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  • Writer's pictureRebecca

The Clean Seas Odyssey and me - Rebecca Sykes

Find out more about the Clean Seas Odyssey in this interview with Rebecca Sykes - co-creator of the project.

What do you think the problem is?

The root of the problem is that we are depositing plastic, which we do not value and see as waste, into the sea though it is not biodegradable and is not able to be taken up as part of the biological cycles which the sea has evolved. We have seen from films like A Plastic Ocean and Blue Planet II that this is accumulating and harming wildlife. I think that in the past we have thought that it’s not harmful to us, so why should it be to the oceans.

The bigger problem is that we don’t recognise our own responsibility in being part of a resource chain which in turn, doesn’t reflect the value of the larger ecological systems on which we rely. These resource chains help feed our needs in life, be they for nutritious food, or clean water, a sense of status or worth. They also help our fisheries feed our population and our offshore industries provide us with power. We are often blind to these as the sea is a remote place. We are also blind as in the UK the state manages waste for us, and we don’t see the full impacts of our behaviours. Despite this, we don’t even have a perfect recycling system of course and resources we have put energy, water and raw materials into are discarded as waste. As was discussed at a recent Chatham House event, there is always leakage from the system: even with a perfect recycling system, some plastic will escape and its fate in the environment as a result of our behaviour may mean we need to choose biodegradable solutions more often.

A lot of focus is on plastic packaging and specifically food packaging, but this has evolved for a reason. We want our food to be safe, and to retain its nutritious content until we eat it. The problem is that we don’t see a value in that packaging once we have consumed the product inside. We could widen this out and say that the problem is with convenience food and global food supply chains. It is then that we butt up against the reality that we already waste enough food to be able to end world hunger and at the moment packaging helps reduce this.

Another problem is that these technological solutions of keeping food safe and convenient have been transported to other cultures where the values and technology levels are different. In these countries knowledge of, or ability to, manage waste streams is not at a position to manage waste plastic effectively. If you’ve had no clean water and then clean, trustworthy water is available in a plastic bottle, of course that is what you will seek to buy. If there is no way that that bottle can be dealt with, then it is thrown into a pile in the garden, under the porch, into the ditch, ready to be washed away in the next heavy rains.

We are now so many more people on the planet and we must recognise that widespread behaviours have widespread results.

How did you become aware of it?

There are multiple levels of awareness I think. I worked in Singapore last year and during that time visited Bali, the beach in Kuta has a tideline of plastic one foot wide. The beach is a renowned surfing beach, but the amount of plastic carried up the face of every wave did nothing to encourage me to surf there. Wandering along the beach I was disgusted but then found a 4m long section that had been cleared, I sat down and ordered a drink from the beach hut proprietor of that section. Speaking with the owner to strike up some conversation I asked why he had cleared his section. I was the prime example: the tourists don’t like to see piles of plastic. “People throw it by the side of the road inland and it gets washed down from the rivers”, he told me. “But it’s ok, the government have started collecting waste and are burying it in the ground in the middle of the island”. I sucked on the coconut water through my plastic straw and resolved to take my straw with me.

The beach in Bali

Was I aware before this? Seven years ago I travelled around the world with a backpack and when you carry your possessions, you really focus on what you need and how to respect the places you visit. I went trekking in Nepal and was very aware of the blight of plastic bottles which were carried in packs up the mountains by sherpers for the trekkers. I had bought a filter bottle in advance to avoid adding to the problem, but I didn’t ask myself when I got home: what happens with my plastic bottles in the UK? We have waste management which handily takes it out of sight and so out of mind.

As a child in the 1980s, the Stopit and Tidyup cartoon characters encouraged us to put our waste in the bin. Did I then question where it went to? There are multiple levels of awareness and this project is to help achieve another level of awareness for us and others.

What's your motivation for doing this project?

I want to step up to the plate. We are living in an age with some major global challenges and, unless we as citizens help find solutions and change our behaviours to move society into more sustainable sphere, we are on a trajectory towards major environmental destruction that will impact society in ways we can’t predict. Plastic pollution entering the sea is the tip of the much bigger iceberg of resource use and we need to respect the limits of the planet’s ecosystems which we are already exceeding.

I am motivated by the thoughts and actions of others: I have been lucky enough to have been invited to join some of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s foresight review workshops where some of the great minds in topics such as Ocean Engineering have met and discussed the future of engineering in the oceans. Climate change was a big discussion point, as was resource use. I have read Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and have taken the Schumacher Institute short course on Systems Thinking. The prospect of a more organic philosophy on how we can address society’s issues is motivating me to think and act differently. While initially feeling like a fish out of water on this course (this is not scientific thinking!), I think it will be invaluable to tackling this problem which is interconnected and difficult to even get one’s arms around. It’s complex, not complicated, and so a different kind of thinking is needed.

We are living in an age with some major global challenges and, unless we as citizens help find solutions and change our behaviours to move society into more sustainable sphere, we are on a trajectory towards major environmental destruction

I am motivated to apply my skills differently: In the past, I moved from a university course about aeronautical engineering, to one about renewable energy as I wanted to contribute to a solution to climate change, not be a source of it. Since then I have followed a path within society’s existing institutional structures doing what I could, within that environment, to encourage renewable energy development. But many of our institutions have embedded processes which make it hard to swim against the tide and so this summer, I am stepping out of my normal working environment to learn new ways to make a positive impact.

How will the project work?

Well we have questions of our own, but maybe these are not the questions we will end up asking, or seeking answers for. When I studied for a PhD, I never really questioned the question enough, but I recognised that the first phase was all about getting the right questions! (Why do I suddenly feel a little like Donald Rumsfeld??!)

Nick and I are going to start with our own questions on a journey where we hope to meet the researchers and innovators, those who are currently involved in understanding the problem and finding solutions. We are going to meet, discuss with and interview people on the way to help answer our questions; hopefully inviting some of them to come and visit us on Amelie Rose when we arrive in the ports for the odd tot of rum. We are also inviting researchers to join us as crew if they want to share their findings and experience with us, and with those in our community who follow what we are doing. We’d be especially delighted if we can help their research through this voyage, either from the boat or through visiting communities on the way.

This is a personal journey but we hope that the problems and solutions we find will either be directly useful to people in making changes in their lives, or helping them make the decisions which are appropriate to them. So I’m going to brush off my science journal writing skills, maybe even recall the scientific sea voyagers of old, and we’re going to do a lot of laughing and pulling our hair out whilst learning to make video blogs. Luckily we have some awesome friends to help guide us along the way. We also have space for crew who, like us, simply want to learn more about the problem or support us in doing so.

We are going on an odyssey by sail and our ship is the iconic Amelie Rose. She is an amazing sailing ship, designed as a working boat for the Western Approaches*, and she’ll be working her passage too. She has an engine, but where possible she’d like to help be sustainable by using the wind and tide to get us around. We have aspirations to be as sustainable as possible on board and hopefully that will be part of the learning too.

*The bit of sea on the western end of the English Channel.

Our voyage starts in one month’s time and after an open weekend in our home port of Buckler’s Hard in Beaulieu, New Forest, we will set sail west along the coasts of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall and then on to the Isles of Scilly before turning south towards Brest and Dournenez in Brittany, France. We’ll then sail north and east along the Brittany coast and return to the UK via the Channel Islands. We are visiting lots of port festivals along the way to share what we find and meet people to share their experiences.

Why do this now?

On a personal level I have reached a point in my life where I feel internally empowered to take on more responsibility for my actions; I have become aware that ‘they’ cannot manage everything for ‘us’. It’s a personal decision that we can't just leave such important global problems up to other people to sort out. Life has also brought me to a position where my skills, resources and time are available to be able to dedicate to this.

I want to live in a healthy and safe environment and so I feel strongly about living in a sustainable, or even planet enhancing way, and want to be an advocate for change to achieve this. Being an engineer means I can make some changes, I can dedicate my experience and expertise to renewable energy and make personal changes to my lifestyle. But to create a wider change, I have to communicate what I am doing and my reasons why, otherwise I’m not going to help anybody else to make a change. Change is tough for all of us.

I have become aware that ‘they’ cannot manage everything for ‘us’. It’s a personal decision that we can't just leave such important global problems up to other people to sort out.

Now is also the time to do this as the topic is really at the forefront of people's minds. My friends have been posting how they are reducing plastic use in their lives, but is this the most effective change to make or will there be systemic effects that are not apparent? We live in a highly interconnected world and so the wider picture needs to be understood. Many groups are helping to do this and are also on a mission to help facilitate new ways of thinking about waste, such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This has been an amazing source of reference information for me about systems thinking in respect of resource use. Now is a good time to learn more and share those messages to individuals and communities so they can also innovate their own solutions. The public is engaged, there is momentum, which means people are ready to ask more questions and make their own changes; there is research and insight being generated, so we can help people on their journey.

And lastly, summer is good for sailing and in our northern climes currently the main time of the year when people are outside and most engaged with the sea and the community. People are out visiting the beach, attending boat festivals, wandering down the quaysides and we can meet them there.

What do I think is going to the hardest aspect of the project?

I think the hardest aspects of the project are probably not going to be what I think they are right now. We’ve also already tackled some pretty hard stuff, like deciding to start; often that’s the hardest step of all.

An aspect I fear right now is that we will struggle to encourage researchers to talk to us. They need to concentrate hard on their research and a lot of people are interested in this topic at the moment, so taking the time to explain their research needs to be appropriately scheduled. I also fear that it will be hard to manage the boat and the project at the same time; social media, video diaries, organising interviews, arranging berthing at the next festival, organising crew. This is why we've given ourselves more time between ports. We can then keep up with the important but less urgent tasks like reading articles and research reports, engaging in online debate and wider engagement.

From a personal perspective, I’m a hard taskmaster on myself (which is not something to be proud of!), and so it is always difficult to remember that I am human and need time to rest. We will also need to decide when the time is right to work to our strengths vs learn new skills: Nick writes beautifully, but he’s had more practice. Should he write everything or do we have time in the project for me to endeavour to learn?

Possibly the hardest thing of all will be when people ask questions that I don't know the answers to. I am a scientist, I have been an expert in some niche things and it's hard not to be an expert but to be vulnerable and to accept that we will need to add these questions to the list of unknowns.

Why do you think that this will help?

I think it’s necessary to increase my own level of awareness and to understand and share the different ways people are tackling the problem with others. I can bring my science based background and my experience of research and innovation to help find this information and share it. Being informed is the best way to be able to make choices in our own lives, and to have the understanding on which to sensibly discuss and debate at all levels, from the fleeting conversation on the bus to the questions and suggestions to local democratic representatives.

I feel that I can make a valuable contribution as a global citizen through my personal mission and sharing that with others

There are many big challenges to society at the moment, and climate change is the biggest, but sea plastic pollution is one where momentum is building and I feel that I can make a valuable contribution as a global citizen through my personal mission and sharing that with others. On a more practical level, we can bring the discussion in a real and tangible (and in Amelie’s case a visually stunning) way to the quaysides and shores of the English Channel.

We can carry reference material, posters, and hold discussions on deck; we can let people ask their questions and maybe add some to our list; we can investigate the practicality of products to help avoid unnecessary plastic waste, and allow other people to become aware that these exist.

What constitutes success in your eyes?

Success to me looks like getting back to the Solent at the end of August and having a better idea of how to live my resource life in a more sustainable way. It would also look like having found solutions or local people who can help our wider network make more sustainable choices in their lives. If we could help inform the direction for future research to help alleviate sea plastic pollution, that would be a real bonus, as without the appropriate information society cannot make more informed decisions in the future.

One of the underlying successes would be in getting a bunch of fabulous people together who become friends, have fun while learning, and who then keep in touch, sharing skills and continuing to work on the many dimensions of this problem in their local area or research network. Success would also look like taking the discussion of how to clean our seas to a wider debate about resource use.

On a personal level, I am learning new skills of how to set up and run this type of project, how to develop personal focus, and how to explain concepts on many levels. I’d also like to develop more confidence in my abilities as a sailing skipper. Last year, I was awarded my RYA Yachtmaster Offshore, which is a bit like passing your driving test for boats. This year I plan to increase my experience at that level of responsibility.

How is this different to what others are doing?

There is a lot of activity in this area at the moment, so it’s difficult to say with 100% accuracy but a lot of past sail based projects have been about raising awareness, especially by visiting those remote areas to bring back evidence of the plastic in the gyres. By focussing on the coastline, we hope to be able to engage with the major source of the problem - us!

I also think that this project is different as it tries to disseminate science research to the communities en route by taking researchers along on the journey, allowing them to share what they have found, but also understand the position of the public we meet on the way. We are not saying that we have all the answers either, we are on a journey just like everyone else. It’s just we feel so strongly that we are putting aside our jobs and businesses to do this.

Haven't we dealt with this now? Things are happening, why bother?

I think we are only at the start of social consciousness recognising there is a problem and until we have a sustainable planet, which means society is sustainable, we have a long way to go. The UK’s ecological footprint is way beyond that which is proportionate to our size, and one of the ways we can move away from this is to develop more sustainable resource use. For plastic use right now, we don’t even have an effective recycling system - in the UK each council has its own policy and in Southampton until early January the only plastic that was recycled was plastic bottles.

The UK’s ecological footprint is way beyond that which is proportionate to our size, and one of the ways we can move away from this is to develop more sustainable resource use.

What’s the one question you most want to discover the answer to?

Argghhhh, one is never enough. Can I have two? I think that the simple question is: what single change will make the biggest impact on reducing the amount of plastic entering the sea? I don't think that we can eradicate all sources for a long time, and its nearly impossible to remove it when it has got there. On a wider level: how do we encourage people to look at waste no longer as waste, encouraging them to create loops at various levels in the system of society whereby waste streams are value streams. Perhaps even my questions reflect a transition in thinking...

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