Every year, eight million metric tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans. Every day, approximately eight million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into the sea, and along every mile of the UK coastline you’ll find approximately 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution. Many of us in the North East contribute to this figure, which has a devastating effect not just locally, but all over the world.
Since the airing of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, and particularly its finalé, which showcased the devastating impact of plastic pollution on the world’s oceans, we are far more aware of the pressing need to recycle and cut down on our reliance on single-use plastics. Globally, plastic alternatives and schemes to cut back on plastic are already being introduced. You’ll no longer find plastic straws in McDonald’s, for example, as they’ve been replaced with paper. In supermarkets you’ll be met with trials of refillable container schemes, while brands such as Adidas have created collections made using regenerated econyl yarn – upcycled plastic waste spun into chlorine-resistant fabrics – and have vowed to use only recycled polyester in all their shoes and clothing by 2024. Even Glastonbury Festival is making strides to tackle the plastic pollution problem, placing a site-wide ban on the sale of single-use plastics, and creating an entire arena using recycled plastic that has been found on beaches, streets and in parks. Individuals in our region are set to make waves on a global level too. Leading by example, they hope to encourage us to be more plastic conscious.
The FlipFlopi Expedition (founded by Cumbrian-born Ben Morrison) has played a role locally, and globally, in encouraging the reuse of single-use plastic items. Raising awareness of the impact single-use plastic is having on the world’s oceans, the FlipFlopi – a traditional dhow sailing boat made from waste collected from Kenya’s beaches and towns – sailed 500 kilometres, from Lamu in Kenya to Zanzibar in Tanzania, in the hope of changing mindsets about plastic waste.
Simon Scott-Harden, a Senior Lecturer in Industrial Design at Northumbria University School of Design, and a friend of Ben’s, has played an integral role in testing the materials used to make the dhow – rubbish collected from African beaches – including 30,000 flipflops. After travelling to Africa to collect rubbish from their beaches to be used in the making of the FlipFlopi boat, select materials returned to the North East, to be melted down and tested for their reliability in dhow-making at Northumbria University.
Ben came up with the idea three years ago, after witnessing a huge amount of rubbish along the African coastline – much of which originated from the oceans – and the project was a way of encouraging the re-use of single-use plastic. Simon explains how the dhow acted as a focal point. ‘It was used to tell people about the other potential uses of single-use plastic and how we can make the most of it,’ he says.
Using his product and material design skills, as well as the facilities on-site at Northumbria University, Simon helped to create the materials used to form the 10-metre boat. ‘At Northumbria we were involved in testing the materials, to make sure they were suitable for use in construction of the dhow,’ he explains. ‘In the design and engineering department, we were able to run a series of tests to produce a reliable material once all of the plastic was melted down.’
Every single element of the boat was constructed by hand by a chief boat builder, Ali Skanda from Lamu, and the whole boat was clad in colourful sheets of recycled flipflops collected from Lamu’s beaches – where they are among the most prolific items found during beach clean-ups. ‘We were able to collect 35 tonnes of plastic in Lamu in six hours,’ Simon explains. ‘You imagine tropical, palm tree-lined beaches, but really they’re full of rubbish – we were able to give the majority, which was single-use plastic, a second life.’
Simon, who was also onboard the FlipFlopi when it sailed, explains that the ‘amazing’ experience also highlighted how the waste you might throw away in Newcastle can end up in the Atlantic and South Pacific Oceans. ‘Even though it’s a local story, it’s a global problem,’ he says.
The FlipFlopi expedition has gained global recognition, and Simon explains that nobody is tackling the plastic pollution problem alone. ‘We’re an official partner of the United Nations Environment Programme, and the FlipFlopi ended up at the UN Environment Policy Assembly in Nairobi,’ he says. The attendees at the Assembly, including the president of Uganda, were able to advise others on what they could do to help the plastic pollution problem. ‘Africa has taken a lead on this,’ says Simon. ‘They’ve banned plastic bags. We’re a bit behind.’
Set to sail the Indian Ocean again in 2021, Simon and the team behind FlipFlopi plan to continue spreading their message. ‘We’re getting ready to build our second vessel,’ he explains. ‘We hope the new project will educate another part of the world.’ The design of the next boat will use local craftsmanship in Kenya, while here in the North East Simon will assist with the engineering and materials testing, with the help of Northumbria University, over the next two years.
While the project is based in Africa, it has engaged with people all over the world. ‘It’s because the concept appeals to a five year old and a 95 year old,’ Simon explains. ‘It was able to tell a story very simply – that we can re-use plastic in a really good way.’ The team estimate that the expedition has interacted with almost a billion people worldwide, largely through the power of social media.
With predictions suggesting that plastic in our oceans will outweigh fish by 2050, it’s vital we educate ourselves on how single-use items can be reused or replaced. Simon insists ‘plastic is not a bad thing, it’s amazing. It’s just working out how to reuse it in a sustainable way.’