The results are in, what did we learn...?
Its been just over a month since we returned from our Clean Seas Odyssey Project, sailing 1000M around the western part of the English Channel educating ourselves and others about the problems and solutions to sea plastic pollution. Our project, and its circular journey, started in June and finished in September 2018 visiting 33 ports and harbours in 4 countries* including 12 islands.
On the way we met and interviewed professors and scientific researchers, waste management experts, artists, experts in the circular economy and economics, business managers, environmental charities and community leaders to learn from their expertise. We shared this through 11 open days at which nearly 400 people visited our exhibition of information and practical solutions. Who doesn't remember our increasing collection of reusable coffee cups!
We have shared our story and findings blogs, video, and a daily haiku to our social media following, established over 4 months, which now reaches nearly 1000 followers across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube (woooooo!). A big thanks goes out to Claire Cox and all those who contributed haiku. I have a sneaky feeling we have not seen the end of the haiku yet.
Along the way, we were joined by 13 crew with skill sets ranging from graphic design to law and waste management to poetry. Thanks so much for your enthusiasm crew, we couldn't have done it without you.
With the crew’s help, we have also contributed to primary research on microplastics in association with Birmingham University, collecting over 68 kg of sediment from 13 locations in 5 river estuaries and 2 island beaches. The analysis is ongoing so watch this space for upcoming results.
Together with those we visited and interviewed, and our crew, we have formed a network of experts around the Channel and we're so thankful to all the people who shared their knowledge, stories and a more than a few laughs with us.
Here's what we found...
The impacts of plastic on the environment continue to be a subject of research but concerns over economic impact on fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, shipping together with human and marine health impacts through toxicological risk is sufficient to warrant action now. There are also concerns over potential contributions to climate change through released gases but also through buoyant particles slowing the sea’s processes in sequestering carbon onto the seafloor as part of the carbon cycle.
The main way in which we can reduce the damage to our seas from plastic is by stopping any more from getting there. We need to “turn off the tap”, we are unlikely to have enough resources to remove all plastic from the sea.
No one group bears total responsibility nor has the ability to solve the problem on its own, we must work together.
Sources of plastic pollution extend from a wide array of sectors including, fishing and aquaculture, public litter, transportation of primary plastics and the sewage system.
There is certainly a bigger problem of waste management to be tackled in developing regions of the world, but the problem is present on our beaches and in our seas also. Fishermen on the south coast of the UK have stopped laying nets in some areas as its not cost effective due to the amount of plastic they catch.
There are no plastic pollution deniers, unlike the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, it is easy to see and feel the accumulation of plastic in our environment. The topic has engaged many people who have previously had little interest in living within the planets’ means, this engagement has motivated them into tangible changes of behaviour.
Product disposal labels are atrocious in the UK; the label ‘not currently recycled’ shifts the blame from manufacturer to public to councils. The ability of manufacturers to design packaging according to the infrastructure in place is made harder by lack of standardised recycling policy across the UK.
Packaging designers may wish to consider end of life in their designs, but this is typically not requested by their clients, the manufacturers, and so it does not form part of their brief. A requirement for packaging and product procurers to consider end of life should be applied through consumer pressure and government legislation. Recovery of materials by manufacturers can also be incentivised through education about the circular economy and closed loop supply chains.
To be able to encourage more sustainable design, and apply the producer pays principle, tax bands according to the material type should be applied such that manufacturers can specify which band to use in their designs. By differential pricing (like road tax bands) the appropriate cost of disposal can be applied. The digital revolution could help through reducing the administrative burden of tracking design and material use.
Clear instructions and labelling on products, such as this milk carton from Guernsey, can help to reduce citizen confusion about which bin to put it in. This is enabled by a recycling collection policy and messaging which is consistent from the consumer perspective. An example might be that a blue label on a product corresponds with a blue bin.
Fragmented UK systems prevent manufacturers from being clearer at present as no one label can be correct in all areas.
Changes of Material are not reflected in changes of behaviour: disposal behaviours were formed when products’ contents were biodegradable. The manufacturers changed to plastic based materials but the consumer behaviour did not change and so a pollution problem was created. Manufacturers were not required to reveal enough information about their products ingredients.
The UK has a fragmented recycling system with no clear standards which means differing citizen-facing policies and communication across districts as well as no clear way for manufacturers to inform consumers about end of life actions. People are confused about what can go where.
Information and messaging around the compostability of plastics is even more confused and misunderstood than recycling.
Plastic pollution comes from many sources, but one form is that of nurdles which are spilled into waterways and seas from containers, quaysides and the washing of their transportation infrastructure. These are the raw feedstock used in the formation of plastic products such as bottles, containers etc and as such are shipped around the world.
Here they litter a beach on the Itchen River in Southampton, UK which is close to a number of industrial units.
Their size makes them very difficult to recover, and highlights the problem of scale. Plastics breakdown in the ocean and their recovery becomes infeasible.
Signage for recycling and waste is not consistent nor sufficient in quality. Universally applied colour coding helps, as do actual photos of examples of what can go in rather than abstract graphics, Brittany in France was especially good at this.
More instructions are required on how to use recycling, including the ‘why’ and making the explanation human, such as for food waste “This is going into composting, any plastic has to be removed by hand. Please only put food waste in here”.
The general public is, at the moment, too busy, confused or disinterested to think about what to do with their waste. Having looked in many bins, there are always potential recyclables in the landfill bin and contaminants in the recycling bins. This calls for more incentive to recycle, more disincentives if people do not, and better communication of what can go where. Ideally, the burden of responsibility would not sit with citizens but with manufacturers and government for better managed societal systems.
Communities that have local ownership of their waste system have an interest in it, and it forms a connection with their neighbours. Where possible this scale of investment and community ownership should be facilitated. Smaller units can also increase resilience in the neighbourhood.
Consumers don’t know what to ask or look for when making purchases to be able to contribute to the solution. Appropriately defined guidance and labelling is needed. Is a ‘no plastic’ label a thing to be sought for food packaging for example? This labelling is needed if the decisions over packaging resource use and resulting waste are left to consumer choice. Alternatively, if legislation is applied, this may not be necessary.
The general public do not know what contains plastic and what does not, it's not easy to tell and manufacturers are not required to clearly label.
Bioplastics are made from plant materials, not all, but some are also biodegradable and are often lauded as a solution to our waste challenges and marine pollution. However, many require industrial composting facilities operating at higher temperatures than occur in home composting to breakdown these plastics into compounds that can readily be taken up by natural processes. The conditions in the sea will not allow these plastics to degrade. They are also not a blanket solution to our waste crisis as many regions do not have these facilities.
Plastics which can be home composted have the Vincotte "home OK compost" label, which will now become the TÜV AUSTRIA "home OK compost" label.
There is a lot of ‘greenwashing’ going on, eg. the x10k tweeted: “This is not a plastic cup” made from bioplastic. Bioplastics are not the whole answer, in fact they are just more plastic.
Decision makers at each level: Individuals, policy makers, event organisers, campaigners need to be able to use and share sound advice based on evidence when deciding on what materials to preferentially buy, regulate or sell. There is a lot of misinformation and mis-championed solutions, especially by organisations seeking to further their economic interests. An independently curated body of easily understood information needs to be created and made accessible, answering questions such as: What’s a bioplastic and when is it a solution and when is it not a solution?
Multilateral local action such as created by the SAS Plastic Free Communities initiative can be powerful at creating community where it has otherwise lapsed. Communication links are established providing support networks to changing habits and behaviours as well as information sharing. Taking leadership out of local government, business and into the voluntary sector has injected a new energy and made the initiative more human.
The messages that are spread to the public by campaign groups to use in lobbying need to advocate for implementable, viable solutions, not just the use of “less plastic”.
Beach cleans are a great way of connecting people with the problem as well as giving them an opportunity to benefit mentally and physically from the experience of being near the sea.
Humour, fun and a personable approach helps people feel positive about your interaction, especially in social media circles. Positive messages provide positive psychology and positive reinforcement is a proven way to change behaviour.
The use of a short form of poetry, called haiku, helped reach out a wider community than the sailing community with which we were originally associated. It also created a daily activity on social media which followers also engaged with by contributing their own haiku.
The Amelie Rose was a great asset to help attract attention and create a following on social media. She is an unusual and spectacular boat, that caught the attention of the public on open days. That two people were able to sail her with her traditional rig alongside running the project, created a compelling story. Inspiration and a simple message go a long way.
All our small actions add up - we are many and so each small change we can individually make a lot of difference, in positive or negative ways.
People need to learn about the waste hierarchy, beyond reduce, reuse, recycle.
Large public infrastructure has separated people from the fundamental systems which support our society, such as where food comes from, where waste goes, as well as urbanisation creating more separation from the sea. People care less about what they can’t see.
Children are often more informed and more aware than their parents. And after all its their future...
Lastly, we'd like to say a great big thanks to all those people who helped us on our journey and to you for reading our blogs and supporting us on our journey.
We'd especially like to thank...
Bucklers Hard Yacht Harbour, Beaulieu River
Poole Harbour Boat Show
Dean and Reddyhoff Portland Marina
The Marina at Sutton Harbour, Plymouth
Dartmouth Harbour Navigation Authority
Fowey Harbour Commissioners
Temps Fête, Festival Maritime, Douarnenez
Mousehole Sea Salts and Sail
Chaloner Chute & Maureen Brigden for their support during the set-up
Claire Cox for coordinating and writing the amazing haiku
Imogen Charleston, Coordinator Plastic Free Bournemouth
Jackie Young, Coordinator, Plastic Free Plymouth Waterfront
Penny Tarrant, Chair of Environment Plymouth
Nikki Banfield, Communications Officer, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust
Rachel Yates, Coordinator, Plastic Free Penzance & Surfers Against Sewage
Emma Eberlein, Pot Buoys Gallery, St Agnes
Oleta Forde, Plymouth Beach Clean Volunteers
Professor Richard Thompson, University of Plymouth
Meg Hayward-Smith, Falmouth Marine Conservation
Tony Wood, Regional Development Officer - South West, Royal Yachting Association
Marcus Pomeroy-Rowden, Nick Downing, Nick Gates, Geoff Albright and Andrew McCloud for the excellent advice during our engine wobbles!
Natbrands, Comp Bio Products Ltd. and Emily Kavanaugh, Pure Nuff Stuff, Penzance
Marine Conservation Society
and our fabulous crew and kind donors!
And what next? We have more videos and blogs to bring you over the winter months, but for now Amelie Rose will go back to helping people experience the majesty of the seas next year in her charter activities: http://www.topsail-adventures.co.uk/
Nick & Rebecca