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Cause of the Month | The Plastic Tide

by Sica Schmitz | Posted on April 01 2017

Supporting our conscious community is one of our priorities at Bead & Reel, so each month we give back a portion of each sale to an interesting, innovative cause that is bettering the world. Meet the organization your purchases are supporting this month!

Plastic was first invented in 1907 and has since become a convenient yet destructive part of everyday modern life. I know personally I have struggled with trying to find a balance between a busy life and a less wasteful life, and so I very was very intrigued when I first learned about The Plastic Tide

A little background on plastic: Around 8 million metric tonnes go into our oceans each year. If nothing is done about this, this figure may increase 10 times by 2025. Part of why this is such an issue is because many plastics can take at least 400 years to break down into fragments known as microplastics, and these and other tiny pieces of plastic are forming an oceanic soup that recent estimates put at 15 to 50 trillion pieces.  

These plastic pieces are harmful to wildlife, humans, and our environment. It's estimated that 100,000 marine creatures die each year from effects of ingestion of plastic, and the health effects on humans remains largely unknown. The World Economic Forum report that by 2050 the production of plastics will account for 20% of global oil consumption and will be generating 15% of global carbon dioxide gas production. Yikes!

The Plastic Tide (Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation)

While scientists can estimate how much plastic is entering or already in our oceans, they can't say for certain where it goes. One of the major problems with tackling the plastic pollution problem is identifying where the plastics end up once they enter our waterways. So far we can only account for 1% of the total plastic in our oceans today, which begs the question; where is the missing 99%? While 1% ends up on the ocean surface, scientists are unsure how much of the remaining 99% ends up on our sea floor, water column, sea creatures, or beaches.

Answering this question is becoming a major concern and focus for scientists, since without this knowledge it is impossible to identify trends, support legislation, monitor improvement, or develop strategies to reduce plastic pollution. If we don’t have evidence of when, where, and how the plastics are distributed, we aren't truly start to address it.

The Plastic Tide

Fortunately, there are many dedicated people and organizations working on solutions, and we are excited to be supporting one of them this month. The Plastic Tide is a new project using revolutionary drone technology to map ocean plastic waste to help in the fight against plastic pollution. This project is surveying beaches through a series of beach cleans and using Machine Learning Algorithms to remotely detect plastic build-up to assist in numerous and multi-disciplinary applications. Through this, they will produce an Open Source Machine Learning Algorithm capable of detecting up to 90% of beach plastics.

Along with collecting data and hosting beach cleans, they are working on a large-scale educational Citizen-Science Project and exploring the relationship and impacts of plastics on communities and individuals.

I find all of this very exciting, so I spoke to filmmaker and drone pilot Ellie Mackay about this project and how we can each be a part of solving the plastic problem.

Ellie Mackay

How did you first get involved in this project?

As a filmmaker and drone pilot, my passion is telling the more unusual stories behind conservation and healthcare - highlighting examples where communities or individuals are doing something different, innovative or inspiring to help create positive change for our planet. When I realised I could use both my storytelling and drone skills to build a map of plastic waste, I was hooked. The Plastic Tide project combines everything I love - the ocean, coastlines, drones for good, big data, citizen science, community action, hi-tech solutions and of course it's the first critical step towards a zero-plastic world.

Since the beginning, The Plastic Tide has inspired and enthused so many people, and now watching it develop into a reality is a fantastic feeling and I'm so thrilled to be a part of it.

For now all of your beach cleans are in the UK, so how can our customers set up their own Beach Clean events here in the US? 

It's actually very easy to set up your own beach clean - firstly you can just go do it yourself! It's worth spending an afternoon out on the beach (take your kids, your friends, your dog, a picnic and make a day of it!) - you'll see how easy it is but also how much trash you can collect in a very short time!
Then, you can organise an event among your friends and local community via facebook or similar, and go along to the beach with lots of gloves and trashbags.
If you want to take it further, look up your local beach clean community (if there isn't one, start one!) - they will be able to promote and publicise your clean to their audience. They may also be able to provide equipment and someone to come and speak to your cleaners. A good example is here.

Eventually, you'll be able to host regular cleans (once every few months for example) - and you can advertise this through your local newspaper, radio station, schools and offices. Good old fashioned posters around town and in the local coffee shops and supermarkets will help to get the word out.

The only thing you need to remember is gloves, trash bags and a quick safety briefing at the start of the clean (see here and here for examples).

The fantastic thing about The Plastic Tide is that anyone who wants to help but can't get to a beach, can still help us by tagging plastics in our drone images, through our citizen science platform Zooniverse (see our website for the link).

The Plastic Tide

How can this data eventually be used here in the US?

The possibilities for The Plastic Tide are endless. Eventually we hope to be able to scan beaches around the entire US coast to add to our global database of plastic pollution. And we aren't limited to beaches - we can scan rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and even highways and railways across the world. This will enable us to identify the worst affected areas, and to help track plastics around the globe. This means local and national governments will have the data they need to make informed decisions about recycling and clean-up provision as well as putting pressure on manufacturers and consumers to change the way they use and dispose of plastics. 

What is your favorite tip to help reduce plastic in everyday life?

Carry a fold-up cloth bag and drinks bottle with you - they don't take up much room, you can put them in your handbag, in the car, in your jacket pocket - and you'll be amazed at how often you will be able to refuse a plastic bag or drinks cup. Every bottle that ends up in the ocean breaks down into around 25,000 plastic pieces - each of which ends up in the food chain and causes untold damage. So every day you could save tens of thousands of fish!

Another tip is to ask for drinks without a straw - straws make up a big proportion of plastic waste but almost everyone can do without them. Try to make it second nature to say 'ice tea please, no sugar, no straw' or whatever.. once it becomes habit, it will be easy!

For more tips on cutting down everyday plastic use, follow me on social media @EllieWorldwide - thoughout the project I will be highlighting all the different ways to convert to a plastic-free lifestyle!

What is the most uplifting aspect of working with The Plastic Tide?

I've seen really special and amazing responses from working with children who came to join us on our trial surveys and cleans. They really took the message to heart, not only doing a fantastic job cleaning the beaches, but talking to their parents about how to cut down plastic use at home, and choosing The Plastic Tide for their school presentations. I am passionate about education so I really hope we can inspire the next generation to grow up as environmentally aware and responsible young people.

The Plastic Tide

What's your favorite vegan recipe (perhaps a great one to take on a beach clean up!)?

I love vegan cooking! It's so healthy, nutritious, delicious and actually really easy! My favourite meal (and the easiest) is my sweet potato, coconut and chickpea curry. I make it with 100% organic, vegan, gluten free ingredients, but you can substitute your own preferences in and make it more or less spicy depending on your tastes! It's filling and warm and perfect to scoop into a (plastic-free!) tub and enjoy after a windy wet day on the beach! My recipe is here on my website (but feel free to make it your own!).

What is a biggest misconception you hear about plastic, and what's the truth about it?

That all single-use coffee cups are recyclable! A lot of people genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by buying a single-use coffee cup and then throwing it in the 'recyclable' trash can. Unfortunately most of these 'cardboard' coffee cups are lined with a thin plastic coating (it feels slightly waxy), so not only are they damaging to the environment, they are not fully recyclable, and this also causes extra work to sort and separate them from those which are. This is such a shame as so many people try to do their bit by recycling, but it all ends up in landfill anyway, and ultimately, our oceans. So the best thing to do is to bring your own cup to the coffee shop! A lot of stores now offer a keep-cup with a discount or free drink, so that's even better!

Activism is hard work. What quote keeps you inspired?

For The Plastic Tide project, the two quotes that I keep thinking of are  'With every drop you drink, every breath you take, you are connected to the sea' - Sylvia Earle and 'The entire ocean is affected by a single pebble' - Blaise Pascal. These quotes remind me that our individual actions cause global damage, yes - but that our individual actions can also bring about global improvement. Just as we can harm with our every action, we can heal with our every action. That keeps me motivated to make the small changes in my life despite seeing massive damage elsewhere. It really does all add up.

To find out more or get involved visit The Plastic Tide, donate directly to their campaign, and give back by shop our sustainable styles all month long!

Sica Schmitz Blog


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