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Turning the tide

Words by Fiona Mcgowan

Taking the fight on ocean plastic recycling to the next level.

On an Odyssey plastic collection expedition

Cornwall has the longest coastline of any county in the UK – a massive 1,086km, according to Ordnance Survey. So, it stands to reason that anything impacting our oceans is going to affect this county more than anywhere else in the country.

Marine plastics, of all the pollution stories that bombard us every day, is one of the more positive stories. In part thanks to the tireless campaigning of conservation charities and in part thanks to the ‘The Blue Planet effect’, just one piece of government legislation has led to an entire shift in the way we use plastic bags. It is particularly satisfying as a consumer to see how quickly and easily we can improve our environment. And the data backs it up.

The Marine Conservation Society – one of the most influential scientific data collecting and campaigning organisations in the country – has been assiduously collecting data over decades and using it to help influence government policy and legislation. They are proud to have been involved in the campaign for plastic bag tax and have documented the results: “We’ve seen in the UK, an almost 50% drop in plastic bags on the beaches. In the Cornwall area, it actually went down by 78%.”

Beach cleans have an impact in many ways – not just through collecting rubbish from our coastline, but to create data for organisations like the Marine Conservation Society and Cornwall Wildlife Trust so that they can lobby for legislative change. It’s also about getting communities involved and inspiring innovative responses to marine pollution. As Ruth Williams from Cornwall Wildlife Trust points out: “Everyone in Cornwall has some connection to the sea – whether for work or play. It’s intrinsic to people who choose to live here to care for the environment.” There is collaboration across all the NGOs that are working to protect the marine environment – and a leaning towards more joined-up thinking.

Connecting the stranding of porpoises, dolphins, whales and sea birds caused by fishing net entanglement right the way through to the issues of microplastics in our ecosystem is vital to the work of these organisations. The fishing industry is at the sharp end of all of it – suffering from the effects of pollution at one end, and being accused of causing it at the other. One part of marine conservation campaigning is to get the fishing industry to collaborate with schemes to keep fishing-related plastic waste out of the sea, and to protect against wildlife entanglement.

Legislation is important, but it’s just as useful to incentivise the industry to change, says Ruth Williams of CWT. A national organisation called Fishing 4 Litter places bins on 12 harbour fronts throughout Cornwall (and more throughout the country) for waste nets to be taken away and recycled. Cornwall Wildlife Trust is trialling a device to attach to fishing nets to stimulate marine mammals’ sonar so that they can avoid the nets. Fewer animals getting entangled and fewer nets being broken is a win-win for all concerned.

On an Odyssey plastic collection expedition

One award-winning innovator who has taken ocean plastic recycling into his own hands is Rob Thompson. Five years ago, he was snorkelling near his hometown on the south coast of Cornwall and was shocked to see how much rubbish was littering the seabed. He put out a call to fellow divers and a number of conservation-minded people turned up, including Sea Search divers from Cornwall Wildlife Trust and people from the Marine Biological Society.

Rob Thompson, Odyssey Innovation

Along with some other divers, he set up Fathoms Free – a group of volunteers dedicated to cleaning up the sea. Supported by the National Trust, they organise dive-based (Dive Against Debris) and kayak-based (Paddle Against Plastic) clean-ups, take part in campaigns to raise awareness of the issues of marine plastics and collect data to be used in lobbying. During this time, Rob was working in conservation and land management at Lanhydrock country house estate – using his spare time to organise events and coast cleans.

One major issue that he encountered was that the plastic being pulled off our shores was mostly unrecyclable. Some items could be put in household recycling, but the majority was ending up in landfill. Which set Rob off on another mission.

“I came up with this hare-brained idea that I could make something myself. There was a lot of talk about the circular economy – the idea that an industry could be the solution. Plastic has got a value – so how do we get it back into the economy?” he asked himself. After dismissing lots of ideas as gimmicks (buckets and spades, frisbees, keyrings), he realised that he needed something of higher value that wasn’t going to end up back in the sea or in landfill. Looking at a photo of a kayak-based beach clean with a load of people holding black bags full of plastic, he had his eureka moment. And decided to build kayaks out of marine plastics.

“To be honest, I went into it completely naively. Which is probably the best thing to do. If I had known the challenges, I might have been deterred,” he says, thinking back over the last five years of trial and error. With the help of Neil Hembrow from Keep Britain Tidy and Exeter City Council, he began to run trials on recycling marine plastic to create the kind of high-density polyurethane he needed to create a kayak. In the spirit of collaboration – something that Ruth Williams at Cornwall Wildlife Trust says is the mainstay of Cornish marine conservation efforts – another organisation was set up as a spinoff of Rob’s recycling push: Keep Britain Tidy’s Ocean Recovery Project. Since its inception in 2016, it has recycled over 20 tonnes of plastic waste from beach cleans with an 80% recycling rate: higher than most domestic plastic recycling rates.

A Marine Conservation Society beach clean at Porthtowan

Fishing nets became a focus. While rigid plastics from beach cleans are used as part of the recycled material for the kayaks, discarded fishing nets turned out to be by far the most useful in terms of creating the volume needed for making a big product like a kayak. But, explains Rob, he couldn’t find any recyclers in the UK who would deal with the relatively small amounts of plastic to make the kayaks. He finally found a company in Denmark called Plastix that recycled fishing nets.

Like Fishing 4 Litter, Rob works with fishermen to encourage them to bring their waste nets and other discarded nets that they find at sea to shore, where he arranges a big artic lorry to pick them up along the south coast of England before being ferried off to be recycled in Denmark. To try to reduce the transportation impact, the lorries returning with the plastic use the route to do other shipping.

Combining recycling with ocean adventure

“It was a very steep learning curve,” says Rob, the experience weighing heavily in his voice. Using a Somerset-based kayak company (Islander Kayaks) to make the kayaks from the recycled plastic keeps the product in the West Country. It’s important for him to keep the mark-up low, too: “I wanted to be competitive – because for me personally, I’ve been put off buying things that are the right ethical choice if there is a huge premium on it, beyond the actual value of the product.”Having crunched the numbers, he realised that he could sell his kayaks at just a smidge above market price: “Fair enough – it is small scale so there are going to be additional costs involved,” he admits.

Nets dicarded at sea

Odyssey Innovation has now sold 160 kayaks since he launched it in January 2019. Next on the cards is a ‘hand plane’ for body surfers made entirely out of marine plastics with a strap made of old wetsuits and seat belts. He’s also about to launch a sit-in touring kayak. The main point for him, though, is the story. Drawing attention to the possibilities of recycling and to the issues of marine plastics is more important for Rob than a money-making business.

Meanwhile, the likes of Marine Conservation Society and Cornwall Wildlife Trust are working hard on all sides of the game to make inroads into plastic waste. With their grass-roots awareness work, their data collection and analysis, and their drive to change legislation, they are tirelessly working to take waste plastics out of the sea. Along with efforts to work with the fishing industry to recycle and prevent entanglement, the next big thing is deposit return schemes. It won’t be long, say those in the know, before we will all be taking our bottles, cans and cups back to reclaim our deposits. Which might just have as much impact on ocean pollution as the plastic bag tax. It’s all about collaboration – between the retailers and the consumers, between the NGOs and government, and between the volunteers and the industries.


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