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Queen's Young Leaders tackling marine pollution

Queen's Young Leaders tackling marine pollution

Making a sea change in our perception of plastics

On World Oceans Day, Leading Change looks at shifts in our relationship with plastic and talks to two Queen’s Young Leaders who are making waves in their communities.

The warning could not be clearer – without intervention, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.

Lightweight, malleable and inexpensive, plastic fantastic is an unavoidable accompaniment to modern day life. However, the shine of this scientific discovery has tired.

Tossed aside, thrown into landfill and – critically – into our seas, plastic’s legacy has become one of pollution and environmental ruin. The long-term qualities that make it such an effective material are at odds with our fickle, short-term use of it.

Each year, of the more than 300 million tones produced – half designed for single use  around 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans.

World Oceans Day

World Oceans Day on 8 June is an opportunity to engage communities in a conversation to rethink plastic.

Two Queen’s Young Leaders  Nikola Simpson and Princewill Onyekah – have planned events in their respective Commonwealth countries.

Nikola says awareness is growing in Barbados, with several events planned on the island, such as talks, beach cleanups, eco-art challenges, a symposium and a plastic free palooza.

In Nigeria, Princewill finds the mood less receptive. He reports a reluctance to change existing attitudes to waste.

Princewill's supporters cleaning up rubbish

Princewill and his supporters regularly organise clean-ups in Nigeria.
Image credit: Princewill Onyekah

He is planning the 'Somolu Cleanup' of a major canal in Lagos state. He intends to recruit volunteers in the hope of transforming the waterway and “instigating behavioural change”.

Tipping point

With a bin-lorry of plastic making its way into our oceans every minute, it is no wonder beaches around the world are accessorised with waste and sealife is perilously caught in the fallout. We have reached a tipping point with our natural system and the problem’s visibility means the world now has to listen.

Birds, fish, whales, dolphins and many other sea animals are being slowly poisoned after ingesting microbeads and microplastics. Single-use plastics dominate the headlines. Held by a consumer for an average of 12 seconds, a plastic bag can take hundreds of years to decompose, if it does at all.

Raising awareness

Campaigners are working to educate and engage people in conservation.

Princewill co-founded Carryam.ng, a social enterprise hoping to eradicate the use of plastic bags in Nigeria. Using biodegradable products, he holds environmental workshops. In the future, he would like his eco-bags to be used for free by all Nigerians.

Similarly, Nikola Simpson uses her “voice to speak for the environment”. She shares educational information, helps to organise screenings of A Plastic Ocean, writes articles, speaks on radio shows and even advises politicians.

Nikola encourages a model of sustainable living, asking people to engage in the 'five Rs' of zero waste – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot. Her shop provides alternatives for residents and visitors.

A range of sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic

Nikola says the bamboo toothbrushes and stainless steel straws are bestsellers in her shop. Image credit: Nikola Simpson

Making change

As global awareness of the issue mounts, so too does a feeling of hope.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says there “are encouraging signs that both governments and industry are embarking on a radical transformation of the current take-make-dispose plastics system towards one that is circular by design”.

Many campaigners are keen to point out that plastic is not the enemy, it is what we do with it –consumer behaviour and product design – that needs to change.

United Nations (UN) Environment Head, Erik Solheim recognises that prevention at source is key. “We need consumers to pause and examine their relationship with plastic. If enough people do this, it translates into colossal consumer power!”

For Princewill, change is dependent on the UN’s involvement. “If the UN were to influence policies governing the production and use of plastics, this I believe will encourage the replacement strategy.”

Boys holding Princewill’s biodegradable Carryam bags

Boys holding Princewill’s biodegradable Carryam bags.
Image credit: Princewill Onyekah

Challenges

The biggest challenge is our ability to handle the amount of plastic produced. Less than a fifth of plastics produced are currently recycled.

The bulk of waste comes from developing countries, where there is inadequate infrastructure. China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines are some of the worst polluters.

Princewill identifies, saying “It is appalling how tonnes of plastics and polythene are not discarded properly in Nigeria. It leads to hazards like flooding and defaces the aesthetics.”

Nikola says that whilst sustainable alternatives are becoming increasingly available in Barbados, the island lacks a commercial composting facility.

Nikola covered in plastic, dressed as a mermaid on the beach

Nikola has used Mermaids in her ocean campaigns. Image credit: Nikola Simpson

Global action

The World Economic Forum has recommended an international aid programme to support developing countries, by improving their waste management. It advocates industrialised countries taking urgent action to redesign packaging, to stabilise the markets for recycled plastics.

The European Commission has also advised “making recycling profitable for business”.

In April, the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance pledged to eliminate avoidable single-use plastics. It announced a £61.4 million fund to boost global research and help Commonwealth countries prevent plastic from entering our oceans.

This is welcome, especially considering 80% of the plastic in the oceans is suspected to come from activities and industry on land.

UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove said, “When it comes to our seas and oceans, the challenge is global so the answer must be too.”

There is no question effective national and international measures to curtail the environmental impacts of plastics waste are urgently needed.

In the meantime, at grassroots level, environmentalists like Nikola and Princewill play a key role in turning the tide on our negative consumer habits. At a time when policymakers are listening, we must also follow their lead if our precious oceans are to be conserved for future generations.