Helen Taylor
Written by Helen Taylor
Published on 7th June 2018
10 min read
Adventure activists taking on plastic pollution believe that collaboration is the key to a plastic-free planet

To celebrate World Oceans Day, Helen Taylor speaks to seven adventure activists on why they believe outdoor adventure can change the mindset of the many, and promote a more sustainable, plastic-free future.

Plastic pollution is tainting our planet at an alarming rate – it’s choking our waterways, amassing in our oceans, poisoning our wildlife, and scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.  In spite of this, six campaigners are hopeful that by embarking on remarkable adventures at home and abroad, they can change the narrative of plastic pollution for the better and encourage more people to take action against it.

Adventure activists Dave Cornthwaite from SayYesMore, Cal Major from Paddle Against Plastic, Emma Rogers, Dhruv Boruah, Sian Sykes, and Carlos and Carolyn from The Whale Company, are taking to canals, rivers and oceans in a bid to turn the tide for plastic pollution. Their modes of transport include a homemade floating bamboo bike and a stand-up paddleboard constructed of plastic bottles, and their journeys will cover length and breadth of Britain as well as a 2,400-mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean.

It’s clear that as well as their shared passion for preserving the environment, what the adventurers have in common is their belief that the solution to plastic pollution is a collaborative one, involving a contribution, however small, from everyone.

'What the adventurers have in common is their belief that the solution to plastic pollution is a collaborative one.'

Cal Major, 29, started her third Paddle Against Plastic expedition in May and is paddling 12,000 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats on a stand-up paddleboard, a route that has never before been attempted by SUP. She plans to connect with charity Surfers Against Sewage’s ‘Plastic-Free Communities’ along the way.

Cal says she wants to highlight that plastic pollution is everywhere, but that we can all be a part of the solution: “It’s really important that people understand the damage it’s doing to the environment and start caring about it – be curious, talk about it and look at where it’s coming from. The whole point of using adventure as a vehicle for change is to reach people with a positive message about plastic pollution.”

Although Cal plans to travel mainly via the ocean, she also plans to dip into estuaries and canals, particularly the Caledonian Canal in Scotland, to demonstrate that the plastic we use inland eventually gets washed out to sea.

Emma Rogers, 28, who is also working with Surfers Against Sewage, is planning a 2,400-mile rowing journey across the Pacific Ocean through the North Pacific Gyre – a micro-plastic soup-like vortex five times the size of North Korea – as part of the Great Pacific Race to raise awareness of the plastic pollution problem. Emma will be rowing in a quad with three other women and together they’ll row 24-hours a day for 50-days in two-hour shifts.

She says: “I want to raise awareness of plastic pollution and protect the planet for future generations. Making the extra effort to reduce plastic consumption might be inconvenient now, but it means that your children and grandchildren are going to have a better world to live in. I want people to look at what’s in their bin and think about what they’re using. It’s the really little actions that add up to big results.”

The North Pacific Gyre   which Emma will be rowing through and taking micro-plastic samples from to be used by scientists – is one of five ocean gyres in the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Before it reaches these vast floating dumping grounds, plastic first has to be dumped in inland waterways like rivers and canals, where Dave, Dhruv, and Carlos and Carolyn will be basing their expeditions.

Dave Cornthwaite, founder of London-based social enterprise SayYesMore, has organised a 1,000-mile community relay along England’s rivers and canals, where a different person each day will ride a specially-made aquatic bicycle whilst removing plastic rubbish from waterways.

He aims to remove one million pieces of rubbish in 25 counties engaging youth groups, schools, and local clean-up initiatives along the way and says: “All in all, not one group, individual or project can solve all aspects of the issue, but it takes a communal mindset to instigate change. Using an innovative adventure relay to get more people outside will help with this – ultimately if people don’t walk or paddle along rivers they don’t care about what’s going on there. If they see for themselves bottles and crisp packets floating alongside wildlife, they’re more likely to take action.”

'It takes a communal mindset to instigate change and using an innovative adventure relay to get more people outside will help.'

Dhruv Boruah is also using a quirky handmade bamboo waterbike to solve the plastic crisis at the source. As part of his Thames Project, Dhruv has been engaging the public in the issue by using his eye-catching waterbike contraption to collect plastic litter.

Dhruv realises that reactive cleaning isn’t the solution to the problem, but sees the project as an educational process: “Cleaning up is a good way of showing people what’s in the canal, it’s a good way to get people involved, when they come and see what’s in the canal they go back home and think twice – adventure activists need to go in and interact with local communities, engage with them and get them out in their spaces and on the waterways.”

Dhruv has also been lobbying policymakers – environmental charities, London councils and the Mayor of London’s office, the BBC, and large supermarket chains – to encourage them to change their single-use plastic habits, as well as promoting a circular economy.

Carlos and Carolyn from The Whale Company are embarking on their campaign journey ‘Message in a Bottle – Source to Sea’ against plastic pollution on World Oceans Day on 8 June. The pair plan to paddle 300km on SUPs made from plastic bottles along the River Thames from its navigable source in Lechlade, to the sea at Gravesend.

En route, they’ll be engaging with local communities, talking to school children about their ideas for a more sustainable future, and meeting with change-makers like MPs and councillors: “We want to encourage everyone to get outside into nature – when you spend time outside not only is it great for your health and well-being, but it also helps you connect with nature, and this is how you start to appreciate the Earth in a new way and it becomes automatic to want to protect it.”

Sian Sykes recently came back from her ‘SUP Against SUP’ (Stand Up Paddleboarding Against Single Use Plastics) expedition, a 1,000 km circumnavigation of Wales, along its canals, rivers and seas.

The purpose of her trip was to help inspire and educate consumers about the massive single-use plastics epidemic we all face because sadly, a staggering 8 million pieces of plastic enters our seas every day, and 80% of it is from land-based sources. 

“I wanted to raise awareness of this issue, as I’ve always appreciated the stunning environment around me, however, over the years I have seen an increase of single-use plastics washing up on our beaches and discarded.”

“My mission was to make my expedition single-use plastic free. Luckily with a bit of research, I hunted down alternatives. For example, I discovered expedition food provided in biodegradable bags, toothpaste in glass jars, suncream in a tin, shampoo and deodorant in a bar and toothbrush made from bamboo.”

Sian had the privilege to meet others who were actively involved in protecting their waterways by doing their own litter picks, so she encouraged them to also make a pledge to give up at least one single-use plastic item, such as ditching plastic straws, opting for reusable coffee cup and water bottles, and cardboard cotton bud sticks instead of plastic ones.

'A staggering 8 million pieces of plastic enters our seas every day, and 80% of it is from land-based sources.'

Although the plastic-pollution problem still looms large, it’s clear that the willpower of those determined to stem its flow looms larger, and that the tide has already turned in favour of a plastic-free future. According to these adventure activists what matters now is community involvement, understanding and action, and adventure is their tool to getting those crucial cogs in motion.