One of the major challenges that our generation faces is ocean plastic pollution. It is estimated that about 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year and that every square mile of ocean contains about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. This plastic pollution is causing the death of an innumerable amount of seabirds and mammals and is damaging the environment, essential ecosystems and human health.
We interviewed Celine Jennison, a scientist from Oxford University who is passionate about water sports and agroforestry (perennial edible landscapes). She is part of a team of 3 people who created an amazing project called Plastic Tides, which is dedicated to raising awareness of ocean plastic pollution in an innovative and creative way.
What is Plastic Tides?
Plastic Tides is a team of three people. We combine adventure and science to raise awareness and provide solutions with regards to ocean plastic pollution via Stand Up Paddle (SUP) board expeditions.
What is the inspiration behind the creation of this project?
Christian, Gordan and I all went to a National Geographic young explorers workshops at back in 2013 at Cornell University. We wanted to launch a project that would appeal to people our age that are spending time outdoors but not necessarily concerned with the environment. So, we started brainstorming!
All three of us love water sports. Christian’s thing is surfing, Gordan’s thing is kayaking and my thing is windsurfing. We addressed the question – ‘what’s the easiest way to raise awareness doing watersports?’ Christian came up with the SUPing idea. We had all paddle boarded before and since paddle boarding is the fastest growing sport in the world, accessible to all types of people, of all ages: we finally had a platform for environmental action!
After some web-surfing, phone calls and research we figured out that Bermuda is the closest well-known populated land mass to the North Atlantic plastic Gyre (an accumulation of plastic in the ocean). For our first expedition, we raised 19,000 $ of Kickstarter and circumnavigated Bermuda on our paddle boards, completely self-sufficiently to raise awareness about plastic pollution.
During the first exhibition our goal was also to connect with the local community as much as possible. In light of this we visited schools, organized trash art workshops, beach clean-ups and partnered with non-profits such as the Keep Bermuda Beautiful. Our collaboration with the Plastic Ocean Project allowed us to design a trawl that we dragged behind our paddle boards to collect microbead samples.
People loved our work and said ‘you guys have to come back and do more than just an expedition’ and that’s why we created the non-profit.
What are most urgent issues from your own experience?
What’s most striking to me is that sea creatures such as turtles, come to the surface and mistake plastic for food: seaweed. Indeed, the Sargasso sea that surrounds Bermuda is named after the Sargassum seaweed that floats at the surface of the water. Plastic also floats in the currents along with the seaweed which is the source of the problem. Another prevalent and striking issue is that plastic and seaweed amalgamates to create little platforms out at sea that birds use as resting platforms. This leads to them pecking at the plastic. Those were the two most striking images.
I’m fortunate to have travelled a lot in my youth and Bermuda definitely has the most amazing marine life I have ever seen. This visible plastic problem superimposed with the fact that Bermuda has some amazing reef is alarming and disheartening. What you see begs you to address it.
What are the main lessons from those experiences?
When in Bermuda, we found all sorts of plastic: flip-flops, syringes, glow-sticks, crates, fish line… we weren’t sure what the most prevalent type of plastic was, we also weren’t sure what the concentrations of microplastics and microbeads were in the ocean. That’s why we undertake scientific research: to try and shed some light on these numbers. At a conference on Marine Debris in Oxford, I later found out that 50% of the plastic found in the ocean is single-use plastic: utensils, bottles, plastic bags… all these things that you only use once.
We live in this throwaway economy where people think that you can just buy something and throw it in the bin, that it has no other use.
Therefore, the message we try to deliver when we go to schools, when we deliver presentations, is to try and inspire people to limit single use plastic. I think that this is a great point of entry with regards to plastic consumption, and one with visible, immediate results. Once you do that, you can start to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
What can people do to get more involved to support Plastic Tides?
We try to get kids inspired about this issue because they are the future generations and I think it’s important to inspire them and to raise awareness at a young age, that way it becomes natural to be conscious of one’s plastic use. We run summer camps in Ithaca, NY where we take kids on mini-expeditions. They are embedded within week-long internships and they learn everything from media and outreach to documentary filming to science, lake ecology and paddle boarding skills.
Another way to get involved is to participate in our microbead research. We sampled the lake in Ithaca, NY and Bermuda and other places to find out the concentration of microbeads in our samples. In Dec 2015, microbeads got banned in the entire US and we feel that we played a role in this achievement as we definitely had an impact at the local scale in Ithaca NY where we are based. The fact that microbeads got banned in the US is something we are proud of as we helped achieve this with the community around us.
Although microbeads are banned, we think it’s interesting to continue sampling the waterways in Upstate NY to see if microbead concentrations decrease over time. People can come and help us in the lab, take out a SUP, take samples, etc. and see if this ban has an impact on our marine ecosystems.
In general, we hope to get other people interested and inspired about this problem. One great example is Magnus, a 12-year-old boy from Bermuda that was at one of the schools we gave a presentation to. Last year he came along to our summer camp in Ithaca, and now he is back in Bermuda doing all these great things like making Christmas wreaths out of plastic that he collected on the beach and donating them to the ocean museum in Bermuda!
This is just one example of a young boy making a great impact around him and influencing his peers at school. In fact, we recently found a picture of him in a French magazine ‘Science et Vie’ equivalent to the National Geographic in France! We have no idea how he landed in that magazine!
Our big campaign right now is to try to get schools to switch away from single use plastics. In the US, nearly all schools have single use plastic utensils that they throw out every day. Can you imagine how much plastic that is?
Where do you see Plastic Tides in the future?
We want to continue these expeditions and try to document plastic pollution in different areas and continue to do microplastic research.
Microplastics are really a huge problem because they originate from degrading plastic. Once plastic has disintegrated into such a little particle you have no idea where this plastic can go. The horrifying truth is that scientists at University of Exceter have recently found it in plankton. This is really bad news. Plankton is at the bottom of the food chain which means that the presence of microplastics in plankton can mess up the entire carbon cycle.
We hope to tackle this single use utensil issue in schools across North America. Sporks should be in everyone’s backpacks, just like wallets and phones.
We also dream of another, highly integrated project that addresses plastic pollution by inspiring people to grow their own food, using education, activism, media, low-tech inventions, permaculture … The crazy idea is to own a wooden sail boat with a bunch of SUPs on board and sail around the world. Every time we would stop onshore, we would plant trees and help people grow their own food locally, exchange ideas and knowledge.
A message you would like to give to people in general?
The message that we tell everyone that we meet is: “Don’t Ride the Plastic Tide.”
To learn more about Celine’s adventures, visit her blog Terrestrial and Oceanic Discoveries.