On Tuesday 17th of July, as a small team of three, my photographer friend Rebecca Douglas, actress/model Emma True and myself, planned a day of litter picking on the coastlines of Kent. In honour of the Plastic Free July movement, we decided to focus our attention on highlighting issues regarding plastic pollution in the oceans, the effect of this on both wildlife and people, and introducing simple but effective ways in which we could tackle these problems as individuals and as a society.
We focused most of our activity at Pegwell Bay listed as a nature reserve. This low energy coastline is in particular need of conservation. A big part of the shore is covered by mudflats and salt marshes, both of which are crucial to the marine Eco systems. Mudflats provide migratory birds with a plentiful supply of worms and other invertebrates and prove necessary rest stops along their migration routes. More importantly, the bacteria found in these areas help breakdown urban waste dumped in the ocean, such as heavy metals, solvents, oils and organic chemicals. Overall, these coastlines are fundamental to the integrity of the marine food chain.
For such an integral piece of the Eco system, Pegwell Bay is in dire need of a cleanse. As you walk onto the beach from a pathway at Pegwell Country Park, you are faced with a bin overflowing with plastic bags, doggy bags, cans and beer bottles. It seemed that some people (or the council) had made a half-hearted attempt at collecting rubbish from the beach, but these bags were piled together in a heap in one corner of the shore, while seagulls and other animals had made holes in them, resulting in the contents pouring back onto the beach and being swept into the sea by the wind.
We started our day by picking up trash that was visible to us, such as plastic bottles, balloons (yep!), lots and lots of used wipes, toys, cans and wrappings. We soon discovered the scale of the issue when we realised after having walked a few hundred meters that we weren’t walking on sand anymore, but on millions and millions of broken up microplastic washed in with the tides.
The hard truth we were faced with was that as much as an activity like litter picking is a tiny step toward bettering our environment individually, substantially more drastic actions must be taken to control or avoid further expansion of this environmental crisis. Since we have neither the power nor the influence to change things on a major scale, we thought it best to come up with easy solutions for each and every one of us to learn from in order to perhaps lessen the impact of plastic pollution for future generations.
Change starts with the individual. Pure and simple. Each and every one of us is responsible for creating a world for future generations where the water, air, wildlife and earth around us aren’t filled with plastic fibres, entering our bodies and consuming the world we live in. A few tweaks in our lifestyle can have great impact on the wider scope of things.
We therefore set out to do a series of photographs (thanks to Rebecca and her skills at capturing the essence of our cause with her incredible vision) highlighting problems and solutions for cleaner living, reducing plastic use, and guides to strive for waste free oceans. We are thankful to the Thanet City Council who allowed us to fly our drone over the shoreline of Ramsgate, in order to capture some powerful images to further spread the word for our cause.
After some online research, my attention was drawn to certain hashtags #toplessforthesea , #plasticfreemermaid , #Iquitplastics and #moremermaidslessplastic. These key phrases guided me toward a group of extraordinary ladies who have started awe-inspiring work with their communities to reduce the use of plastic and to continue to raise awareness on ocean pollution.
Save The Mermaids is an incredible organisation led by a group of exceptional ladies, which helps educate people on man-made ocean pollution and teaches them how to adapt lifestyle behaviours that help better the environment. Iquitplastics.com is the website that offers help and advice by these wonderful mermaids on different plastic types, how to recycle items and which of them we can substitutes in our daily lives with non-plastic material.
It is impossible to be completely free of plastic with the way the world functions. Plastic in all forms is so deeply incorporated in our lives that the best thing we can do is to cut down on its use by applying a few simple swaps in our day to day routines.
1. Disposable Coffee Cups
We are all guilty of having our takeaway coffee in a disposable cup. This is the perfect example of single use plastic, where the cup is purely needed for one use and once we finish with our coffee, it is disposable. The common misconception is that these cups are made of paper, therefore throwing them in a recycling bin means we’ve done our bit for the environment. What most people don’t know is that the lining of the cup (which helps keep your drink hot and make your cup waterproof) is made of a plastic called Polyethylene, which takes hundreds of years to completely break down. On top of this, when polyethylene is contaminated with your drink, it becomes harder to recycle properly and in order to dispose of this particular material correctly, our cups need to be sent to a specialised recycling centre, which normal recycling doesn’t end up in. There are only 3 of these centres in the UK and in view of the fact that we in the UK throw away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year, the likelihood that even a fraction of them actually make it to the appropriate facility is very small.
The solution to this problem is so simple. If we all invest in a thermos or a tumbler (you can get these in almost any supermarket, retail shop or online and they range from £9 to £40 , depending on your budget!) we can seriously cut down on the use of disposable cups, and most coffee shops nowadays encourage this swap by offering a small discount on the price of your coffee if you provide your own mug! Who doesn’t like cheaper coffee!? Those pennies slowly add up and make up for the price of your thermos and then some, while you are also helping reduce plastic pollution! A thermos helps keep your hot drink hot, and your cold drink cool for longer which for a slow drinker like me is a bonus, because an hour later I can still drink a fresh cup of hot coffee, whereas in a disposable cup, I’m usually left with a half consumed cup of lukewarm coffee, which I’m more than likely to throw away!
” Many paper cups that are downed and disposed of are made from virgin paper pulp.That means trees must be felled to produce a product that only ends up being used for the length of time it takes to drink a latte.
Add to this the carbon footprint of coffee cup manufacturing and distribution for these single-use items, and it is clear that disposable coffee cups in their entirety have a major impact on the environment.”
If you are someone who cares about the environment, please let this information sink in for a minute! A tree that takes years to grow, is cut down for you to enjoy a 10 minute long cup of coffee! To make it worse, this is presented to you with polyethylene attached, which means we are taking from nature and giving her back almost non-recyclable plastics in return.
One of the most important things we can all educate ourselves on is knowing the different types of plastic. Some of these are easier to recycle than others. Some are extremely harmful to our health and some can have lasting effects on our bodies and the environment. Here is a list of all different types of plastic we should be mindful of when making food/drink choices in cafes and supermarkets. If anything, we could try our best to avoid these plastic types:
Polyethylene. Mainly found in water and juice bottles, ready meal packaging and detergent containers, as well as crafts such as decorative glitter.
Polyvinyl chloride (V or Vinyl or PVC) Usually found in shampoo bottles, clear takeaway cups and packaging.
Polystyrene, found in takeaway coffee cups, deli food plates and disposable cutlery.
2. Use your own bags for grocery shopping!
Worldwide, 1 trillion plastic bags are estimated to be used and discarded every year. Supermarkets in the UK now all have a Bag for Life option, and that’s a great way of reusing your bags over and over, but through personal experience, as I do a lot of heavy shopping due to the nature of my business, I know that these bags certainty do have a lifespan! If you’re new to reducing plastic or have just started to be more aware of the environment around you, these bags are a good way to start, but if you want to take yet another step further in the right direction, use cotton bags or travel trolleys! These are cheap, plastic free, and extremely durable! Plus I think they even look nicer!
Inside supermarkets, we are also presented with a wide range of fruit and veg wrapped in plastic, or if loose, presented with plastic bags to wrap them in ourselves! This is extremely unnecessary and easily avoided! You can buy or make your own mesh bag, which is so much more beneficial than a plastic bag to wrap your fruit and veg in! Mesh is light and lets water and air through, so you can wash your fruit and veg and put them in the fridge inside them, and they will be kept fresh for so much longer than if kept inside a plastic bag!
Most supermarkets have the option of loose fruit and veg over prepacked ones. If you are struggling to find what you are looking for in a supermarket, there is the likelihood that your local farm shop or wholefood would store the things you need free of plastic packaging.
It is impossible to do an entire shop which is plastic free, but if you’re mindful of the little details when shopping, i.e. looking at the recycling guidelines behind packaging, finding metal or glass alternative to plastic containers of products you want to buy, or even cutting down on some old habits like buying a pack of crisps, when you can easily make your own at home in minutes! (Ok maybe I’m asking too much here, but this is a recipe/blog for another day!)
3. Know and respect the ocean, buy fish from sustainable sources, don’t litter.
10% of all marine pollution comes from ‘Ghost Gear’, which is fishing gear that is lost in the sea, either via storm or deliberately by irresponsible fishermen. These gears break apart in the oceans and not only cause a wide variety of aquatic creatures being entangled in them every year, they also gets washed up on our shores, as well as breaking down to smaller particles, also known as microplastics. On our litter picking journey, we reached parts of the beach, where to our horror we realised we weren’t standing on sand anymore, but rather a large heap of broken up fish nets, ropes and other debris.
Global Ghost Gear Initiative, founded by the NGO Animal Protection, is a movement that aims to bring together people from all groups, industries, charities and academia in order to find solutions for lessening the number of fishing gear lost at sea, while setting up initiatives for fishermen to sight and collect any gear afloat in the oceans. An example of this is the sustainable skateboard retailer Bureo that make skateboards out of recycled fish nets and fishing gear in their ‘The Untangled Collection’, where for every kg of net returned, Bureo allocates funds to local NGOs.
We should also be wiser with our choices of seafood. Greenpeace UK has fairly clear guidelines on how and what fish are sustainable and safe to purchase. Even if your preferred diet is not a plant based one, you can make better choices by preparing a list of questions for your trusted local fishmongers on how and where their fish is caught. Reducing your seafood intake to even once a week, and knowing which fish to buy can have major positive impact on the sustainability of fish population. Despite common belief, Greenpeace has no objection to a fishing industry that thrives on sustainability, should all fishermen abide by the rules of the trade. Sustainable fishing guarantees there will be populations of ocean and freshwater wildlife for the future. Instead of banning fishing altogether, we should urge the government to set up a programme where they retrain and reeducate all fishermen in order to achieve full sustainability, or else, the over fishing of the oceans will inevitably lead to loss of employment and collapse of the industry. This article on sustainable fishing by the National Geographic points out some traditional effective methods on controlling the fish population and respecting the oceans.
4. Say no to cheap synthetic clothing
Our fashion nowadays has become completely disposable. Most of us pride ourselves on finding bargains online (possibly shipped from or made in China, or somewhere far enough to leave a major carbon footprint!) The problem with paying £3 for an item of clothing is, we will give it as much value as it’s worth. According to Textile World, polyester demand was only 5.2 million tonnes globally in 1980 and by 2014, demand reached 46.1 million tonnes. It’s expected to increase too. The Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group’s 2017 report “Pulse of the Fashion Industry” even recommended that the industry increase the amount of polyester by 92 percent to 76 million tonnes, by 2030, as part of a “sustainable materials mix”, completely dismissing the serious issue of microfibre pollution.
If you already own clothes made of acrylic and polyester, polyamide, spandex and nylon, they can shed up to 700,000 microfibres with each wash. To avoid this, or to lessen the effect, you can use a laundry bag such as Guppyfriend to wash your clothes in, which catches these fibres and prevents them from entering the water. For a longer term solution, try and purchase clothes that are made of natural fabrics. Wool, cashmere, cotton, silk, linen, bamboo and hemp can all be very eco friendly alternatives and not all are that pricey! Remember, quality over quantity. You don’t need a new £5 top from Primark every Saturday night! Human beings wore natural fabrics for thousands of years, and until very recently, respected their wardrobe contents, despite (or perhaps because of!) owning fewer clothes.
The bottom line to all these issues is that we need to stop littering and start respecting the oceans. Either directly or indirectly, the microplastic from our cups, plastic bags, fishing nets, ropes, takeaway cups, disposable cutlery and unnecessary food packaging, have found their way to our waters and it will take hundreds of years for them to disappear. Replace your coffee cups with reusable tumblers and say no to plastic lids. Eat fewer ready meals and buy less packaged fruit and veg. Replace your plastic cutlery with steel, bamboo or other sustainable, recyclable materials. Wear natural fabrics instead of cheap synthetics and use eco friendly detergents and cleaning products. Remember, there is no Planet B! The choice to live in a better world starts with you! None of us is perfect, and we all live in a world surrounded by so much trash and corruption that it’s almost impossible for us to remain untainted. But the least we can do, in our own way and to the best of our abilities, is to create a safer, cleaner world for future generations where they don’t drink, eat or inhale plastic.
Long live the plastic free mermaids in all oceans!
Special thanks to
(For offering us an Instagram takeover on the day)