Environment

Saving our seas: 5 ocean heroes battling to turn the toxic tide

Friday, June 08, 2018

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From the icy splendour of the Arctic to the inky depths of the Mariana ocean trench, plastic waste is threatening our seas, killing our wildlife and polluting our food chain. The facts are undeniable: each year more than 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans. According to one estimate, 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by the middle of this century.

It is a sobering picture, but working together we can change this narrative. And we can take inspiration from individuals across the globe who are doing all they can to stem the toxic tide and advocate for long-term changes that will permanently redefine our relationship with plastics.

To celebrate World Oceans Day, we're profiling a few remarkable people who are fighting the good fight for our seas.

1. TIZA MAFIRA: WAGING WAR ON PLASTIC BAGS IN INDONESIA

Tiza Mafira, a lawyer and director of the Indonesia Plastic Bag Diet Movement, has long campaigned to ban single-use plastic bags in her country. Her organisation launched a petition in 2015 asking retailers to no longer give out plastic bags for free. The following year, a nationwide trial of a plastic bag charge was introduced. After six months, there had been a 55 per cent reduction in the use of plastic bags. Several provinces began to prepare their own regulations and two cities in Indonesia have banned plastic bags in modern retail stores.

She is cautiously optimistic that more progress can be made to reduce the excessive use of plastic in Indonesia, the second-largest contributor to marine plastic pollution after China.

2. AFROZ SHAH: THE MAN BEHIND THE WORLD'S BIGGEST BEACH CLEANUP

Lawyer Afroz Shah is best known for his work cleaning Versova beach in Mumbai but his battle against marine plastic pollution goes much deeper.

Every week, he and his volunteers clean beaches and mangrove swamps, and visit schools to educate children about what they do. Another key element of Shah's five-point action plan is his work among the 50,000-strong population of two beach-side settlements — what he calls human-ocean conflict zones — to educate them about the devastating effects of plastic litter and turn them into zero-waste communities.

Key to his strategy is his belief in the importance of changing mindsets.

“The problem is not with plastic,” he says. “The problem is our empathy towards plastic or how we handle plastic.”

3. HUGO TAGHOLM: FIGHTING FOR CLEANER BEACHES WITH SURFERS AGAINST SEWAGE

Tagholm traces his enthusiasm for beach cleaning to the days he spent mudlarking — searching for buried treasure along river banks — with his father and brother on the foreshores of the Thames. A keen surfer and environmentalist, he joined Surfers Against Sewage in 1991 and has seen the charity evolve from a single-issue pressure group, focusing on water quality, into one of the UK's most popular marine conservation charities. It now has more than 350,000 regular supporters and each year it can mobilise around 50,000 volunteers, who spend around 150,000 hours cleaning the country's beaches.

Tagholm became CEO in 2008 and set about helping the charity develop its policies on the most pressing environmental threats — plastic pollution and climate change.

4. SASINA KAUDELKA: GRASSROOTS ACTIVISM ON THE BEACHES OF THAILAND

In 2015, Sasina Kaudelka co-founded the Ao Nang chapter of Trash Hero, the global movement that works to bring communities together to clean and reduce waste, educate the next generation and create long-term programmes to help people manage their rubbish.

Each week, Sasina and local volunteers meet to clean up the beaches in Ao Nang and around the river near Krabi Town.

In 2016, Trash Hero Thailand won the Thailand Green Excellence Award for its outstanding contribution to green tourism. For Kaudelka, the power of her group lies in people's personal motivation to be the change they want to see.

“People who join our cleanups want to make a difference, to take action, to make it happen with our own hands … We motivate people by our positivity as we do not blame anyone, there is no finger-pointing. We do it because it makes us feel good in ourselves to be giving back to nature.”

In Thailand, the total amount of garbage making its way into the sea was estimated at around 2.8 million tonnes in 2016 and 12 per cent of that was plastic. The government says it has a 20-year strategy to tackle the problem, including by introducing financial incentives to keep plastic out of the sea.

5. STIV WILSON: HARNESSING THE POWER OF STORIES TO CHANGE THE PLASTIC NARRATIVE

Long-time ocean activist Stiv Wilson believes that the secret to success lies in collective action.

Now working at The Story of Stuff Project, Wilson previously spearheaded a US campaign against plastic microbeads and is also pushing for a bill in California that would require clothing that is more than 50 per cent polyester to have a label saying it sheds in an effort to stem the flow of microfibres into waterways and oceans.

The Story of Stuff Project, which began with a 2007 documentary by founder Annie Leonard looking at consumer culture, now has a global community of around one million members or changemakers. They include parents, community leaders, teachers, students and scientists who are all committed to creating a healthier and more just world.

Wilson has seen the effects of plastic pollution firsthand: Previously as deputy director at non-profit 5Gyres, he sailed over 35,000 nautical miles to four of the five oceanic garbage patches to document marine plastic pollution.

Wilson is now travelling the world again, seeking solutions to plastic pollution from local activists for a film on The Story of Plastic. He is a fervent believer in harnessing local knowledge to find durable solutions to address our excessive consumption of single-use plastic.

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