“The problem with plastic is the way that we use it,” says Jo Royle, founder of social enterprise Common Seas. “Nature designs regenerative and restorative systems whereas plastic is designed for one life. We need to transition our product design for multiple lives from the offset.”
The former trans-ocean sailing and racing skipper is on a mission to quickly and significantly reduce the amount of plastic produced and stop it from polluting rivers and seas. Recycling is not the solution, with only around 7% of plastic materials being recycled. Instead, Royle believes the answer is to design our way out of a plastic crisis by driving new policy, investing in the circular economy and catalysing cultural shift programs.
“It’s what is referred to as ‘an upstream solution’ based on the principle that by the time plastic gets to the ocean it's too late,” explains James Simpson, Head of Communications and Marketing at Common Seas. “We work on projects that cut plastic off at the source.”
Royle first encountered the issue of plastic 20 years ago in South Georgia.“I was spending my winter seasons in the Antarctic with scientists and explorers who taught me about our relationship with nature,” Royle says. “Each year we'd see plastic further south, penguin colonies moving around to escape the warming ice and large fishing vessels in the middle of the southern nation hoovering up krill night and day. I love to be at sea because you're working in response to what mother nature throws at you, but it was a stark realisation about how much our material choices directly impact nature.”
Royle has made it her mission to raise awareness and lobby for change. Her first initiative was to sail 8,000 miles from San Francisco to Sydney on a boat called PLASTIKI made from 12,500 plastic bottles.
“PLASTIKI was a certified cradle to cradle vessel,” she explains. “We spent two years building it in the most harmonious way with nature and proving that if we can sustainably build a successful oceangoing yacht, then we can build everyday products.”
On her return, she began working with the Pew Charitable Trust on their Global Ocean Legacy campaign to create the first generation of fully protected marine reserves and helped to secure the UK Government’s commitment to delivering the Blue Belt, “which equates to millions of square kilometres of protected ocean.”
Today, much of the work focuses on driving new government policy to help combat current predictions that there will be four times more plastic in our oceans within the next 20 years.
“There's a lot of global chatter about plastics but very little measurable policy,” says Royle. “We’re supporting governments to set realistic goals based on the evidence and to deliver achievable strategies. It’s about helping countries to identify their roadmap to reduction.”
Active government partnerships are with Indonesia, Paros island and the Caribbean, while the plastic drawdown analysis it carried out on behalf of the government of the Maldives – which has committed to becoming the first plastic-free country and has banned the importation of bottles under 500ml – evaluated the volume of plastic bottles, tourist waste and leakage from waste transport vessels to help inform the government’s single use plastic phase out plan.
“We help local councils to measure the plastic pollution from their island by conducting marine litter audits with local people,” explains Simpson. “That involves looking at the use of plastic in the local area and looking at what washes up on the shores. It goes beyond a beach clean, which collects it in a bag and sends it to landfill. This categorises it and works out what everything is.”
One of the best case studies in the Maldives is the sustainable luxury resorts operator, Soneva. It has eliminated all plastics from its front of house and developed a waste to wealth model that formed the blueprint for a three-day workshop facilitated by Soneva and Common Seas inviting local islands and national government to participate in a pilot project to reduce single use plastic waste. This, in turn, led to the formation of the NGO Soneva Namoona.
“The workshop culminated in all parties signing a clean blue charter that committed the government to measuring and reporting plastic waste in the Maldives,” says Royle. “We've been working ever since to deliver it and it has given us a blueprint for other countries.”
In popular charter destinations, such as the Maldives and the Caribbean, Common Seas’ projects are gearing up to a level where Simpson is confident people will see the impact of their work on the ground. These types of programs also present opportunities for philanthropic yacht owners wanting to facilitate change, either by adopting some of the initiatives developed for hospitality and applying them to yachting, or by sponsoring island nations, such as Barbados and the Bahamas, to gain access to knowledge and gather the necessary evidence to design a holistic roadmap to less plastics.
“Across the Caribbean landfills are full and a recent study of ours carried out by scientists at Imperial College London has found there are now microplastics in our blood,” says Royle. “Any business or government with a moral compass is already working to limit global warming to 1.5°C, but we’re working towards a Global Plastics Treaty with the UN that will enforce a cap on plastics production and motivate countries and businesses to report their emissions annually and set targets for reduction. Anyone capable of providing financial support to island nations or scientific research is enabling significant positive change.”
Simpson agrees, adding: “One of the biggest challenges around climate change is the level of ‘climate despair’ that’s creeping in, whereby people feel it's too big a problem for them to do anything about. That's not the case with plastics. Every individual change can make a huge difference to the impact on the ocean and that is what we're trying to raise awareness of – the significant positive benefits of taking plastic out of your life.”
Learn more about IYC’s partnership initiatives with Common Seas: