Tide turns against plastics: Easkey Britton is tackling the challenge of plastic in our oceans

Easkey Britton launches the Story of your Stuff in Bundoran, Co Donegal, with Eoghan Tuttlebee and Adam Gallagher, from Magh Éne College, looking through rubbish found on the beach

Surfer Easkey Britton has joined forces with the EPA to tackle plastics and the Story of your Stuff competition, writes

Deirdre Reynolds

FROM Mullaghmore to Maui, Easkey Britton has spent almost three decades navigating some of the most awesome waters in the world on her beloved board.

After finding herself wading through trash in previously pristine escapes, however, now the five-time Irish national surf champion is riding the crest of a new wave against single-use plastic.

The big-wave-surfer-turned-marine-scientist has joined forces with the Environmental Protection Agency to launch the Story of your Stuff competition for secondary schools, to get teens thinking about the lifecycle of everything from their pens to their iPads.

“Growing up so immersed in the outdoors and, of course, the sea, and especially with all the travel I’ve been doing with surfing, that sort of hunger for knowledge developed just to better understand different things I was witnessing,” says Britton, who began surfing aged four and has a PhD in marine environment and society.

“When you’re in the water in some of these places that are really beautiful in other parts of the world, you’re actually surfing through trash — that wasn’t there [before]. Just the rapid change of it in the space of five years, even.

“I think as a surfer, you see those changes first-hand in terms of the marine environment, so that kind of all influenced the decision to just better understand what’s happening and how to affect change in that space.”

More than 8m tonnes of plastic — including plastic bottles, bags, straws, and cutlery is dumped in the world’s oceans each year, studies show.

You don’t have to go to the beach to witness the devastating impact it’s having on marine life.

Channel surfers, too, got an insight into the scale of the problem when one Sky News report revealed how a 6m Cuvier’s beaked whale died off the coast of Norway with 30 plastic bags in its stomach last year.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, health and science correspondent Thomas Moore, who has been leading the channel’s viral campaign to #PassonPlastic with a series of exclusive documentaries, said he was every bit as dismayed by that discovery, among others, as viewers at home.

“We went to Bermuda 18 months ago now, and we saw plastic washing up on paradise beaches,” he says.

“There was all these tiny granules of plastic which had clearly been in the water for a long time, but were now clearly a risk.

“We saw bits of plastic that had been chewed by fish and by turtles — on every tide they were coming up on the beaches. It felt wrong, and we thought, ‘If it feels wrong to us, it’ll feel wrong to other people too’.

“We looked at all the threats that the ocean is under — climate change, acidification, overfishing — all those seem quite remote to somebody sitting at home, but plastic just felt like the issue that people could really do something about, and the reaction has been absolutely amazing.

“In just 12 months, we’ve started a social conversation — I can’t go to a party now without somebody saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re involved with Ocean Rescue, that’s so cool! Plastic is so bad!’”

Plastics found on a beach

As part of the initiative, a life-sized plastic whale, made of the same amount of the stuff that ends up in the ocean each second, is set to make its way across the Irish Sea in the coming months.

When it comes to marine littering, the quarter-tonne creation dubbed “plasticus” is just a drop in the ocean, according to one expert.

“We undertake a lot of research on the sea on our two research vessels, the Celtic Explorer and the Celtic Voyager,” says Dr Peter Heffernan, chief executive of the Marine Institute in Galway, Ireland’s national agency for marine research, technology, development, and innovation.

“Certainly the vast majority of the rubbish dumped in the sea would be the large plastics, the macro plastics. It’s [only] in the relatively recent past that [we’ve learned more about] microbeads and how pervasive they are.

“Although they’re much smaller in total quantity, they’re pervasive in the ocean, and potentially in the food chain, and that’s caused a lot of scientific tension.

“All water returns to the sea, so if something is washed down the drain it eventually finds its way back into the ocean,” he says, “and it’s true to say that any single bit of plastic that has ended up in the ocean has at some time been in a human’s hands.

“If we don’t act now, and start to take really personal action, it’s likely by 2050 that there’ll be more plastic by weight than fish [in the ocean].”

Despite leading the way with a tax on plastic bags back in 2002, churning out 61kg of plastic waste per person per year, Ireland is still the worst offender in Europe for choking the sea.

Following the trail blazed by the UK last month, a ban on microbeads, found in some soaps and shower gels, and plastic-free supermarket aisles are just two more of the proposals aimed at turning the tide.

At home and work, meanwhile, something as simple as choosing a reusable coffee cup or cotton buds with paper sticks can help to reverse the plastic pandemic, say those at the frontline.

“[It’s] very difficult to do anything about the plastic that is already out in the open ocean,” admits Moore, “but we can do something about the source of the plastic — and that’s us.

“I remember from my childhood going to the beaches and seeing quite a lot of oil and tar because people were careless about chucking it over ships — that’s gone now.

“The challenge now in 2018 is very much plastic. We have to find a way of solving this to stop so much plastic going out to sea.

“The key thing for me has been if everybody takes a small step themselves, together we can make a massive difference. Really small things, like just a [water] refill station, [are] so important to reducing the amount of plastic waste that we’re producing.

“Here in the UK, because there’s such consumer pressure on plastic, you’ve got businesses almost falling over each other trying to do something about plastic packaging, straws, bags, and so on,” he says.

“I think if Ireland can get on board in the same way the UK has, and together we put pressure on the supermarkets, on the food producers, on the drinks companies, to make them think about the kind of plastic they’re producing [and] the amount of plastic we’re all coming home with in our shopping, we are so powerful.

“If we stop throwing so much out, we will solve this problem in time.”

Easkey in action on the surfboard.

With a plastic bottle taking around 450 years to break down and a plastic fishing line even longer, change can’t come soon enough, says Heffernan. “Certainly, on a personal level, there are choices [as to] how we use plastic, and Ireland set a good example with the tax on plastic bags,” he says.

“I think those initiatives on banning the manufacture and sale of microbeads are very much to be welcomed, [but also] just saying in your own life, either in business or at home, ‘I’m going to avoid the use of single-use plastic’, and finding alternatives.

“I think that type of behavioural change at all levels is necessary to alleviate the very severe risk to the ocean.”

As the topic continues to trend on Twitter, back at the Wild Atlantic Way, Britton urged beachgoers to join the #2minutebeachclean movement by taking 120 seconds out to pick up any plastic waste they come across, and disposing of it responsibly.

Getting caught sipping from a disposable water bottle, she jokes, would result in automatic expulsion from the surfing community. “I’m pretty religious about always travelling with my stainless steel water bottle — it’s actually hard to find one that has zero plastic.

“I always have my water bottle and my own cup now to refill, but it’s gone from, in the space of a year, seeing that now be a norm.

“I hope the tide is turning and I hope that it’s not just going to be a blitz in the media. I don’t think it will. I think there is a shift happening because we’re seeing actually now political will, as well as this sort of bottom-up movement, where you’re seeing it inspiring whole towns and communities to become plastic-free.

“We’ve reached that tipping point where we don’t have a choice,” she says. “I guess the wake-up call is when it’s worked its way all the way through the system and the food chain, so that it’s directly affecting our health and wellbeing.

“It’s about valuing the ocean as something that’s so beneficial for our health and wellbeing in lots of different ways, and I think when you have that appreciation and emotional connection to something, then it’s very hard not to be conscious of the impact we’re having.”

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