With her litter picker at the ready, my six-year-old daughter Ella helped me collect 1,500 litres of marine debris while paddleboarding in Devon’s Salcombe-Kingsbridge estuary.
The sheer scale of how much plastic accumulated in certain hotspots really has made a lasting impression on Ella, who was particularly surprised by the plastic toy dolphin we came across up one of the creeks. “We found lots of balls, some shoes, loads of bottles, rope, balloons, a few straws, some big plastic gloves, carrier bags and crisp packets,” she listed.
Our two-day, 22-mile paddleboarding challenge was part of our ongoing mission to help make Salcombe more ‘plastic clever’ and it had the added benefit of helping my daughter find her voice.
As we continued to collect bottle tops, packaging and polystyrene, I could hear Ella ask a fellow paddleboarder ‘so what do you do?’ and Helen Newcombe, founder of Davy J, simply explained ‘I make swimwear out of recycled fishing nets’. Ella seemed content with that answer and it was lovely to observe her happily chatting away.
A year ago, Ella wasn’t even particularly keen on putting her hand up in class for show and tell, let alone prompting conversations with people she has only just met. But encouraging her interest in environmental concerns has had the bonus benefit of helping her gain confidence.
Now, she speaks passionately and knowledgeably about microplastics to whole primary schools when we present assemblies together, holds her own while persuading senior hotel managers to switch from plastic to paper straws, and sounded quite adept chatting to her 30 classmates who joined us for a beach clean during our paddle.
“Microplastics are smaller than my fingernail,” Ella explained to her peers who helped picked up hundreds of tiny pieces of plastic packaging and strands of rope from the muddy foreshore at Batson creek. “When plastic breaks up, these fragments can be eaten by birds, fish and wildlife in the sea and they could die, so I feel really happy when we can remove it before it gets washed back into the sea.”
Our campaign is part of Kids Against Plastic, a national child-led movement to reduce single-use plastics, founded in 2016 by two sisters Amy and Ella Meek, 14 and 12. These inspiring girls set up a simple ‘plastic clever’ awards scheme encouraging businesses to reduce the big four plastic polluters – things like plastic straws, bags, bottles and takeaway cups with lids, which we found dozens of along our paddle and pick.
Plastic pollution is of course a global concern with hundreds of grassroots initiatives springing up now, but Kids Against Plastic appeals to me as a parent because it’s actually about so much more than just plastic.
Yes, it’s brilliant that Ella has awarded more than 35 plastic clever awards to local cafes, restaurants, hotels and pubs. But ultimately, it’s an incredible way for her and other young people to really find their voice and make a difference in their community.
Kids Against Plastic is also proving youth activism really works. Today, momentum is gathering as more young ambassadors spread this plastic clever mindset across Scotland, Wales and England, and Kids Against Plastic will soon be rolling out a new set of teaching resources to 18,000 schools nationwide via the Keep Britain Tidy eco-schools programme.
Since our crazy Plastic Clever Salcombe journey began, Ella has taken a much more active interest when we go shopping or eat out for example. She’ll tell me to pick up rubbish as we walk down the high street and she loves drinking smoothies with her metal straw at home.
Last year, Ella even made her brother his own special decorative paper birthday ‘balloon’ so we could forego the traditional helium happy birthday celebration. He loved it! So it’s made us all more aware and more creative, the results are tangible and it just goes to show that little people can inspire big changes at home and beyond.