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An interview with Robin Clegg about microplastics and the Volvo Ocean Race’s Sustainability Program

by David Schmidt 14 Nov 16:00 GMT November 14, 2018
Turn the Tide on Plastic - Leg 10 from Cardiff to Gothenburg. © Ainhoa Sanchez / Volvo Ocean Race

For decades, humans have lived with the happy hope that refuse discarded in the ocean will somehow just biodegrade or disintegrate, given enough time and exposure to UV light and saltwater, but the past few years have delivered the inconvenient truth that plastics simply break down into smaller, far more insidious "microplastics". As their name implies, these bits of plastic are defined by the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as being less than five millimeters in diameter, making them tiny needles in a global-sized haystack.

There are two major classifications of microplastics, namely those that are produced or manufactured (e.g., filaments from fleece jackets that are shed during a trip through the washing machine or microbeads that are used in cosmetics and some toothpastes) and those that are the broken-down byproduct of the larger plastic debris that commonly congregate in human-desecrated places like the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre.

For years, people believed (or at least hoped) that these microplastics essentially stayed put, leaving the planet's truly wild places such as the storied Southern Ocean unblemished, but the Volvo Ocean Race's (VOR) recent Sustainability Program [sic], which sampled water during the race's 2017/2018 edition, revealed that even Point Nemo, which is defined as the planet's most remote spot at more than 1,400 nautical miles from the nearest dry shores, contains roughly nine to 26 microplastic particles per cubic meter of water.

This and plenty of other sobering data was collected by skipper Dee Caffari's Turn the Tide on Plastic team and skipper Simeon Tienpont's team AkzoNobel squad as they raced around the world in a series of stage races. While these VOR –collected report cards detailing ocean-heath aren't especially uplifting, the one upside is that the scientific community now has a much better idea of how widespread the microplastics problem has become, even in the roaring forties and furious fifties.

I checked in with Robin Clegg, who handles sustainability communications for the Volvo Ocean Race, via email, to find out more about microplastics, the VOR's Sustainability Program, and the results that this forward-leaning program delivered.

Can you tell us a bit about the VOR's micro plastics program? What was the impetus for the project and who supplied the funding?

The future health of our oceans is at risk and with the Volvo Ocean Race going in the most remote areas of our planet we had the perfect opportunity for a sporting event to advance scientific understanding and the impacts of human activity on ocean health. So the race created a scientific consortium to implement the Science Program. It was supported by Volvo Cars and a cluster of excellence with a group of the best scientific experts in the field of ocean observation, instrumentation, data collection and analysis.

Microplastics are harmful to marine life and as the race passed through some of the most remote oceans on earth we were able to provide the scientific community with groundbreaking data, made available open source, on how far they'd spread.

In total we collected and analyzed 86 seawater samples and found that 93% contained microplastic particles.

What kind of time redress did Turn the Tide on Plastic and team AkzoNobel receive for participating in the MP surveys? Or, was that not part of the deal? Also, what kind of compensation was allowed to cover the weight of the water-testing equipment?

The two boats were given no time redress for taking part in the data collection process and all competing boats carried equal weight. We strictly respected the one-design rule in that matter. The collection process generally took one person five to ten minutes every two days.

What were the biggest things that you and the VOR learned through the 2017/2018 race and its related water sampling and testing?

Unfortunately, we learned that microplastics have spread across our blue planet and it's proved difficult to find places with no traces of them.

Whilst the information we provided is valuable for the scientific communities understanding of their spread, there is no standardized method or destination for data collection, and this is something we are advocating.

Obviously hearing that the teams were finding between nine and 26 particles of MP per cubic meter of Southern Ocean brine at Point Nemo wasn't good news, but were there any positive news that came out of this survey? Or, is this our species wake-up call that if we don't act now, the damage could be forever done?

The results made for alarming reading but it is within our power to encourage behavioral change for the future health of our seas. People who came to the race villages, over 2.5 million in total, read about the impacts and solutions to the plastic crisis.

Our education program engaged over 100,000 children and working with the UN Environment #CleanSeas campaign helped to inspire them to make changes in their own lives to reduce their plastic footprint. We avoided the use of nearly 400,000 plastic bottles during the 12 stopovers so the public [is] receptive to our message. People are willing to be part of the solution and can help to turn the tide and be part of the plastic solution and that is heartening.

But solutions cannot come only from engaging the public, we also need to engage decision makers throughout the plastic value chain. So we organized a series of seven Ocean Summits to gather influencers, showcase best practice and successfully encourage high-level measured and time-bound commitments across the private sector, public institutions, and even countries, states and cities.

What was the sailors' attitudes towards the Sustainability Program [sic] at the beginning of the race? Also, how do you think this changed by the end, when the data was published?

Some sailors were unaware of the scale of the issue when they signed up for the 2017/2018 edition [of the VOR] and may have been disengaged, but seeing-with their own eyes-the spread of plastic across their racetrack, the ocean, many decided to be part of the solution and resolved to reassess their relationship with plastic.

I was happy to hear about The Ocean Clean Up—is it your understanding that this project will remove all plastic debris from the water, or will it only be able to capture the larger bits?

Microplastics are less than 5mm in length so it is not possible for this project to remove all plastic debris from the seas.

What is the current thinking about how to best solve the MP problem?

We now need to work upstream the plastic value chain engaging the whole network of responsible stakeholders from scientists, to private sector to policy makers.

We advocate a policy of educating people so they don't contribute to the problem by not using single-use plastics.

If people stop using [these plastic products], demand decreases, less are made and we will see less [microplastics] impacting the environment.

Realistically, what are the biggest problems that microplastics pose to humans and our ecosystem and food chain/supply?

Species, including birds and marine mammals, from turtles to whales, are affected by the large and small pieces of plastic. If they are being absorbed by fish, there is every chance they are making their way up the food chain and could be affecting human health. We are actively promoting further studies so we can understand how harmful they could be.

Anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

To build upon the program's significant sustainability achievements so far and to deliver global impact, we will take the sustainability practices to the next level during the 2021/22 event. Meanwhile, in the run up to the next edition, the program will continue to organize a range of international Ocean Summits, further expand the Education Program and continue to pioneer a Scientific Program focusing on ocean plastic for a sustainable future.

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