The Clean Seas Odyssey and me - Nick Beck
Find out more about the Clean Seas Odyssey in this interview with Nick Beck - co-creator of the project.
How will the project work?
On a practical level we will set off with a volunteer crew from our home base in the New Forest and sail our wooden cutter Amelie Rose anti-clockwise around the Western Channel visiting different towns and cities, countries, islands and harbours. Along the way we will seek out people who can share their knowledge about some aspect of the sea plastic pollution problem or some potential solution to it. We will interview these people and publish what they have to say via multiple media channels, along with our own thoughts and discoveries.
What I hope will happen in a wider context is that we will be able to connect lots of interested people to other people who can help to inform them about the best solutions that are known about today. I hope that these networks will continue to grow after the project and form into a large body of well-informed people with clear understanding of the issues and the policies and actions that will help solve it. I hope that this larger body of people will go on to inform and educate others and put pressure on politicians and companies at every level to implement the policies that are needed.
Why do you think that this project will help?
Our issues with resources and waste and particularly plastic waste are not simple and will only be fixed if lots of people from all walks of life work together to do something about it. Our project is about doing our little bit to bring some of these people together in order to figure out the next steps. If we all work together then I believe that we can make a big difference.
What do you think the problem is?
I think that for hundreds, maybe thousands of years humans have viewed the planet as having infinite resources. We have created foods and tools and clothes and houses and all the other things that we needed from these resources with the minimum of messing about with the raw material. When these things wore out they could be discarded to rot away, or they could be melted down and re-made, or they could be used in other ways - like old earthenware pots being used as hardcore for new building work.
Unfortunately our thinking about non-renewable resources and about dealing with waste just hasn’t kept up with our fancy new materials knowledge.
In the last hundred years or so we have developed technologies that enable us to process materials in ways that mean that they don’t rot, can’t be simply melted down for new things to be made with the raw ingredients, and aren’t usable as they are for some other purpose. Unfortunately our thinking about non-renewable resources and about dealing with waste just hasn’t kept up with our fancy new materials knowledge. So we are still discarding stuff and we keep digging up new resources to make more fancy materials and we keep designing things with no thought as to what happens to them when we’re done using them.
At the same time as all of this our population has skyrocketed and so now we face a perfect storm, we have just one planet’s worth of resources, 7 billion people all of whom want “what they’ve got”, and an ever growing mountain of waste that can’t be turned back into being useful raw materials for something else.
How did you become aware of the problem?
Over the years I have taken many people sailing which means that I have seen lots of beaches, especially in places like the Isles of Scilly. Scilly is a beautiful place and the beaches are amazing but over the last ten years I’ve seen more and more plastic waste appearing on them. Last year I spent maybe an hour combing one beach and found a big bag’s worth of the stuff - in various states of disintegration.
Now I’ve started looking, I see it everywhere and realise that it’s a bit like watching a child grow. When you see them every day you don’t see the growth because it’s slow and incremental. If you only see them now and again they appear to shoot up each time. Plastic in our seas is a creeping problem, it’s getting worse and worse because once it’s there it never goes away, just keeps breaking up into ever smaller pieces. If we do nothing then one day we’re all going to be saying “Oh my! Look how you’ve grown!” but by then we will have killed all ocean life and it’ll be too late to do anything about it.
How is this project different to what other people are doing?
I don’t claim to know everything about what everyone is doing about this issue but I do know that there are lots of different versions of the “truth” being kicked around out there. I believe that one of the things that we are doing differently is to set out on a project that is about discovering evidence based answers to questions about sea-plastic around the shores of the Western Channel and then communicating those answers as widely as we can.
What we are doing is local, what we are doing is fact-based and what we are doing is about engaging and informing people.
What we are doing is local, what we are doing is fact-based and what we are doing is about engaging and informing people. I also believe that we are doing it aboard the most beautiful boat out there and that she will turn heads wherever we go - but hey, I might be a bit biased on that one.
What’s your motivation for doing this project?
Like anything that I borrow I think it’s important to hand the planet back in at least as good shape as when I got it. We’re not doing that at the moment, we’re f**king it up, using resources that cannot be replaced and then filling up the holes that are left with our rubbish and waste. We just can’t continue in this way, because it’s not like we can just upgrade to a new model when this planet is all used up and covered in our crap. Somehow we have to get to a point where we are living within our means and cleaning up after ourselves.
Plastic waste is not the only environmental issue in the world, but it’s a big one, and it’s important, and it’s in the public eye right now. That means that we don’t have to spend a lot of time highlighting the issue - people know that there’s an issue - we can move on to informing the debate about what’s the right thing to do about it. Plastic is as good a place as any to make a start on thinking about how fragile our home planet really is.
Plastic is as good a place as any to make a start on thinking about how fragile our home planet really is.
From what I’ve seen there are a lot of people who want to do something about plastic waste in the sea. But there’s a lack of consistency and clarity about precisely what to do. Is milk better delivered in glass bottles? Should cucumbers be wrapped? Should we get rid of all plastic or just some types? Won’t bio-plastics fix this? The problem is a complex one because the answers to these questions are actually not clear cut.
Unless we inform ourselves I think that we are in danger of creating another diesel engine fiasco - where we focused on just one part of the problem and decided that diesel cars were part of the solution, but in doing that created another problem with atmospheric pollution in cities - leaving us with two problems to fix.
My motivation for the project is therefore to get out there and talk to the people who know, the researchers and the scientists and the systems thinkers. I want to understand what I should be doing so that I can get on and do it and I want to let everybody else know what I find out so that they can too. I want to do this in a way that doesn’t contribute overly to the problems themselves, and sailing a wooden boat around the coast seems like a great way to do that.
The boat also gives us a way to bring other people along on the journey and to draw attention to the whole affair which is key because if we want to communicate with people then we have to engage with them first.
Why do this now?
I have spent the last 10 years building up a charter business based around the boat. In the last couple of years that business has reached maturity and in many ways is no longer a challenge. Over the same period I’ve seen the plastics problem get worse and worse. If it weren’t for people getting out there and volunteering to clean our beaches then they’d be in a shocking state - our councils certainly don’t have the money to deal with it all. Lastly, Sir David A and the Blue Planet folks have done an incredible job of highlighting the issue and making it real for many people where before it was all just a faraway problem that had no impact of their lives.
So the time is right for me to take on a new challenge, the time is right to stop the problem now - before it gets too much worse, and the time is right because people are receptive right now to learning what they can do about it.
Is this just another way to attract charter guests?
Ha, well, I guess that you could view it that way. I guess that the folks that come along probably will be a different group to those that we’d normally attract but if that was what I was trying to achieve then I wouldn’t go about it this way - it’d be more of an incremental change, and to be honest it’s not a change that I needed to make. The business was almost maxed out last year - our trips were over 93% full - so why bother doing this if all I want to do is to make money?
I have this resource, this boat, and she can help me to do something that I think is important.
Really this is more like a sabbatical from normal business. I have this resource, this boat, and she can help me to do something that I think is important. At the scale of charges that we’re making for folks to come along the chances are that we’ll not even cover the costs of the trip let alone the costs of maintaining the boat but to me that’s not important, I’ll stump up the bill for that. The important thing is to do what I can to put a stop to the disaster that is happening to our planet.
What do you think is going to be the hardest aspect of the project?
Getting it going at all has been really hard and seems to have taken forever. Rebecca and I have never worked together on something of this scale so we’re learning about working with each other at the same time as trying to create something that will work for other people too. Figuring out what we can achieve as just two people, as well as trying to work out how to engage with other people is difficult, especially when we’re having to learn some of the skills that we will need at the same time as actually making progress.
Looking forwards I think that keeping things simple will be a challenge. We need simple messages but the problems we are trying to solve are not simple. I also know that with any collaborative project it’s hard not getting buried in other people’s great ideas and great suggestions. We want lots of people to get involved but there are only two of us driving it so at it’s core this needs to stay a simple project. We’re going out to ask questions to folks that are best placed to give us solid, evidenced answers and then communicating these answers in a clear, easy to understand and hopefully entertaining way.
What’s the one question that you most want to discover the answer to?
What can I do to live my life in a way that will reduce the problem of waste plastic polluting the sea. I’m sure that along the way there will be a million other things to discover but at it’s heart that’s what I want to know, and I think it’s what many other people want to know too.
What constitutes success in your eyes?
If I personally can say that I understand better how to play my part in resolving the problem then I will feel that the odyssey will have been worthwhile. If we have built up a following on social media who read or watch or share or like or comment on our posts then I will feel that we have achieved some success in sharing our story. If we hear stories about folks from our network collaborating on some element of discovering more, or developing a new solution to the problem then I will feel that we have made a lasting difference. But before we even start I believe that we are already successful, because if nothing else we have got off our arses and done something.
It isn’t fixed and every day that it stays unfixed more truckloads of plastic waste end up in the sea where it remains, forever.
What would you say to someone who says “Isn’t this dealt with now? Things are happening, the government is doing stuff, it’s all in hand - why bother?”
It isn’t fixed and every day that it stays unfixed more truckloads of plastic waste end up in the sea where it remains, forever. Governments and retailers and manufacturers are beginning to show an interest but so far have committed to very little short term change. Unless we keep the pressure up and are clear about the policies that we want to see, the goods that we want to buy and the way that we want to see business take account of the environment then the next election, the next consumer fad or the next shareholder meeting will take the limelight away and lethargy will set in once more. We can fix this, but we have to start now and we have to keep at it until the problem is actually resolved.
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