The waste sector has a key role to play in changing consumer behaviour around plastics, says a mission leader preparing to sail around the world to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution.
Sally Earthrowl is part of eXXpedition, a team of 300 women set to circumnavigate the globe on voyage which hopes to contribute to scientific research and inspire people to change the way they handle waste.
She believes that waste management professionals have the power to make it easier for people to live more sustainably, whether that’s through more consistent labelling on packaging, the materials used, or the systems in place to deal with plastic when it is no longer needed.
‘Not yet recycled’
Ms Earthrowl – a former geography teacher who has taught in developing countries – said: “I lived in Indonesia for a few years and when I came back I went from shopping in a market to going to the supermarket where it was almost impossible to get what I wanted without that really annoying label that says ‘currently not yet recycled’.”
She said that she appreciates that reducing plastic waste must be balanced against profit and the role plastic plays in reducing food waste – but “there must be an alternative management somewhere for those low-grade disposable plastics to be taken out”.
“It’s low-grade plastic which doesn’t end up in the circular economy and ends up in illegal landfills or incineration,” she claimed.
This is a message Ms Earthrowl will be spreading as she sets out on her round the world trip.
“It’s low-grade plastic which doesn’t end up in the circular economy and ends up in illegal landfills or incineration.”
eXXpedition will set sail from Plymouth on 7 October and will travel the globe in 30 legs over two years, with ten women joining the boat for each section. The group have already completed 11 fact-finding and consciousness raising journeys in the run-up to this worldwide project.
“We are taking 300 women out on our voyages and they are from all walks of life – it is part of our aims to have a multi-disciplinary crew,” Ms Earthrowl says.
“They are going back into their communities with this very unique story and experience to be able to affect change. It’s a very powerful story to tell if you have seen it for yourself.”
eXXpedition will be working with the University of Plymouth’s science programme, who will be helping the all-female team to produce solutions-based research whilst they are out at sea. Getting women involved with STEM is a central part of the mission too.
Seeing the damage to the oceans herself has pushed Ms Earthrowl to do more to fight against plastic and toxics in our waters. Last year she took part in an eXXpedition mission from Hawaii to Vancouver, sailing through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world.
“I was shocked. I was probably the most remote I have ever been in my entire life and I was seeing a chair off the side of the boat, a toothbrush, a bottle, a toilet seat, it was really shocking because we hadn’t had contact with anyone for ten days.”
- A plastic sample taken during an eXXpedition voyage (picture: Eleanor Church)
- Exxpedition team members travelling from Hawaii to Vancouver (picture: Eleanor Church)
- Scientific work onboard the eXXpedition boat (picture: Exxpedition)
- Exxpedition working with their marine debris tracker (picture: eXXpedition)
- eXXpedition at sea (picture: Eleanor Church)
Single use plastics
Having come face-to-face with these problems, single use plastics are now a key concern for Ms Earthrowl.
She said: “The straw has been a champion of highlighting the issue but it definitely doesn’t end with the straw.
“Plastic is amazing and its really versatile and durable but it’s a mismatch between what the material is capable of and what it is designed for in terms of that timescale,” the former geography teacher explains, noting that plastic which is used for ten minutes by a consumer could take decades to degrade in the natural environment.
Ms Earthrowl also has “massive concerns” about the transition to bioplastics, which many see as a replacement for traditional disposable materials.
“Plastic is amazing and its really versatile and durable but it’s a mismatch between what the material is capable of and what it is designed for in terms of that timescale.”
“Bioplastics sound marvellous and its really easy for very to say ‘we’ve found the solution, we don’t actually have to change our habits and our lifestyles’,” she explains.
“It’s a relatively new initiative and I don’t want to bash initiatives that are trying to solve the problem because we need those, but they need to be managed properly. If we are to move towards bioplastics we need awareness and a different bin for bioplastics.”
When eXXpedition team members return from their voyage they use their skills – or “superpowers” as eXXpedition call them – to inspire others to act on the plastic problem.
The designers, yoga teachers, scientists, circular economy professionals and educators who have been involved so far have gone on to speak at conferences, give talks at schools, create films, put on art exhibitions and encourage their companies to work more sustainably.
“Every person on this planet has their own ‘superpower’ and it’s about how they can best use that and how their skills intersect with the issue and how they can then best utilise their superpower and which solutions are most appropriate to effect change.”