Using sandpaper to drive scratches onto a plastic bottle isn’t exactly a normal activity to carry out in your spare time. But today I’m helping to create a very unique stand-up paddle board (SUP) – and sandpaper I must.
The board I’m helping with is one that will go down London’s murky River Thames, and will take 109 bottles to build. The creations are formed of pipes, crafted from strings of whole bottles pumped up and threaded together.
The fin, used to give the board direction and glued to the underside at the tip, is made out of melted-down bottle lids.
I’m with the founders of The Whale Company: Carolyn Newton and Carlos de Sousa. This couple have a love of the natural world that comes as easily to them as breathing does to us.
In addition to their business of selling organic cotton bags and other eco wares, they’ve closely scrutinised how to recycle and reuse in different ways – and how to have conversations that drive change. In 2017, while in Brazil (de Sousa’s home country), they took a bag of empty plastic bottles destined for the bin, pumped them up, glued them together and created their first paddle board.
They went down to the beach to test it on the water. One thing led to another, and before they knew it they had used the board, plus another, freshly made one, to paddle a marathon. We’re talking a whole 26.2 miles, which took them from the La Dordogne River in France to Saint-Cyprien.
After that came a further 12 marathons over the waters of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovia and Montenegro.
Why? After seeing the reactions of passers-by to their first outing, they realised this could be a clever way to spark conversations around plastic pollution in our oceans. Their travels also impressed onto them the dire situation we’re in by putting them in the way of huge build-ups of the stuff in canyons and at the side of river banks.
After their worldwide tour, the next stop will be the UK and the capital’s river. The journey will start on World Ocean Day (8th June) and culminate in a meeting at the House of Commons. Here, they’ll deliver their “message in a bottle project” – a string of upcycled fabric bunting cut into bottle shapes and carrying ideas from the public on how to deal with plastic pollution. “Hopefully this will have an individual impact on the people who see it. If everyone who saw it cut down on their plastic consumption, that would be amazing,” explains Newton.
As well as the paddle, they will be doing workshops in schools, giving talks to youth groups and showing them how to make their unique paddle board – with lessons around environmentalism peppered throughout.
Newton and de Sousa are calling the Thames paddle ‘Source to Sea.’
“After launching the event at the Brazilian embassy, we’ll go to Lechlade, and paddle 15 to 20km a day, reaching Teddington Lock on the 20th June,” Newton says. “From the 21st, we’ll paddle to Richmond.”
Next will be a sunset paddle from Richmond to Kew, before going on through Barnes and into Chelsea. It’s here that they’ll meet with MPs and deliver the bottle bunting with messages from the public.
“I know they [MPs] are talking about it [plastic pollution] and it’s going in the right direction, but we need to take immediate action – not to just talk about it for years,” Newton says.
For her, local government needs to be more active because “we’re all confused about how to recycle, it varies between boroughs and needs to be standardised,” and supermarkets need to understand that we don’t want “all this plastic – Iceland has led the way, now the rest need to follow.”
Let’s hope that the sight of two people slashing through the muddied waters of the city on floating plastic bottles makes people think twice before grabbing another coffee in a disposable cup, or flushing a wet wipe down the loo.
I’d better not have sandpapered plastic bottles for nothing.