With World Environment Day in the recent past (5th June) and World Oceans Day almost upon us, the notion of creating a better world is everywhere around us – particularly in the sense of reducing plastic pollution around the globe.
Plastic pollution has long-since been an enemy of the environment: the so-called ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ has been growing since its discovery in 1985, and is not unique in its existence (there are no less than five known garbage patches of this kind); some 79% of all plastic produced over the last 70 years can now be found in landfill sites or in the general environment; and that which is not disposed of may still cause damage to our atmosphere through being incinerated inefficiently, generating a plume of harmful dioxins. Each of these factors are incredibly troubling, placing our planet and its population at serious risk.
Alarmingly, the evidence of plastic pollution and its impact (be that on the environment or to Earth’s inhabitants) has struggled to encourage major change over the past few decades. Indeed, there have been changes to the cosmetic industry and its proposed eradication of microbeads in beauty products; there has also been talk of erasing the use of plastic straws in fast food restaurants and cafes alike, but these efforts have struggled to resonate with the general populous. A brisk walk through any city centre or down any riverbank will result in the pedestrian stumbling across countless wrappers, bottles and cans; public bins seldom cater to recyclable products and, rather, all manner of rubbish is stuffed inside and combined; and members of the public will rarely take their waste home to dispose of correctly, instead preferring to dump coffee cups and crisp packets on the floor for somebody else to worry about.
Aside from a lack of facilities, it seems as if our failures as a society stem from a lack of education. Without having empathy for the environment instilled from a young age, it is difficult for us to acknowledge the severity of the damage of our actions to date, and even those who strive to do better cannot erase the detriment of the past. It is with this that many parents and educators are working to better their young, teaching children how to care for their surroundings and encouraging behaviours such as recycling from an early age; additionally, it is encouraging to see organisations and charities cropping up with a mission to better the world via a means of education. A perfect example of this can be found by looking towards the ‘Race for Water’, an initiative set up by the Swiss Race for Water Foundation and supported by the UN Environment.
Race for Water was launched in 2010 with a mission to tackle ‘the global challenge that will define the 21st century’. Its primary aim from inception has been to develop the ‘Learn – Share – Act’ programme, working to educate populations around the globe on the issue of water pollution. The programme also serves to implement solutions to the problems faced by society, from plastic pollution to the impact of fossil fuels. As well as taking action on-land, the team behind Race for Water have undertaken odysseys as to add weight to their cause, creating an almost tangible link between their mission and the youth to which they serve to educate, welcoming them aboard a vessel which, in itself, serves as a beacon of inspiration and forward-thinking in a world of carelessly emitted fossil fuels.
Race for Water’s vehicle for change is an impressive one: with 500m2 of solar panels covering the upper deck of a catamaran, enough energy is sourced for the ship to be powered. Add to that a traction kite (surface area 40m2, height 150m) and an onboard unit for producing hydrogen from seawater, the ship has the ability to be completely energy-independent both onshore and at sea, 365 days per year. This is really quite a feat, as the average ship cruise ship will expel 2137lb of CO2 per passenger each week, and studies have even suggested that the air pollution from international shipping accounts for approximately 50,000 premature deaths per annum in Europe.
But what does this solar-powered, energy-efficient manner of sailing have to do with the fight against plastic pollution? As well as drawing a line of comparison between the pollutants from ships and the toxicity of incinerated plastic, one could consider that the odyssey’s route across the globe is somewhat symbolic: from Bermuda to Cuba, Tokyo to Shanghai and beyond, the odyssey will travel across the world’s oceans, passing over the gyres otherwise known as ‘garbage patches’ (see: the beginning of this article). The team behind Race for Water are fully conscious of what they call ‘islands of plastic’ (though they feel the word ‘island’ appears too idealistic, almost like a utopia), and reference to these gyres will likely be used in their educational material. Indeed, Race for Water are keen to dispel any comparisons to ‘utopia’ during their mission: even when it comes to the hope for the future, they are careful to re-brand the idea as a reality, rather than a distant dream. But as realistic as a zero-emission, plastic-free future could potentially be, much work will need to be done to help us get there.
The mission currently being undertaken by Race for Water set sail with the intention of being out at sea for 5 years, calling off at major locations and events such as the America’s Cup in Bermuda (2017), the Tokyo Olympics (2020), and Dubai’s World Expo (also 2020). In addition to these attendances, Race for Water is also keen to welcome as many young minds onboard as possible, inviting more than 1500 children aboard their ship to date. Classes aboard the vessel revolve around presentations on how to tackle plastic pollution, and members of the team encourage the schoolchildren to adopt methods and technologies which will help them reduce their plastic use/waste. The palpable presence of the ocean and its marine life, too, allow harsh facts to resonate: it’s hard to ignore the notion that plastic could potentially outweigh our ocean’s fish populations by 2050, when you’re literally floating atop their endemic homes.
In addition to its education of youths, the Race for Water expedition has endeavoured to inspire governments, companies and scientists to treat the fragility of the marine environment with deeper consideration, pushing for issues such as microplastics to be taken more seriously. They have also lead the way on research projects which aim to measure the impact of marine litter on our wildlife and their biological cycles – a vital study, considering the damage already caused to existing and previous marine populations.
Race for Water’s efforts tie in perfectly with both World Environment Day and World Oceans Day, attracting attention not only to these important days of the year (owing in part to the ship’s 35-metre length, making it hard to miss!), but to the ongoing dedication to the cause. After all, Race for Water’s current odyssey is not its first, and there are still years left on the clock until the vessel returns to France, its starting point: such a prolonged mission should, surely, entice others to do the same, proving to them that sustainable living is not only feasible, but that it is a cause worth fighting for – even if it does take 5 years and multiple odysseys for the message to sink in. But how can we help the cause from here on land?
Regardless of whether or not you can make attendance at one of Race for Water’s many stops, there are plenty of ways in which you can aid their mission. One of the easiest ways to help is by becoming a ‘water guardian’, something which can be achieved by taking the pledge to fulfil a short list of realistic changes. The Water Guardian Charter is as follows (translated from French):
Water Guardian Charter
I commit to one or more of the following eco-actions and become Water Guardian:
Except for exceptions, I give up the single-use plastic bags
I refuse overpacked products
I keep a reusable bag at hand
I use a water bottle as far as possible
I do not throw plastic, cigarette butts or any other garbage on the floor or in the toilet
The rule of five R
REFUSE the useless and REDUCE the superfluous in order to reduce the production of waste
REUSE and REPAIR what can be used to prolong the life of products
RECYCLE when possible and give a second life to everyday products
Feeling sporty? You can also make a difference by taking a run in the sun. Race for Water have a page on their website which provides information on how to set up a sponsored run through a particular partner called GivenGain, with proceeds from your campaign being put towards the Race for Water mission. If running isn’t for you, why not support your friends in their campaigns – or even consider donating specifically to the ‘Learn – Share – Act’ programme! You can learn more about these programmes by clicking here.
Finally, if you happen to have the necessary skills to aid education, you can download a pedagogical kit designed for use in classrooms. As stated throughout this article, the youth of today provide a better hope for tomorrow, and their education is paramount to a healthier future. You can download the teaching kit here, and if you’d like to offer your skills at a workshop in schools or at an event, you can also check out their volunteer page.
Want to work more closely with animals? Check out our marine projects to find out how you can make a difference this World Oceans Day.
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