A one-woman expedition to empower, inspire and help save our oceans from plastic pollution.
The UK uses a staggering 38.5m single-use plastic bottles every day. Every. Day. Of which fewer than 60% are currently recycled. Single use plastic is an easy, disposable and forgettable part of many people’s daily lives. We are a part of a throw away culture, where plastic is simply used once, (sometimes only for minutes) and then thrown away. Seemingly out of your sight and mind, but sadly, stays on this planet for hundreds of years to come (450 years if you’re a plastic bottle). Even if it is recycled, it never truly disappears. Plastic does not fully disintegrate; it is not compostable. It ends up in rivers, landfills and the ocean. It’s harming marine life, and it’s harming us (would you like a side of microbeads with your tuna, anyone?). If you buy a 500ml bottle of Coke at a day at the seaside and throw it into any old bin or worse, leave it on the beach, it will stay there: over 150 plastic bottles litter each mile of UK beaches (and approx 5,000 items of other marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach in the UK).
And plastic bottles are not the only offenders. Every morning troops of commuters slope into their nearest high street coffee chain and order a take away coffee- the plastic lined coffee cups and plastic lids are bad enough, then there’s a plastic spoon for your sugar, a plastic tub of fruit for your mid-morning snack and breakfast bar wrapped in packaging. That’s 5 different types of single use plastic in one quick morning coffee run. As consumers in this convenience food trend age we have a responsibility to our planet to recycle such widely used things such as coffee cups. Shockingly, only 1% of the 2.5 billion paper coffee cups used in the UK each year are recycled. High street chains are only offering 25p off your coffee if you bring in a re-usable. An incentive for the public, yes, but one which is mostly ignored. The big name coffee chains need to take more responsibility for how much waste they contribute (cups from Starbucks, Nero, Costa etc. are near impossible to recycle- despite their papery, planet friendly feel). As a nation and a planet we need to work together to use less, as we clearly cannot rely on these giant retailers to take any immediate action. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation have estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Future generations will be surfing plastic waves if we don’t start to act now. Luckily charities like Surfers Against Sewage and Sky Ocean Rescue (with their big plastic whale who toured the UK) are becoming more popular through spreading awareness and various social media campaigns, but there is still a long way to go.
Photo: Will Copestake
Introducing: Cal Major, who, in a brave and inspiring bid to raise awareness of plastic pollution set off on a solo mission to circumnavigate the Isle of Skye on a paddle board. Cal’s aim on this epic, solo mission was to raise awareness and hopefully empower individuals to make a change in the way they use plastic. And this was more than your average 2-minute beach clean, Cal had to battle un-predictable weather, constantly changing tides and winds, and camping on in-accessible beaches, completely alone. Un surprisingly, she found a lot of single use plastic on her travels, even on the most remote spots. We caught up with Cal (who is the founder of Paddle Against Plastic) after she returned to hear all about her adventure, the challenges she faced and the plastic she found along the way.
So you embarked on your adventure to raise awareness for plastic pollution- but why solo, and why the Isle of Skye?
Why Solo! That’s a good question! Nobody else was mad enough to do it with me?! I knew it was going to be an incredibly physically challenging expedition, and having paddled the Cornish coast last year, had had a glimpse of what ocean paddle boarding expeditions might throw at me. I almost didn’t want to put anybody else in that scenario. Nothing except paddling in awful ocean conditions can prepare you for paddling in awful ocean conditions, and I knew this venue was going to be one of the most challenging in the UK: I didn’t want to subject anybody else to that who truly didn’t fully understand the risks and wasn’t prepared for it.
Why the Isle of Skye? It’s absolutely stunning. It’s remote and beautiful, and there is very little coastal development. I wanted to demonstrate that even these places which are so untouched are still vulnerable to plastic pollution. The Isle of Skye is also subject to Scotland’s famous weather: Strong winds, crazy tides and big swell, which created an incredibly challenging location for a circumnavigation – I wanted to embark upon an adventure extreme enough to reflect the scale of the problem of plastic pollution.
How did you prepare yourself for the trip- mentally and physically?
I had accepted that no amount of training was going to realistically completely prepare me physically for this challenge. With 8 hours on the water, day after day, it was going to get tough, I was going to be sore and physically exhausted. So i did what physical training I was able to fit in around work and planning the trip, mostly interval training to get the best fitness levels in the shortest amount of time, and a few long distance paddles. I knew I had a basic level of paddle fitness, so I focused on staying strong and supple and avoiding injuries. Yoga had a big part to play in this actually!
The mental preparation was the most crucial. I needed to let go of expectations and let it run its course organically. I did a couple long distance paddles on my own, where I realised how much of a mind game this was going to be. Without anybody else there pushing me on and encouraging me, I would have to take on that role myself, and muster some discipline and commitment. I thought a lot about the situations I might be thrown into. I studied the maps and the tides. I spoke to the coastguard about safety contingencies. I begged borrowed and bought as much useful safety kit as I could so I knew I was as well prepared as possible! I was scared, and I wanted to make sure I had done everything in my power to make this as safe as I could. I got a lot of sleep, voiced my worries to friends, and tried to really maintain a healthy state of mind before setting off!
What were the biggest challenges you faced whilst on the trip?
The biggest challenge came on day one, and really threw me. I was paddling along in beautiful sunshine feeling pretty smug about the conditions, with gentle wind at my back. Without warning, the wind switched direction and picked up to 25 knots, blowing directly off shore and out to sea. I was rapidly being blown away from land. I was completely powerless against this wind – every buoy I tried to paddle for I was drifting past. The bags on the front of my board were picking up the wind and I couldn’t turn the nose of my board towards shore. I was helpless, and stuck in a real dilemma of stopping paddling to reach for my VHF and call the coastguard, and get blown out further, in which eventuality I would have called the rest of the trip off, or, hyperventilating and exhausted, continuing to paddle and to try and find a way to fight this wind.
I managed to get to a buoy, held on for dear life and got my breath back. I redirected my board and paddled hell for leather to the shore and into the safety of shelter. After another few hours of paddling, my legs shaking, I got into where I camped for that night, and had almost no doubt that this mission was impossible, and that I would have to call it off. Finding the courage to get up the next day and do it all again took all the strength I had.
The second biggest challenge I faced was complete exhaustion. I had just crossed a 10-mile loch, and sprinted the last hour. For the whole crossing, the wind was blowing off shore and I had to fight to maintain my position. The last sprint was pulled out of the bag by adrenaline, and when I got to land the other side, I crashed and burned. I had another mile to paddle to get to somewhere I could get ashore, and I thought I was going to collapse. My head was pounding and I thought I would throw up. My legs were weak, I had to sit on my board and slowly pull myself into shore, gathering all the strength I had left not to pass out. It was very scary, because it would have been so much easier just to curl up on the board and close my eyes or to collapse into that water. I got to land in torrential rain, sat cross legged on the shore and passed out in that position!
Photo: Will Copestake
And the high points?
Ahh! Despite all the challenges, there were so many highs. The wildlife was so special. I had dolphins accompanying me on several loch crossings, at one point playing around the nose of my board. Sea eagles soaring overhead, seals popping their heads up like Hungry Hippos and vibrantly coloured jellyfish were almost daily sightings. I was entertained by dive-bombing gannets, and thousands of hilarious sea birds going about their daily business.
I was completely wired on the conditions for the entire trip, and so focused on what was going on around me – the sights, the sounds, watching the patterns in the cloud movements and what that might mean for the wind, being aware of rogue waves that threatened to throw me off my board, rain, sunshine, seals… I was so immersed in the natural world that it became almost meditative. Despite the adrenaline, I felt calm a lot of the time. Having to make all my own decisions minute by minute each and every day gave me such a sense of empowerment. I could, and was, doing this. The solitude taught me a lot.
Rounding the Northern most tip of Skye was particularly special. The sun was shining and there were light winds – I couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions. Rubha Hunish is renowned for its epic tidal race around the tip where big bodies of water meet and are funnelled between Skye and the Outer Hebrides, making me feel pretty small, powerless and insignificant on a paddle board! So I had checked and triple checked my tide times, and was wired into watching what the sea was doing ahead of me. As I got closer to the headland, I could see that the water was incredibly confused. The currents seemed to be going in lots of different directions, the water was seriously choppy, and there were white caps as far as I could see. I had to have faith that I had worked the timings out right. The relief when I was whisked around that point by the tide was phenomenal. I loved that paddle.
Photo: James Appleton
What were your biggest learning curves along the way?
I had to practice a great deal of self-compassion. There was nobody there to comfort me or reassure me when I was scared, or worried, or unsure about a decision. I talked to myself on the water a lot! As cheesy as it sounds, I became my own best friend. I was kind to myself, understanding, compassionate and supportive. When I needed a push, somehow I found the strength to encourage myself. It was very eye opening to how harsh we are on ourselves day to day, and how actually we do need to be more understanding and loving towards ourselves.
The peace and solitude taught me a lot, not least that I didn’t need anybody else out there to help me make my decisions to keep me safe. I had all the strength and knowledge I needed; it was very empowering. I also thought a lot about the fragility of nature, especially with all the plastic I was seeing. The Isle of Skye is an epic place, so dramatic and strong. And yet these stupid bits of plastic are destroying it just like they are everywhere else. I was humbled by thoughts of my own fragility, and instilled with a deeper appreciation for and gratitude towards my loved ones and all the beauty in my life.
What was 1 item you were so glad you had with you throughout the whole trip?
My personal locator beacon! That was my lifeline. If my VHF radio didn’t work (I was often out of signal and couldn’t reach the coast guard), that was my final safety net. It’s a device that if activated sends the coastguard a distress signal with my GPS location. Having it on me at all times was a massive reassurance that someone might find me if I got lost at sea!
How much plastic do you think you came across/picked up? Was it even more than you could’ve expected?
There was so much more plastic than I had expected. Having been up to Scotland a few times, I knew that there was generally a lot of plastic washing onto Western Isles, but was not quite prepared for the sheer amount I found on the deserted beaches. I camped at beaches that were incredibly remote and so stunning, I stopped on an uninhabited island one day, and I would spend hours at sea without seeing another vessel: and despite the remoteness, at every place I stopped I was shocked by the piles upon piles of plastic lining the beaches. This was all coming in from the ocean, and it really hit home the scale of the problem. On several occasions I shared my camping spot with cows and sheep, and they were eating the plastic on the beaches. I chatted to a farmer one day about her beautiful highland cows, several of whom she had had to have operated on to remove plastic from their stomachs. There wasn’t a single place I stopped at that wasn’t visibly affected by this stuff. I would estimate that about 30% of what I was finding was fishing gear, and most of the rest was single use plastic items that are used on land. Overall, it’s estimated that over 80% of ocean plastic originates from land based sources, and when it is affecting such untouched places like this and killing wildlife and farm animals alike, stopping it at source absolutely needs to be top of our priorities.
Do you think brands/high street chains are doing enough to tackle the amount of plastic they dish out on a daily basis? What do you wish they would do differently?
There is now so much in the media about plastic pollution and the damage it is causing. I do not believe that the heads of these businesses are unaware of the issue. And yet, often it seems to be so low down on their priority list. We are a long way off living without all single use plastic, but so much of it that is used is completely unnecessary and easily done without, and it is within our power to do so. Once we start to notice it, we can start to appreciate how ludicrous the amount we use is. I think the companies need to take more responsibility for the amount that is used, and make it easier for people to use less. Remove all that is unnecessary, or have people opt into using it rather than, for example, your cocktail coming with 3 plastic straws as standard. This is where Surfers Against Sewage’s Plastic Free Coastlines guidelines come into play – setting a series of criteria to help local businesses to use less plastic day to day, and to be accredited and feel proud to be alleviating the problem at source. I think that is a huge step in the right direction.
The 5p bag charge has gone a long way to tackling the problem of excessive plastic bag use, and a lot of coffee shops are now offering discounts if you bring your own cup. But this problem requires attention so urgently that I think more needs to be done now to tackle it proactively and for it to become an important consideration to both individuals and businesses.
What are your 3 favourite plastic alternatives you always have with you?
I always have with me a reusable water bottle. I have never yet been refused a refill, in pubs, restaurants, shops… even in the airport. I haven’t bought a plastic bottle in this country for at least 2 years now, and honestly, honestly don’t find it an inconvenience at all. It has become second nature to have a bottle with me at all times, and I appreciate it can feel a bit daunting at first, but I now feel no qualms about asking for a refill when out and about. It really doesn’t need too much planning ahead. I love Klean Kanteen bottles, they’re classy, easily cleanable, and seriously robust.
I love coffee. I’ll regularly treat myself to a posh one. In fact, it is pretty much the only way I get through a day of work! So my reusable coffee cup would be the next thing I always have with me. A friend recently surprised me by mentioning he always recycles his coffee cups in the paper bin. My brother also once told me this. I think there is a misunderstanding of what coffee cups are made of – they are plastic lined and not widely recycled, and we really can’t afford to be using them at the rate we are doing when they are so avoidable.
My third favourite plastic free alternative would have to be my Mooncup instead of tampons. I always thought Mooncup’s were a bit weird and unnecessary, but when I realised how many disposable products I was using each month, I decided to give it a go. I am completely converted and I now absolutely love it. I no longer have to buy or carry with me bulky sanitary items, and I can have completely waste free periods, it’s seriously convenient. Life changing.
If you could completely ban one type of pesky plastic from the planet what would it be?
Straws!! There is just no need!! I was in Indonesia earlier this year and collected over 100 straws on a beach in under 20 minutes. All destined for the oceans and its beautiful, vulnerable wildlife. I’d recommend taking a reusable straw with you if travelling – I must have saved about 15 straws a day with the amount of coconuts ahem cocktails I was drinking!
Whats next for Paddle Against Plastic? Where is your next adventure?
I am planning an all female super adventure next year… Still working out whether or not it is possible! Watch this space!!
Thank you Cal for talking to us and also to Surfers Against Sewage for the shocking statistics and figures to support this article.
You can follow SAS here and join the resistance for #plasticfreecoastlines. You can sign up, download a plastic free action plan HERE and start to make changes in the way you use single use plastic. They recently delivered their petition of 270,000+ signatures to Westminster for a deposit return scheme to be introduced to the UK.
Here are some other easy ways you can reduce your use of single use plastic-
Invest in a re-fillable water bottle, and don’t be scared to ask to have it re filled in cafe’s and bars. We love this one from Swell.
Microbeads are being banned from sale by the end of 2017 in the UK, which is great, but there’s still beauty products on the shelves containing them. Instead we love to use the scrubs from Optiat– they collect ground Arabica coffee beans and re purpose them into exfoliating scrubs. We love the potent peppermint flavour- it will literally wake your face up!
Refuse straws. Or if you must with your G&T, buy a re-usable one.
Take part in a #2minutebeacclean, and share your efforts online. It doesn’t even have to be at the beach, it could be in the park, or on your local riverside paths.
Make tupperware your best mate, stop buying salads, granola pots, fruit salads etc in plastic tubs from supermarkets.
Set yourself a challenge- can you go a whole week with no single use plastic purchases? It is possible, just don’t forget your refillable!