Turning the tide on ocean plastics

Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management, says with a concerted effort and more investment, opportunities abound to tackle waste at sea.

I took up surfing in my 40s – in February, in Cornwall. So impressed was I with my efforts, that after I had my tummy photoshopped to resemble the man I thought I was in the subsequent photos, I decided that this was a sport I wished to persevere with.

For years, having been brought up on films like Point Break, The Big Wednesday and Apocalypse Now, I had laboured under the misapprehension that surfers were layabout types. It was easy to imagine a life laying on a beach, drinking beer and going for the occasional dip.

The reality is a whole lot different. If you are lucky enough to survive the first wave swimming out, the second one will get you and, lacking the gills necessary to survive this inversion, you will inevitably be spat up, gasping for air right where you started. It is not for the fainthearted.

It is my firm belief that ocean plastics – like greenhouse gases – are a waste management issue, and our industry has both the resources and ingenuity to handle both.

Once I had discovered that surfers were in fact elite athletes, I began to think more closely about their other achievements. It is amazing to think that Surfers against Sewage celebrated their 20th birthday last year. Along with water privatisation, it is hard to name a single group or act that has done more to improve our water quality.

It is pleasing to see them focusing their attention on plastic, and great initiatives like the Big Spring Beach Clean are powerful ways to confront people with the damage of marine pollution.

The trouble is that this is a global problem, and whilst surfers around the world have been doing their bit, it is about time we started mobilising extra forces.

What better place to start than here in the Thames Valley, where a little-known organisation called HR Wallingford is already working on modelling how plastic travels in water. The team there is collaborating with the #OneLess campaign to better understand distribution and movement of single-use plastic bottles in the River Thames, including how many end up in the sea.

Modelling the movement of plastic

With enough time and resource, this kind of approach could be applied to the complex problem of modelling the movement of plastic worldwide. Such an exercise would involve an understanding of water movement and weather, as well detailed information about how plastic items move.

It wouldn’t be easy, but HR Wallingford has already built whole-earth models for extreme events, such as tsunamis and hurricanes, which would be a very helpful start.

Armed with the right information, waste management companies around the globe could start mobilising clean up teams at sea in the same way that they have cleaned up our environment on shore.

It would be down to governments around the globe to decide how we would be paid for this work but it is my firm belief that ocean plastics – like greenhouse gases – are a waste management issue, and our industry has both the resources and ingenuity to handle both.

British companies have already proved we can do amazing things in these fields. Take our own subsidiary, O.C.O Technology, which is leading the way in successfully commercialising the production of carbon negative aggregates from waste materials and making huge strides in delivering the circular economy.

With the right support and political will, the opportunities are endless and none more so than in June, when esteemed leaders from around the world are due to arrive in the tiny Cornish village of Carbis Bay for the next meeting of the G7.

It will be the perfect time to bang the drum (or indeed surfboard) for the oceans, although I’m not sure I can see newly-elected US President Joe Biden donning red swimming trunks a la Baywatch. Having said that, he has already won points in my book for beginning the process for the US to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Perhaps Canadian PM Justin Trudeau might be tempted to dip his toes in the water – he looks like a surfer dude.

I’m told surf lessons are available in nearby St Ives but, whether the politicians decide to take up the offer or not, this will be an amazing opportunity to both showcase British expertise and demonstrate why it is so important to look after the seas that surround us.

Let’s hope that the politicians will be willing to climb on board and support us in turning the tide on ocean plastics once and for all.

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