This feature is currently running in issue 205 of Adventure Magazine
Can you imagine a world where our oceans have almost as much plastic by weight in them as fish? Where plastic has become a part of our diet because it has entered the food chain? Or where hundreds of thousands of marine life are killed every year as a result of our plastic waste? The sad fact is we don’t need to imagine this scenario because this is our reality.
For anyone who enjoys ocean sports regularly, you have probably become aware of the increasing amount of plastic becoming ever so present in our waters. It was diving that first highlighted this conservation issue to me. Seeing bottles and bags out of place amongst coral reefs and even a dead turtle washed up on shore, tangled in a plastic mess. A little research highlighted just how much of a problem our plastic waste has become.
Like most concerned individuals, I began to make all the changes that we can as consumers – buying a reusable drinking bottle, taking a bag with me to the supermarket, swapping my toothbrush for a bamboo version – but it felt like an insignificant effort. My years of consuming had made me a contributor to this problem that we are leaving the next generation and while it is too late to undo that, it is not too late try and rectify the mess we have created. I don’t have a scientific background and am certainly no expert in the field, so I turned to what I knew best – adventure.
As a full-time adventure-blogger and founder of the women’s adventure community, Love Her Wild, I have a huge network of women who are looking for more adventure in their lives. It seemed a waste not to use this potential for good use and so the idea for a conservation focused expedition came about. I knew I needed help with a project of this scale and, almost too conveniently, Erin Bastian’s name cropped up on my social media page. Erin is an adventurer who has recently set up a kayaking company. She’d begun organising women only trips and it turned out she had the same passion for doing something about plastic pollution as I did.
Within 1 day of first contacting Erin via email, she was on board for organising a conservation expedition with me. Within 2 weeks, Erin scouted a potential route, we met for the first time and the concept for Paddle Pickup was born. We would bring together a group of women to kayak the full length of the UK from Bristol to London via 300km of waterways, picking up plastic and raising awareness along the way.
Within 2 months, we had 15 women signed up to join us and were stood in our waterproofs by Bristol harbour on a drizzly Monday morning ready to take our first strokes on the Paddle Pickup expedition.
Logistically, this had been the most difficult project either myself or Erin had ever organised. We had split the 300km journey into 3 legs over 17 days, allowing women the flexibility to join us for just a short section to fit in around their busy lives. Our team was made up of mums, teachers, students and lawyers, of varying ages and abilities. Each night we stayed in a different location and sought the generosity of schools and churches for permission to camp overnight so we (and our plastic pollution) didn’t cause any disruption. Everyone we approached was keen to help out anyway they could.
The most difficult aspect of planning was working out what to do with all the plastic we would collect from the waterways. We devised a system that involved paddling a 2 man canoe which would act as our dustbin in the water. The kayakers, marigolds and litter pickers at the ready, would pick up the plastic they saw and decant into the canoe when their spray deck was overspilling. As a team we rotated the roles.
It was vital to have a support vehicle to take away the plastic pollution we collected to ensure it was disposed of correctly. We weren’t entirely sure how much litter we would find in the waterways and had even been warned by a boat owner that they were spotless and “you won’t find anything”. This was certainly not the case. Our real challenge was that there was too much, far too much. Quite often we passed areas that were so full of litter we had no choice but to paddle on, sour faced and feeling defeated. Most days, by lunch time the canoe would look like a skip, usually with peculiar items balancing precariously on top – garden chairs, bike helmets, fishing rods, polystyrene packaging, Father Christmas, you name it! And always full of plastic bottles, our biggest culprit. We would tally what we had found, recording the data, and bag it up to be thrown.
Another challenge we faced was locks. Over 150 of them. Each time we paddled around a corner and a lock came into view I would groan internally because they were nothing short of exhausting. We would all have to get out of our kayaks and the canoe, pull them out of the water, carry them to the other side (which quite often involved a 200metre + portage), put them back in the water and get in ourselves. Our expedition kayaks were heavy and the canoe even more so weighted with plastic. This exercise was the most challenging for the team and left our hands sore and our arms and shoulders burning. But we had all signed up for an adventure and, despite having never met each other before, we demonstrated perfectly how a team should work together to get a job done.
I found litter picking incredibly satisfying, especial combined with the physical challenge of kayaking. Like many of the women in the team, I came to the expedition with almost no kayaking experience and, apart from one accidental capsize, I picked up the paddling with ease and was quickly swept into the appeal of being at duck level, gently meandering along the quiet waterways. I never imagined how beautiful this stretch of the UK is and it baffled me that we only saw a handful of other kayakers the whole trip.
As we hit the Thames we faced a whole new set of challenges. Busy traffic, large waves from the wake of boats and tidal restrictions. But the worst was the overwhelming plastic. We no longer had to paddle to go pick it up because swarms of rubbish would pass us en mass every 20 minutes. And most of it was the worst type of plastic pollution imaginable, micro-plastic.
Plastics biggest strength is also its downfall. It is made to last and to be durable and so virtually every bit of plastic created still exists in some form. A plastic bottle will, over an estimated 450 years, slowly break down into tiny bits called micro-plastic. This is what our birds and marine life feed on, mistaking it for food, and is currently impossible to remove from the water without interfering with the eco-system and removing organisms in the process.
It was a depressing sight to see the soupy mess of plastic swirling around in the Thames and I started to question if really this problem was too big for us and the expedition a pointless exercise. But one of the hardest parts of conservation work is handling the inevitable feeling of hopelessness that comes and go. You have to learn to focus on what you are achieving and not on what you are not. On one of our last days, a woman ran to her balcony as we paddled past her house. We had been in the Evening Standard that night and she had recognised us. She jumped up and down in excitement, took our picture and screamed at us that we were amazing and she loved what we were doing. Her energy and excitement was incredible. The same day I had received a handful of messages on social media from strangers. A woman had decided to go for a SUP before work to pick up some plastic pollution in her area. A man said – inspired by our journey – he has committed to never buying a single-use plastic bottle again. A geography teacher said she was sharing our story with her class and asked if we would come and give a talk to inspire them to get involved with conservation work.
The conservation issues our planet are facing are huge and so many times I have faced individuals who stand defeated. They ask, can one person really make a difference? The answer is simple, that yes we can. I set about with an idea to do something about the plastic pollution problem. The Paddle Pickup team haven’t changed any policies or radicalised the production industry, but here is what we have achieved: in 17 days, the team picked up 3,240 pieces of plastic pollution, rubbish that would have otherwise ended up in our oceans; but most importantly, we’ve inspired others to join us in making positive choices as individuals. And that is making a difference.
When I kayaked under QEII Bridge in London and to the jetty where friends and family were waiting, champagne in hand, to greet the Paddle Pickup team at the end of our journey, I felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and pride. Not only had I completed an incredible physical feat in a new sport, and had an unforgettable adventure full of stories, laughter and new friends, but I had actually done something about a problem that bothered me. That’s a great feeling to have.