On a mission: tackling the world’s ocean waste, one flip-flop at a time

On a mission: tackling the world’s ocean waste, one flip-flop at a time

Professor Lindsay Turnbull and DPhil student April Burt from the Department of Plant Sciences, led a major clean-up operation on the Seychellois island of Aldabra in March 2019. Back in Oxford they joined Ruth Abrahams, from the University’s Research and Innovation Communications team, to discuss the challenging experience and share what stark realities confronted them about global plastic waste.

RA: Where did the idea come from?

AB: Aldabra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the second-largest raised coral atoll in the world, and along its coastline are dotted 52 turtle nesting beaches. That adds up to the largest breeding population of endangered green turtles in the western Indian Ocean.

Plastic trash is now clogging these beaches and is having a massive impact on the turtles’ ability to nest.

Lindsay is a trustee of the Seychelles Islands Foundation, and I worked on Aldabra for two years. She came up with the idea of organising a collaborative project involving young people in Oxford and Seychelles, so that they could tackle the problem together.

The timescales on which we are able to respond are not commensurate with the magnitude and the urgency of the problem.

RA: Was this the main motivation?

LT: In the first instance, we wanted to remove as much of the rubbish as possible and make a significant dent in the problem, but we knew that any effort couldn’t possibly remove everything that was there. So we also wanted to raise awareness of the general problem.

RA: How did you raise the money?

AB: It felt like a huge mountain. Aldabra is so isolated and logistically difficult. We had a target of £150,000; to raise the money we had several strategies and it was very challenging and took a lot of time.

RA: What were the larger issues at stake?

AB: The impact of plastic pollution, especially within small island nations, needs urgent attention – they don’t have the resources to deal with this problem, so how can we manage the threat for the future?

LT: The plastic hasn’t come from the people of Seychelles. It comes from all over the world. We certainly saw items from Indonesia, China, India: all countries that border the Indian Ocean, many of which don’t have proper waste management. If you live in one of those countries and your shoes are worn out, what are you going to do with them if there’s no waste disposal?

You’ll dump them somewhere and they’ll end up in a river, and that river will flow into the ocean. Plastic shoes are so light that they could easily be caught in currents and travel thousands of miles, but eventually they will be washed up somewhere. Remote islands which stand in the middle of these currents are one of the places that they end up.

But part of the travesty is that we don’t recycle our own rubbish properly here either. We ship lots of it overseas to countries who have no ability to recycle that rubbish. There have been some shocking reports about what is happening to our recycling, so I think it’s a problem that we are not taking responsibility for. It’s much easier to blame people somewhere else.

We collected about 60,000 individual flip-flops.

RA: What were some of the biggest challenges of the clean-up operation?

AB: Just how long it took to clear the beaches. When you went back the next day the turtles would have been up nesting and they would have churned up a lot of old trash. So there was a lot that was hidden really deep under the sand.

RA: How much did you collect?

AB: We ended up with more than 25 tonnes of trash that only just fitted on the ship we had chartered. The Oxford team and the Seychellois team were just astonished by the number of flip-flops. We collected about 60,000 individual flip-flops.

Sadly, we estimate there are still half a million to a million flip-flops there. Another big source of rubbish was fishing gear. How can Seychelles manage that kind of problem? What are they supposed to do with it all?

LT: What people don’t understand about plastic is that it never goes away. You can move it from here to there, but until you put it into a process that will actually turn it back into something useful, it will remain.

AB: That’s been one of the most difficult challenges: what to do with it. Everything led to a dead end because Seychelles is so isolated and doesn’t have solutions yet for that kind of waste. But, off the back of this project, all sorts of things are being put in motion.

The President of Seychelles took photos from the project to the G7 summit and showed them to world leaders. Several countries have pledged money to a fund that aims to improve waste management in small island states, like Seychelles. At the recent World Ocean Summit in Ireland the President was talking about the project and we created a report that he handed to the UN Secretary General. So we have shone a light on the issue, and Aldabra is now being used as an example of how bad the problem has become.

A man involved in the Aldabra clean up. A man involved in the Aldabra clean up.

A man involved in the Aldabra clean up.

LT: One of the hardest things about a project like this is that you’re suddenly confronted with the madness of modern society – like making things that are used for five minutes out of a material that can endure for thousands of years. The timescales on which we are able to respond are not commensurate with the magnitude and the urgency of the problem.

RA: What do you hope the impact will be of this project?

AB: We’d love to see changes implemented in Seychelles. We’ve also tried to do as much education and outreach as possible. We’re trying to help to create awareness.

RA: Has it helped to inform future directions or priorities of research?

LT: I feel that any research I do in the future should have a significant and positive short-term impact, so I’m trying to reprioritise what I put my energy into. I’m involved in the Ridgeway Project which is trying to support biodiversity in the British countryside. Biodiversity needs help here too. It can feel daunting, but you have to do things where you already have connections or networks. My advice would be: look at what you’ve got already and ask yourself – if I’ve only got so much time and energy, what am I going to do that would make the biggest difference?

AB: I think that’s a good message for Oxford.