Words: Jack Copeland
Photos: Emma Askew
Following the worldwide lockdown, a few of you perhaps had a browse on social media, after suddenly coming into a wealth of free-time, only to be met by a wave of people spouting on about ‘Gaia Theory’.
When the entire north of Italy was placed under lockdown, images of crystal clear water in Venice emerged on Instagram and various tabloid news sources, accompanied by the testimony of some pseudo-scientists, claiming that the Earth was ‘healing itself’.
This is essentially Gaia Theory, which is the idea that, as humanity continues to damage the Earth, the planet itself will create conditions like extreme weather and rampant plagues which keep us all in check. It’s essentially like the film ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ which, up until this year, seemed like quite a dramatic and unrealistic portrayal of Gaia Theory.
Although it sounds quite catastrophic, the idea that the Earth itself is trying to kill a fair bunch of us off, it does provide some form of a silver lining to lockdown. To think that our being locked-up for so long has served a noble purpose is quite a nice and reassuring fact amidst the never-ending COVID misery.
Unfortunately, it’s all absolute nonsense.
Since lockdown has begun, there has been a dramatic spike in single-use plastics, from plastic bags to disposable facemasks. Of course, the use of facemasks has been essential to key workers safely combating the virus, but it’s their disposal which has started to cause problems.
These masks are predominantly made out of non-biodegradable polymers and therefore have a lifespan of up to 450 years. That’s a long time to float around our oceans and cause damage to the ecosystem, blocking out sunlight, trapping small fish, and impersonating the odd jellyfish.
In a recent report from the Côte d’Azur in southern France, the environmental non-profit organisation, Opération Mer Propre, discovered a scene in which they described “disposable masks floating like jellyfish and waterlogged latex gloves scattered across seabeds.”
On the uninhabited Soko Islands of Hong Kong, another environmental organisation called Ocean Asia recorded a total number of seventy disposable facemasks on a 100 metre stretch of beach, with a further thirty having washed up just a week later. Overall, that’s a mask washing up on every metre of shoreline, and that’s on a completely uninhabited patch of land.
On top of the direct pollution that’s being caused by the pandemic, covering the likes of masks and gloves, you also have to account for the single-use plastics in online shopping and takeaway services, both of which sky-rocketed over lockdown.
What this all screams is that, despite all of us filthy humans being safely tucked away at home, our bad habits haven’t stopped. Plus, the panic of COVID-19 has made everyone almost afraid to recycle anything with a surface where bacteria might survive.
It’s all understandable, even sensible to an extent. But does the fact that we have to consume a lot at the moment mean that we can’t dispose of our waste properly?
Now that restrictions have eased, our lack of responsibility has really come to light and, even more disappointingly, is starting to undo all of our progress.
Switching on the news in July, us Brits were greeted by footage of teaming beaches in Bournemouth, where the main subject for scrutiny was a lack of social distancing, but what wasn’t being shown was the sheer volume of litter that these people left behind.
Sadly, alongside the blasé attitudes of some when it came to social distancing, a lot of people’s recklessness, once they were allowed outside again, stretched to leaving their waste at beauty spots, including beaches.
In late-June, the Devon-based environmental charity, Plastic Free Exmouth, hosted a beach clean and, on just one beach, discovered over six bins-worth of litter, comprising mainly of beer cans and packaging. Why is it the case that, when we’re out celebrating a bit of freedom, we then need to leave our waste strewn across our beaches?
In spite of the terrible events of 2020, it was hoped that maybe sharing in this catastrophe as a nation would invoke a sense of community and selflessness. Instead, we’ve come out of it with a self-centred recklessness, not unlike that of a selfish teenager. We’re not grounded anymore, so we’re going to go out and cause some mayhem.
The combination of direct lockdown plastics and ignorant littering, fuelled by people being high on their own freedom, has undone a lot of the fantastic work that environmental charities like Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) have achieved in recent years.
However, the people who work for these charities are a lot more optimistic than some bitter and cynical magazine authors (hi there). One of these optimistic eco-warriors is Emma Askew, a part-time soil surveyor and the founder of the environmental communication service, Earth Minutes.
Earth Minutes is a collaboration of creative people, developing a variety of unique content which educates others on the environment and marine litter. The collaboration prides itself on creating film and content which has a positive, optimistic message, beyond the typical angry, pessimistic article (cough).
In a recent chat with Emma about the effect of COVID on marine plastics, she commented: “It’s completely understandable that people need to ‘get out’ into nature. And everyone, at the end of the day, is entitled to.
“However, the significant increase in littering has completely degraded the progress made with ocean conservation over the last few years, and the shift in attitude back towards an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality has been particularly shocking and disappointing.
“Due to the amount of people flocking to beach regions, the beach waste management systems (i.e. the number of bins available and bin collection services) have not been able to keep up and unfortunately this has become a widespread problem.
“Even when this litter is piled up against the bins on-site, people don’t take responsibility for it subsequently being blown away, resulting in the further littering of the beaches.”
It was at this point that I asked Emma if she believed that the blame lay at the door of everyone in society, or if it was more the fault of policy and law-makers. She replied: “The public’s progress and response to single-use plastics has been greatly improving over the last few years, yet a lot of ‘old habits’ (i.e. it being socially acceptable to litter a beach) have definitely resurfaced since COVID-19.
“I feel that a lot of the public’s frustration and subsequent relief after lockdown has resulted in a lack of responsibility for their waste, and has made people care less about the plastic problem.
“I personally find that beach litter is an individual responsibility because even if there were harsher punishments such as fines, society should fundamentally recognise that it’s their duty to dispose of their own waste appropriately.
“Yet, for the bigger picture of ocean plastics, policy-makers need to take responsibility for the plastics produced at source (i.e. ban single-use plastics), to reduce the overall issue on a large-scale and in the long-term.”
On top of her responsibilities as a soil surveyor, and as the founder of Earth Minutes, Emma is also a South Western representative for the aforementioned Surfers Against Sewage. Going on to talk about how SAS has been working to combat the lockdown litter crisis, Emma said: “A lot of organisations, like SAS, have been working harder than ever to manage beach litter whilst also maintaining the health and safety of their volunteers, who pick up other peoples’ litter.
“We need to stop the litter crisis from the direct source of single-use plastic production through continuing to drive campaigns, as well as through educating people from a young age that it’s their responsibility to dispose of their own waste properly.
“A lot of waste has already been produced and discarded into the oceans, so it’s incredibly important to keep up the work and support organisations like SAS, to prevent further amounts of ocean plastics.
“With the increased exposure of this issue, I think the public attitude will change and will improve in terms of the ocean plastic situation. Public attitude can change quickly, so we can prevent the situation from worsening if we act now.”
Following on from our chat, Emma suggested that I get in touch with Amanda Keetley, who’s the founder of another Devon-based environmental communicator, named Less Plastic. Less Plastic is a family project, having been founded by Amanda and her husband James, and focuses on creating infographics and media which educates companies on how to reduce plastic waste.
Since its launch, Less Plastic has accumulated more than 300,000 social media followers and now produced material in more than twenty-seven languages. On top of this, Amanda and James published the first book in the world which educates businesses on how to reduce plastic waste, calling it ‘Plastic Game Changer’.
Talking about the biggest issue facing post-lockdown Britain, in a marine litter sense, Amanda stated: “Single-use masks and gloves making their way into the ocean is definitely a concern in the UK. Our waste infrastructure can’t cope with the high volumes we use so, even when they are disposed of correctly, many people’s waste escapes into the natural environment, with the final destination usually being the ocean.
“Another issue is overflowing bins by the seaside or at natural beauty spots. The root of the problem is that we rely too heavily on plastic packaging for everything. We need legislation that penalises excessive packaging and incentivises innovations that reduce waste at source.
“However, it would also be useful to see awareness campaigns highlighting that leaving litter near a bin is not acceptable. If the bin is full, you need to take it home, otherwise it will end up in the sea.
“Peer pressure can work well. If it is seen as socially unacceptable to do something, then more people are likely to change, so getting a few high profile people involved in the campaign would be really effective.”
Moving on to the topic of COVID undoing environmental progress, Amanda recalled an incident where a local business had reverted back to old and wasteful ways. She revealed: “Last weekend, in a local beach café, I wanted to buy a takeaway coffee for my reusable cup, and they made it very hard for me.
“First, they said they could only fill it by pouring it into a disposable cup first (pointless). I asked if there was anything reusable which they could use to pour it into, and they finally came up with the idea of pouring it into a mug, before pouring it into my reusable cup.
“I kept trying to explain that experts have said that reusables are no more dangerous than disposables, but they weren’t listening and kept saying, due to COVID, they don’t usually take reusables.
“I got the feeling that I was the first person to challenge them (I usually take coffee from home, so it was my first challenge too). It’s depressing to think how much progress we had made with reusables, and that COVID is making us slide backwards as a society.”
I then asked Amanda where she saw the issue of pollution heading, as we continue to navigate the evolving pandemic. She replied: “I worry that not enough people are waking up to this in time. The emerging news about microplastics and nano-plastics being absolutely everywhere on Earth, including in human organs, might be the trigger that accelerates legislative action.
“We can’t clean up everything that’s out there already, but we can absolutely turn off the tap now. We can then work hard to compensate for the damage by helping to repair and regenerate nature in other ways, restoring balance through actions like kelp farming and sea grass restoration.”
It’s a difficult situation to navigate. There’s no evidence that reusable items are any more dangerous than single-use, yet the tone of the easing lockdown restrictions has been that of caution and straying towards a disposable lifestyle.
I wonder if I would stick so firmly to my eco-warrior beliefs, like Amanda did, if I were confronted by a single-use plastic situation, or would I shy away from the idea of making a scene?
It seems so easy to think that my contribution won’t matter. That it doesn’t matter, so long as it’s just me. But the fact of the matter is, though we might not end up in a scenario like in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ anytime soon, continuing as we are doing is only going wash up more plastic on the bays… after tomorrow (sorry, I couldn’t help it).