech as a young man in 1970. (Getty Images)

Prince Charles has recalled being thought of as “rather dotty” when he first brought up the issue of plastic waste 50 years ago.

The Prince of Wales’s views are commonplace now, but when he first suggested plastic waste might be a problem in years to come, he was derided.

Charles is marking 50 years since a speech to the Countryside Steering Committee for Wales in which he said: “When you think that each person produces roughly two pounds of rubbish per day and there are 55 million of us on this island using non-returnable bottles and indestructible plastic containers, it is not difficult to imagine the mountains of refuse that we shall have to deal with somehow.”

The prince touched on the controversy of his statements when he turned 70 in 2018 too, with his sons William and Harry revealing how they were bullied for picking up rubbish while out on walks.

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18:  Prince Charles, Prince of Wales greets members of the public as he leaves the RSC on February 18, 2020 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The Prince of Wales had a tour of the construction works which are taking place as part of a major redevelopment and restoration project, the costume stores and watched a short performance and met performers, staff and supporters at a reception. (Photo by Jacob King - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prince Charles has maintained a lifelong commitment to environmental issues. (Getty Images)

Speaking about the reaction to the speech when it was made in 1970, Charles said: “I was considered rather dotty, to say the least, for even suggesting these things, rather like when I set up a reed-bed sewage treatment system at Highgrove all those years ago – that was considered completely mad.”

In an interview recorded for the Sustainable Markets website, he added: “Everything we are doing has been to destroy our own means of survival, let alone the survival of everything else we depend on.

“But at the same time, we seem to be unable to understand that there is an alternative way of doing it, which is to put nature back at the centre, value everything she does and build from there, and now there is an amazing amount that can be done through the circular bio-economy.”

The prince’s focus on climate change and the environment has been a big part of his work for several decades, and he has recently set up the Sustainable Markets Initiative and Council, which is supported by the World Economic Forum, to help financial markets become more sustainable.

Read the prince’s 19 February, 1970 speech in full:

The object of this meeting today is to launch publicly the European Conservation Year in Wales. I have just been to Strasbourg, where a conference was held to inaugurate the whole business of conservation in a European context, and listened to an enormous amount of speeches and a great number of fine words. Obviously, it is absolutely essential to have conferences and large meetings in order to consolidate and discuss the wide variety of views and arguments put forward on the theme of conservation, but one must be aware of too great a sense of self-satisfaction and comforting complacency that words sometimes inspire. Not only that, but I now find myself in the unenviable position of being Chairman of the Welsh Countryside Committee - not Commission as some people seem to think - and also being personally fascinated by the problems of conservation at a time when the whole idea has become immensely fashionable.

We owe a great deal to the newspapers and press media, and particularly to the Herculean efforts of several Sunday newspapers, for all the recent interest that has developed in the problems of our present and future existence. There can be few people who have not heard of 'conservation' or 'pollution' or 'environment' or of such horrifying terms as 'Ecology' and the 'Biosphere'. But do they always know what they mean? Dr Frank Fraser Darling recently said that he was afraid, "people will get tired of the word ecology before they know what it means". I think there is a very real danger of this happening - of the whole thing being a temporary craze which reaches a peak of over-emphasis and then deflates itself rapidly.

Perhaps you may now see why my task is slightly unenviable. Today, as I am speaking, I cannot help feeling I have heard a lot of this before, and when you consider that 1970 has only just begun and the speech session is about to open, I sympathise with the audiences which may have to listen to me desperately trying not to repeat myself too often.

Before I attempt an explanation of some of the terms I have already mentioned, it would be useful to examine the problems we are confronted with over conservation, which may help to sort out our attitudes towards their solution. One of the most basic problems is people. However carefully you plan or propose you inevitably at some stage come up against human nature and impenetrable obstacles of obstinacy and prejudice. These are difficulties that have to be seen and taken into account. They cause tears of frustration, but don't last forever. In many places the number of people is increasing faster than the resources of the local environment can cope, thereby exaggerating the problems of conservation. There are two main schools of thought here. One is that nothing need be done about population because nature is bound to react by producing a particularly virulent plague or virus, and the other is that something certainly needs to be done by man to prevent his over-population.

KAIKOURA, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 23: Prince Charles, Prince of Wales takes part in a coastal walk in Kaikoura with key figures working to protect the local environment on November 23, 2019 in Kaikoura, New Zealand. The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall are on an 8-day tour of New Zealand. It is their third joint visit to New Zealand and first in four years. (Photo by Arthur Edwards- Pool/Getty Images)
Prince Charles has a new initiative for sustainability in business. (Getty Images)

Another problem is the fiendish cost of many conservation enterprises. For instance, we are faced at this moment with the horrifying effects of pollution in all its cancerous forms. There is the growing menace of oil pollution at sea, which almost destroys beaches and certainly destroys tens of thousands of seabirds. There is chemical pollution discharged into rivers from factories and chemical plants, which clogs up the rivers with toxic substances and adds to the filth in the seas. There is air pollution from smoke and fumes discharged by factories and from gases pumped out by endless cars and aeroplanes.

The list is longer, but what I am getting at is that it is going to be extremely expensive to cut down this pollution. To install a filter plant at a factory is going to increase the production overhead costs, which in turn are going to be added to the price of the product. In the end it will be the general public, as consumers, who will have to pay. Are we all prepared to accept these price increases for the sometimes dubious advantage of seeing our environment improved? Are we prepared to discipline ourselves to restrictions and regulations that we feel we ought to impose for our own good? If we are not, then this meeting and the whole of Conservation Year will have been a gigantic, costly and splendid waste of time.

Waste is yet another problem. When you think that each person produces roughly 2lbs of rubbish per day (I believe the Americans produce more per head!) and there are 55 million of us on this island using non-returnable bottles and indestructible plastic containers, it is not difficult to imagine the mountains of refuse that we shall have to deal with somehow. In Wales, particularly, apart from the obvious problems of derelict mine-workings and haphazard urban development around them, there are highly emotional and controversial issues surrounding reservoirs and the flooding of valleys to supply them. And yet, at the same time, the water is needed very badly for drinking and for industrial use. There are always alternative sites, but they are inevitably more expensive to construct. If you are faced with the dilemma of one site taking up completely wild, unspoilt, uninhabited moorland, ideal for pony-trekking or walking, and another inhabited by a small community in old and beautiful houses - which do you opt for? Careful thought is needed, and if the decision does not come easily you may be able to see why some people occasionally feel like "dropping out" altogether and going to live in the middle of a Cardiganshire bog. But the tragic business of reservoir construction increases with the urgency with which desalinisation processes ought to be investigated. Admittedly the cost of setting up a plant would be enormous at first, and it would have to be a large plant to prove economical, yet it would surely be worth it from the long-term point of view.

These, then, are some of the problems. Some people see conservation as a pretext for dodging more vital social programmes and the Prime Minister has already been criticised for making speeches about pollution when he should be building more houses. But this is not the point. Conservation or problems about pollution should not be held up as separate concepts from housing or other social schemes. 'Conservation' means being aware of the total environment that we live in. It does not mean simply preserving every hedgerow, tree, field or insect in sight, but means thinking rationally and consciously just as much about the urban environment as about the countryside. It should mean for instance that care is taken in housing programmes to see that people are provided with a home and not just a 'house'. All too often the architect seems to forget that a town or a street is made up of individual people and families who happen to have been flung together, and usually the designer is never obliged to inhabit the ecological niche he has created for other people. The word ecology implies the relationship of an organism to its environment and we are just as much an organism as any other animal that is often unfortunate enough to share this earth with us.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip with their children Prince Charles and Princess Anne at Sandringham in Norfolk,1970. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Charles has recalled being worried about the impact of oil and plastic back when he was a teenager. (Getty Images)

Sometimes the problems surrounding conservation seem overwhelming. There is wailing and gnashing of teeth from people who want to do something, but don't know where to begin. (I shall come back to this in a moment). There are moans and groans from those who complain at the amount of talking done and no resulting action; but there have been many positive achievements in the last few years.

One notable one was the utilisation of one million tons of waste ash produced each year from a coal-fired power station. The ash was transported 60 miles to fill the pits left by brick-makers, and when mixed with water set like cement. It could then be built on or covered in topsoil and returned to farming. This was made possible by a splendid example of co-operation from a sugar factory which made available vast quantities of earth washed off sugar beet. In Wales the opencast mining industry has reclaimed many acres of despoiled countryside for farmland, while at a local voluntary level, eyesores in the Rhondda have been tackled by Rhondda Youth Action, the Civic Trust for Wales, Community Service Volunteers and the Borough Council. I have been frequently asked by people what contribution they can make. My answer is to follow the example, as they see fit, of the Nottinghamshire Trust for Nature Conservation and the Council for Nature's Conservation Corps, who recruited hundreds of volunteers, many of them schoolchildren, and planted 12,000 trees in one week on a landscaped spoil tip. As a further example, I have been delighted to see recently that my old school, Gordonstoun, has established a Conservation Corps, and they are already in touch with the local planning authority and other interested bodies.

This is exactly what is needed in Wales. It is happening at the moment, but not on a nearly large enough scale. The Countryside Committee for Wales exists to help generate enthusiasm and interest, and channel it into practical effect through the country committees that we have just set up. The committee succeeded in generating such enthusiasm in one member that he rushed off and organised volunteers into tidying up the top of a small mountain in Flintshire, while I contributed by hobbling up Mount Snowdon only to find a fairly hideous mess at the summit.

Picture taken on November 1970 at London showing Prince Charles of Wales making a speech. (Photo by - / CENTRAL PRESS PHOTO LTD / AFP)        (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)
Prince Charles' speech in 1970 was met with derision. (Getty Images)

If you look around, it is not very difficult to see something you probably take exception to, but would not normally do anything about. It is no good saying "Oh well, I expect some government organisation or local authority will do something about this rubbish tip or that slag-heap", because they have not often the time or resources available. A great deal can be done by thoughtful voluntary work.

For that reason I have decided to introduce a Countryside Award Scheme to be known as The Prince of Wales Countryside Award. The idea is that it will be presented to both voluntary and statutory organisations which have promoted projects that are a distinctive contribution towards improving the general quality and beauty of the environment in Wales during 1970.

Having now inaugurated Conservation Year in Wales, its success depends ultimately on the attitude of every individual Welsh person. If you are convinced of the necessity for some form of conservation and careful planning, remember that it is basically only for one year, although most of the hard work and real achievements must continue beyond 1970 with the support of all those who believe that the principle of conservation has become an essential part of our continued existence of this marvellous island."