Emily Stevenson of 'The Beach Guardian Project' Interview

This week I spoke to Emily Stevenson, a twenty year old Marine Biology student at Plymouth University who co-founded The Beach Guardian Project, a project that aims to raise awareness and reduce the impact of plastic pollution on coastal environments.

Emily and her family moved to Cornwall when she was eleven years old and ever since then, they would spend every free moment at the beach; surfing, swimming, snorkelling and of course, beach cleaning. It wasn’t until going to university however, that she understood just quite how bad the problem with plastic pollution was.

Through her education, Emily’s passion continued to grow, so much so that she decided to write her final year dissertation on plastic washed up on her local beaches. During the collection of her data, Emily and her father, Rob Stevenson, were spending at least an hour everyday on the different local beaches picking up the litter. They found some very interesting finds, and so decided to make a Facebook page called ‘Beach Guardian’.

Their Facebook page began just as a sort of hub, where people could share with each other what they were finding on beach cleans. However, within a matter of days, Emily and her father were being contacted by people from all over the world, and so they decided to turn the Beach Guardian into ‘The Beach Guardian Project’ and make it a community interest company.

Plastic pollution is a topic that has been in the media a fair bit recently since the showing of Blue Planet II and the UK’s recent ban of microbeads, so I was delighted to get the chance to ask Emily some questions about it.

How large a problem is plastic pollution? And why is it so important that we combat it?

Plastic is brilliant; it can be used for almost anything, it is cheap and the durability of it compares to no other product. But these are the exact reasons why it is so awful. People hear facts and figures everyday regarding the extent of the issue, things like ‘almost every piece of plastic ever produced is still on the planet in some form’ or ‘275,000 tonnes of plastic is used each year in the UK’. But it is hard to put this sort of thing into perspective, especially if you are living in places away from the coast.

For me, I see the issue everyday. It just takes one trip to the beach, and this can be pretty much anywhere on the planet, to witness the detrimental effects of plastics. I often hear people say, “surely it just goes into landfill, if I go to the beach I clear up after myself, so none of my waste is making its way to the ocean”. But we must encourage people to look at the bigger picture, everything works in a cycle. For example, when there is litter on the streets… what happens to it when it rains? It gets carried into rivers, streams, down drains and eventually, into the ocean. There are so many different paths plastic waste can take, the majority of these lead into the sea.

Of course there is recycling, unfortunately however, a very small percentage of waste gets recycled. Whether this is down to laziness of people not disposing of things properly, or just not knowing through a serious lack of education on how to actually recycle and what to recycle, and then there is the problem where a lot of plastic cannot actually be recycled.

The uses of plastic as a material are universal, and so are the effects it has. Plastic doesn’t just harm the environment, but it actually causes problems on our health too. When you have food or drink in a plastic container, toxins will leach out of the plastic into whatever it is that will be consumed and then into our bodies. This can cause disruption in our hormones and even lead to cancers. I really believe that plastic is the biggest problem of our time, it is effecting every reach of the Earth, and this is not a problem that can be solved quickly. This is something that is going to continue to affect many generations to come, which is why it is so important that we starting fighting this now, before it is too late.

How exactly does plastic pollution affect the environment?

Plastic is an oil based product, which means that the production of it requires fossil fuels. This is where the problems begin. Luckily, the majority of people are aware of the problems of fossil fuels and the ever increasing Greenhouse Effect.

I feel that marine life is really taking the brunt of the problems; whether it be through entanglement, ingestion, habitat destruction or one of the many other ways they can be effected. But I also feel like this is the best way to get to people when addressing the issue. Even if they don’t care when they see beautiful, majestic, elegant animals such as sharks entangled in ghost fishing gear, struggling for their lives, they will care when they find out that the majority of fish and other seafoods they consume have plastics and toxins from the plastics in them. Which is why the Beach Guardian Project is really focusing on education. When people learn more about the impact of plastics, the more they want to learn about how this can be avoided.

What does The Beach Guardian Project aim to achieve?

· To organise more regular, organised, community beach cleans and to encourage participation in the #2MinuteBeachClean initiative.

· To host educational events to discuss the impacts on our local beaches and seas from plastics in the oceans.

· Encourage more local people to do beach cleans and share their findings.

· To record and report dead animals to Cornwall Wildlife Trust, egg cases to The Shark Trust and all washed up animals to the Marine Strandings Network.

· To encourage more local businesses to support the “Final Straw Cornwall” and “Refill Cornwall” initiatives.

· To encourage local councils to adopt the Surfers Against Sewage Plastic-free Status Award.

· To encourage all of Cornwall’s harbours and fishermen to engage in the “Fishing for Litter” initiative.

· To do art installations using plastics found washed up on local beaches to raise awareness.

· To work with Visit Cornwall, TICs and holiday companies to ensure that visitors to Cornwall engage and are aware of these and other initiatives.

· To introduce other schemes that have worked elsewhere in the country, such as “fill a bucket with plastic off the beach and claim a free cup of coffee” at beach cafes, etc.

· To collaborate with and create a community of like-minded charities, community interest company’s, businesses, etc. Also, to share the work load, as not one single operation can fix this, we have to work together!

How can people get involved with The Beach Guardian Project?

So there is a whole bunch of things that people can do to help, whether it is with The Beach Guardian Project, by themselves or with some of the other incredible groups of people that are tackling plastic pollution. Something we are really pushing forward with at the moment is hosting educational art workshops in schools. We have already had such an amazing response and so many schools contacting us and wanting to get involved.

We are also working with Surfers Against Sewage to achieve Plastic Free status for some of our local towns, at the moment we are focusing on ‘Plastic Free Padstow’. In doing this, we are working with an awesome company called Earth Friendly Foodware, which sells ‘VegWare’ products, these are oil free alternatives to plastics, and can be broken down under certain conditions. So we would love it if we could get more businesses adopting this alternative and also going plastic straw free.

On the individual level, if people just follow our Facebook, Instagram and Youtube pages, see what we get up to, see what we find and come along to some of the beach cleans we organise, the message is getting out there. Or even if people cannot attend our beach cleans, go and do one yourself! They are great fun, so rewarding and you can find all sorts of things. Just make sure that you recycle what you can and if you do collect stuff off a beach and don’t know how to dispose of it properly, we encourage people to bring it to us or send it to us.

We sort through everything we collect and the vast majority of it we clean and will re-use in art workshops. If you don’t live near the beach and want to help, just clean up your local neighbourhood. As I have said, everything could potentially end up in the ocean, so wherever you are dealing with plastic waste, it helps the overall cycle! All of our contact details are on our Facebook page if people want to find out more about any of this.

What does the typical day look like for you?

So I am in my final year of University in Plymouth studying Marine Biology, this does take up most of my time. Although, as part of my degree, I am writing my final year dissertation on plastic pollution on the beaches around me in North Cornwall: what plastics wash up, are they fishing related and primarily, is there anything living amongst the plastic. So I do spend a lot of time researching further into plastics and in the lab looking at the organisms I find living on the plastics.

I often take trips home to host beach cleans and am usually on the phone with my dad for at least half an hour every day (we founded the project together) to catch up on what we have each been doing, whether there are dates to add to the calendar of school visits, catching up on emails, stuff like that. When I go home from university, he and I will often take the dogs for a walk on the beach and do a beach clean, then spend the rest of the day sorting through plastics we have collected.

I am hoping that when I finish university, this is something I can do full time, whether its cleaning a beach, doing educational workshops, going into businesses and trying to get them to switch to plastic alternatives or even just spending time on social media and talking to other people doing the same as us and sharing ideas and stories.

I imagine beach cleaning can be pretty tough at times, what makes it all worthwhile for you?

There hasn’t been a single time where I have come away from a beach clean and not felt that it has been worthwhile. Yes it is often cold and raining, but with something like this, you can very easily see the difference you have made, you can see the before and after within a few minutes. Even though it is relentless, and you can spend hours on your hands and knees picking microplastics out of the sand, only to move along a couple of metres and there be thousands more pieces, you know that each piece you remove is making a difference.

It’s not just this, when you are on the beach cleaning, people come up to you and will often join in or ask you questions. You can see something change within them, and that next time they go to a beach, they will pick up some plastics, and the message gets passed on further. This isn’t something where it’s difficult to see a positive change, I am beginning to see positive changes every day. Whether it’s when I go into a restaurant and they have paper straws, whether I see someone post a picture of a beach clean they have done on social media, or whether I see politicians on the news discussing the issue. Little steps in the right direction are happening and if more and more continue to happen, we might actually achieve something beautiful.

Have there been any particular challenges involved with the project?

Well we have only just started really, so far everything seems to be going quite well. It is difficult juggling my studies and the project, but, this is something that I am so passionate about and love doing, I find ways. Also, I have my dad, we are such a strong team and if I am bogged down with work, I know he is always there working so hard as well so it makes it so much easier.

In fact our whole family work hard with this and we all support each other. My older brother, Alex Stevenson, is a photographer and is soon going travelling around the world with his girlfriend and will be writing a blog sharing tips on more mindful travelling, documenting stories of all the incredible people and innovative problem solvers they meet and introducing plastic alternatives that help protect the planet. It sounds lame, but we are one big eco warrior family!

What’s the strangest thing you’ve found washed up on the beach?

We find strange things all the time! You get the kind of gross stuff washing up like tampon applicators and needles, but then there is also some really cool things you can find. The other day at one of our organised beach cleans on Porthcothan Beach my dad found a water bottle that was from Russia!

The oceans are all connected and through all the currents and cycles, plastics find their way all around the globe, so you literally could find anything. One of our favourite things to look out for are pieces of LEGO. After a cargo ship lost a container of millions of pieces of LEGO in 1997, we often get pieces washed up. We find humour in this because a lot of the pieces are from their underwater range, so you can find little LEGO flippers and pirate cutlasses. One of my coolest finds was a crisp packet that had a use by date on it of 1997, which is the year I was born! I think this really shows the durability and longevity of plastics.

If you hadn’t of started The Beach Guardian Project, what do you think you’d be doing?

Well I would probably be doing a lot more university work that’s for sure! But I do genuinely believe that if we hadn’t started this project, we would be doing something else to do with plastic pollution and the environment. There is nothing else on this Earth that I want to dedicate my life too, even before we started this project we were doing beach cleans and sustainability work. This really is the biggest passion in my life and I am so excited to spend as long as I can fighting plastic pollution.

If you could give someone one piece of advice on how to reduce their plastic pollution what would it be?

Buy a stainless steel drinks bottle. This is such a small change that will make a huge difference. It saves you money, it reduces the demand on plastic bottles, it actually encourages you to drink more water and there are no health risks of toxins leaching into your drink. Win! Win! Win! Win!

What does the future hold for you and The Beach Guardian Project?

In the short term, we are focusing on Cornwall - It’s where we live, it’s an area of such natural beauty that needs conserving and there are so many like-minded people here that want to make the change. However, if things go well, we want to continue growing, work alongside as many other businesses, charities etc. as possible and keep the message spreading.

I have always wanted to travel when I finish university, so I am hoping that by the time I go, we have all the resources set up that I can take our project around the world with me and go into schools in lots of different countries and further the education reach. It is exciting times at the moment, I think Blue Planet II has been so amazing and so many people worldwide watched it and are ready to fight plastics and move away from them, they just need guidance on how to do it. That’s where we come in!

Thank you for talking to me Emily, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about The Beach Guardian Project! Just that if anyone wants to contact us about anything I have said, they can email me at emily@beachguardian.co.uk or my dad, Rob, at rob@beachguardian.co.uk. Please follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube and share with us anything cool you find on the beach, any alternatives you have to single use plastics or if you just want to be involved in the community and have a chat, we always love talking to people and sharing stories and experiences!

If you would like to find out more about Emily and The Beach Guardian Project, then check out her Instagram or take a look at their Youtube and Facebook page.

Also, be sure to watch the video below in which Emily gives some more information on The Beach Guardian Project

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