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Sea Fairies

July 14, 2021

The ocean is under threat from climate change, pollution and unsustainable fishing. But marine protection is becoming better understood, and momentum is building. Following all the campaigning around the G7 in Cornwall, we caught up with the inspiring groups working to protect the blue planet – and asked how we can all lend a helping hand.

It’s Saturday 12th June at Falmouth’s Gyllyngvase Beach, and the normally calm water is awash with people. Over 1,000 surfers, swimmers, paddleboarders and kayakers are bobbing about, buzzing with energy. Some chant: “Climate action, now!” Others hold banners emblazoned with “Save our seas”. Among the crowd, an inflatable shark warns of the devastation caused by discarded plastic.

This ‘paddle out’ was organised by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), to demand better protection of the blue planet.

Hugo Tagholm, the man at the helm of SAS, said: “The ocean provides us with a unique opportunity to let nature do the heavy-lifting to combat climate change. Carbon-absorbing ecosystems can re-establish themselves to allow biodiversity to flourish.

“We are in an Ocean and Climate Emergency and we call on politicians to move from rhetoric to action, from statements to solutions. We don’t have any time left to waste.”

A sea-change in attitudes 

As the SAS protesters floated in Falmouth’s waters, over on Cornwall’s North Coast, another ocean-loving organisation was making itself heard.

Waterhaul, the social enterprise that transforms waste fishing nets into sunglasses and kit for cleaning up beaches, took to the sand with a ‘whirly tube’ orchestra for a mass musical meditation on the welfare of the sea.

Photo credit: Waterhaul

“Bill Bankes-Jones (artistic director of the Tête-à-Tête festival) got in touch and asked us to make 1000 whirly tubes out of repurposed marine litter,” explains Waterhaul CEO, Harry Dennis. “The tubes made an ethereal sound resembling the sea for our world leaders, who were in the next bay.”

A marine ecologist and surfer based in Newquay, Harry and his team live and breathe the ocean. “Every time we head out onto the waves, it’s like a sigh of relief,” he says. “We want more people to be able to enjoy that feeling for generations to come.”

Photo credit: Waterhaul

But being in the ocean so often, Harry sees first-hand the threats that it faces. “Our passion for the waves quickly transformed into a need to protect them and the life within, and to show others how they can do the same.”

We need to cut virgin plastics from the chain and ensure that the materials and products that we produce are fully recyclable. It’s up to businesses like us to make that change.”

“Before setting up Waterhaul, I worked at Surfers Against Sewage, which gave me a real insight into the impact of ocean pollution,” he explains.

While Cornwall’s secluded coves may look like an untouched paradise, they are, says Harry, “littered with ghost nets and plastic pollution.”

Photo credit: Waterhaul

“Every year, at least 640,000 tonnes of fishing nets are lost or discarded in the ocean. Fishing debris is particularly harmful due to its tendency to entangle marine life and damage seabed habitats. In a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’, the entangled carcasses of trapped marine life attract more species, resulting in further entanglements. As these discarded nets are produced from plastic, they don’t degrade, persisting in the ocean to catch and kill marine life indefinitely.”

Waterhaul wants to take these shocking statistics and “inspire positive change in the community.”

“Living in Cornwall, we’ve witnessed how passionate people on the coast are when it comes to conservation, from litter picking groups to other businesses tackling ghost gear and plastic pollution,” says Harry.

Harry firmly believes that circular economy models are the way forward. “We need to cut virgin plastics from the chain and ensure that the materials and products that we produce are fully recyclable. It’s up to businesses like us to make that change.”

 

Refill and reuse to regenerate the sea

Another organisation from the South West turning the tide on plastic pollution is City to Sea, and their award-winning campaign and app, Refill.

Launched in 2015, Refill connects people to places they can refill their reusables, so they can eat, drink and shop with less waste – helping to eliminate single-use plastic.

“We started with drinking water, tackling single-use plastic bottles,” explains Refill’s marketing manager, Eve Warlow. “Then, in 2020, we expanded the campaign to include all kinds of refills. Now, you can use the Refill app to find coffee cup refills, toiletries refills, zero waste shops and where to fill your lunch box. We have over 274,000 refill stations logged worldwide.”

“Businesses and local authorities want solutions. And the solution isn’t more bins. There needs to be other accessible options so people don’t need to rely on single-use packaging and instead can refill their reusables on the go; that’s how we can prevent the overflowing litter that we’ve seen so much of during the pandemic.”

16th June 2021 saw the first World Refill Day, a day created by Refill to make reusing and refilling “the new normal”.

Photo credit: Refill

Eve says that relying on recycling won’t solve the environmental problems. “We know recycling isn’t the answer. So, we’re calling for systems of reuse and refill, and we’re encouraging a deposit return scheme,” says Eve. “It has to work at all levels – from individuals to big brands and government policy. Everyone needs to do their bit.”

“Businesses and local authorities want solutions. And the solution isn’t more bins. There needs to be other accessible options so people don’t need to rely on single-use packaging and instead can refill their reusables on the go; that’s how we can prevent the overflowing litter that we’ve seen so much of during the pandemic.”

 

The plastic pandemic

When it comes to plastic pollution, the pandemic has created a tsunami-sized problem.

“In the last year, the number of facemasks thrown away could cover the Earth four times over,” says Harry. “1.5 million masks entered the ocean.”

“We’ve seen wildlife choking on PPE, and discovered a new wave of it washing up on Cornish beaches. Without effective disposal and recycling systems, this increase in plastic pollution will cause irreparable damage to marine life.”

But Waterhaul hopes to turn things around, funneling their experience into an ingenious new campaign, Retask the Mask.

Working in collaboration with the NHS, Waterhaul is transforming single-use facemasks into litterpickers as part of a global PPE clean-up.

Photo credit: Waterhaul

We’ve partnered with our local hospital, who use a machine to melt the masks down into blocks, sterilizing the material,” explains Harry. “We then purchase this waste material for recycling, and turn it into litterpickers – tackling both the source and encouraging people to get outside and litterpick to help protect the natural world.”

The pandemic presented challenges for Refill, too. “Thanks to Covid-19, we’ve backtracked on the progress we’d been making towards eliminating single use plastics,” says Eve.

“A lot of cafes and chains stopped accepting reusables,” she explains. “The plastics industry seized the moment to say that single-use plastic is safer ­– which of course we know now isn’t true. So it’s really important that, as businesses reopen, we make sure that reusables stay on the agenda. We need the public to know that they can use reusables and let them know how they can do it safely.”

How to help preserve and protect the ocean

“The climate crisis can feel so overwhelming at times,” says Harry. “But starting small is the way forward.”

Eve agrees: “It can feel hopeless, especially when you go to the supermarket and it’s full of plastic. But it’s important to remember that lots of people making one small change at a time can really add up to a big difference.”

“The other thing to remember is that all waterways lead to the ocean. Even if you live far away from the coast, whatever goes down your drain eventually enters the sea.”

Whether it’s “getting into the habit of packing your reusable cup for your morning coffee,” or, if you’re heading to the beach, thinking “can I take my own containers for lunch?” Eve believes changing your mindset is key.

Thanks to the sheer volume of plastic waste (crisp packets, BBQs, bottles, torn swimwear, bodyboards) he sees on Cornish beaches, Harry’s number one tip for keeping our shores clean is simple: never leave your rubbish behind. “If people could see the impact their waste has on wildlife after they’re left the beach, they wouldn’t leave it,” he says.

“The other thing to remember is that all waterways lead to the ocean,” adds Harry.

“Even if you live far away from the coast, whatever goes down your drain eventually enters the sea. It’s vital to make sure that waste is disposed of correctly, either in the bin or recycled. And always pick up any litter you see, no matter how small.”

Harry also encourages people to research plastic-free alternatives to household products, with plenty of affordable options online and in local shops.

Eve agrees that making small changes in our daily routines is a good place to start. “It could be as simple as refilling your washing up liquid, or getting a veg box,” she suggests. “Or exploring the many options available to have a plastic-free period.”

“Our plastic-free living hub has tips on how to live with less plastic in all areas of your life,” Eve reassures us. “And, if you download the free Refill App, you can find all the places that accept reusables.”

Photo credit: Refill

With Plastic Free July in full swing, Eve feels “it’s the perfect time to make a change.”

Harry hopes that everyone will feel inspired to take part in the fight against plastic pollution: “Whether attending a beach clean, litter picking around your local streets, or working with fisherfolk to find a solution, we need to work together against this problem. That is the only way forward.”

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