Plastic Marine Litter on our Doorstep

Marine litter has been a part of Challenge Wales’ sail training adventures over the years. It’s taken teamwork to recover disused fishing nets that were just left bobbing in the sea and deliver them to a local marina, we’ve sailed past thinning, faded, plastic carrier bags and been nestled in marinas where a change of wind direction and raised river levels have created masses of driftwood and ‘drift plastic’ to congregate. Even on a quiet, windless day, white items of plastic including empty drinks bottles, sweet wrappers and straws can be seen floating in Penarth Marina.

Over the last eight months we’ve been researching the unfantastic plastic and marine litter problem to see how we can really make a difference. We’ve been speaking to organisations who are playing their part nationally in Wales so that we know who to feed our findings or research into, we’ve been doing some market research and thinking about how our future actions can link into the bigger picture….and what a big picture it is becoming.

Challenge Wales plays a large educational role within Wales. Not just in alternative curriculum programmes and accredited learning but through our engagement with children and adults within school, college, university and the work place who jump onboard and into our outdoor classroom. In 2018, to underpin our educational programme and youth adventures will be awareness of marine litter and one-use plastic with a particular focus on plastic water bottles. We want to help change thinking in a throw-away society and bring some new conversations to the table and the people, organisations and suppliers we work with.

TV programmes, blogs, newspapers, social media, conversations, radio have been great in raising awareness of the plastics issue but what next?

Like many, we watched the recent BBC programme Blue Planet II, like many (no doubt) we ordered the free Oceans Poster/Educational pack that was advertised after the show to help us learn more about marine life and the issues around microplastics and marine litter, and to share this knowledge with those who come onboard. With anticipation when our pack arrived we ripped open the plastic package it came in, and like many (hopefully) we popped the plastic envelope in our recycle bin. We had assumed it was recyclable, it must be, surely?!

Our plastic envelope had a 5 PP symbol on it. It’s got recycling arrows on it so must be ok to recycle, surely?

And, this is where awareness kicks in. We had assumed a few arrows in a triangle shape had meant it was recyclable and our local council website suggested all plastics can be recycled, but an online search revealed a Grade 5 plastic made from Polypropylene (shown as PP on the envelope) might not be. But surely such a powerful programme about our oceans and the importance of protecting them in which David Attenborough warned that plastic pollution was one issue that was threatening our oceans wouldn’t get the Open University to send out information in a package that was at the heart of the problem?

A quick call to the Open University, who had despatched the information, gave us not quite the answer we were looking for. But they said: “It can’t be recycled in your kerbside collection but you will need to find a supermarket that recycles carrier bags and they should be able to take it”. But if the plastic packaging was in fact recyclable then why did a packet of muffins with exactly the same logo on it have “Currently not recyclable” stamped clearly on the packaging?

So does this mean there are different plastic composites within different plastic packaging so that even with the same symbol some can be recyclable and some can’t?!


So, we went and did a teeny weeny bit of market research and showed 16 volunteers our empty plastic envelope that our poster had come in, followed by the unrecyclable muffin pack and pointing out the same logo, followed by putting our Open University/Blue Planet Poster back into the plastic envelope and re-circulating it. Gosh, what a gasp there was. OK it was a small sample size but it was proving a point. The majority thought that the plastic envelope was unrecyclable, with a couple suggesting to check it out with the council as it might be. And, with most thinking it was unrecyclable there was the shock and questions asked as to why was a programme raising awareness of plastic issues providing us with information in an unrecyclable plastic envelope.

It’s an interesting conversation piece! With our local supermarket advising us that they don’t do carrier bag recycling anymore it now looks like the plastic envelope that our Blue Planet/Open University poster came in….is not going to be able to be recycled and the consensus is that it wasn’t recyclable in the first place. But even if it was recyclable with the information we’ve received it was probably going to be disposed of in the refuse with the risk of becoming marine litter/microplastics and contributing to the problem. Can’t all packaging be labelled in the same way to help the consumer, clearly like our Muffins pack?

Challenge Wales is now going to be helping to turn the tide on plastic through our educational and adult programme and having more conversations like this.

Our first step, yes – you can probably guess, is the one-use plastic water bottle. The Challenge Wales charity hasn’t purchased bottled water to go onboard the boat since it’s been operating. We carry our own water (yep that’s a whopping 1,760 litres of it on Challenge Wales and an almost equal amount on Adventure Wales) so we’ll be discouraging (as we progress to banning) everyone from coming onboard with a single use plastic water bottle and, with financial support, our aim is to be able to provide ALL our guests with a refillable water bottle.

This is the start of our own awareness as we bring the conversation of one use plastic and the impact of marine litter to the table.

As of writing this our plastic envelope is sat in the office on the desk as we really hope it is recyclable.

Challenge Wales sail training vessel has Blue Flag Status through Sail Training International. Blue Flag is a programme of the Foundation for Environmental Education and we play our part through our actions and education in protecting our marine environment.