Josephine Mahony, Geography student at Wolfson College, returns from a successful mission to clean up plastic at the remote island of Aldabra. The project was set up to return the island to its former pristine state, but also to promote more broadly the reduction of plastic waste.
Sir David Attenborough once commented that the Aldabra Atoll is “one of the world’s greatest surviving natural treasures”. Aldabra, the world’s second-largest coral atoll, is situated in the Indian Ocean and is part of the Outer Islands of Seychelles. The island has managed to escape from many human threats over the centuries, but plastic pollution has found its way into this unique and isolated haven. The Aldabra Clean Up Project was set up to clear the island of man-made rubbish. It was launched in 2018 thanks to a mix of generous sponsors, both corporate and individual. The project is attracting growing international interest and was highlighted at the G7 Summit in 2018 by the president of Seychelles. The exhibition members were composed of seven people from Seychelles and five from Oxford, including Josephine Mahony, PhD student at Wolfson College. Former student Waste Management and now a fourth year PhD student Ecology and Climate Science in East-Africa, she immediately knew this project would be a great fit for her. On the sixteenth of February the team went to Mahé, which is the largest island in the Seychelles archipelago. They headed to Aldabra a week later and only returned after five weeks of clearing the beaches from plastic.
What was your first impression when you came to Aldabra?
“Oh, I cried. When you come closer to the island, you realise that there’s life everywhere. When we first arrived, there was an epic sunset, crabs all over the beach, sharks swimming in the water, and turtles nesting on the beach.
And how about the plastic pollution?
“We were based in the South of the island, a part of Aldabra that is very inaccessible, which means that the plastic pollution there is hard to get rid of. There was a big difference between the amount of plastic on the beaches there compared to more northern beaches. In some places in the South, the plastic was two metres deep. It’s buried amongst the seaweed, but you’re pulling out entire chairs, we picked up about fifty thousand flip-flops, and there was a massive amount of lighters. We found just about everything you can think of that’s made out of plastic.”
Can you tell a bit about the project?
“There were three different phases, the first one being the cleanup phase. This was the most physically intense part. The alarm went off at five in the morning, but it took a while to get ready. We were in camps with bunk beds and a cooker. If you wanted to go to the toilet, you had to work out when everyone else was going and walk a quarter of an hour past spiky rocks and deal with the mosquitos. We had ten cups of water a day each for showering. All this meant we usually got started around 6:30. We’d walk to the nearest beach while carrying water and the sacks we needed, food, and lots of sun cream. We would create a little shelter on the beach and then would start picking up plastic. There were set categories for cleaning up plastic. One of us would be picking up flip-flops, a second plastic bottles or fishing gear, and the third was picking up a miscellaneous category. On other days we’d just put everything in sacks and sort through it later, when it was too hot to be on the beach. Around nine o’clock it would get so hot – all the giant tortoises would disappear for shelter. From 11:30 to 14:30 the heat would get so intense it was hard to keep working. Imagine tropical temperatures, high humidity, no shade, the sand heating up, and your carrying heavy sacks full of plastic. It was like being in an oven. If we were close to our base, we would go back around noon, make some lunch and try to relax. Some people would sleep, but I found it too hot because my bunk was just underneath the corrugated iron roof. The heat would usually break around two, so we’d go and pick up plastic for another four hours. After that, we’d go back to the base, cook dinner and get ready for the next day. Some nights we had to take baby turtles back to the sea, because our lights would accidentally attract them to our camp!
During the second phase I was part of a team of three that supported Sky News as they were filming a documentary for the Aldabra Clean Up Project. It meant helping the crew, setting up tents, cleaning up the nearby beaches, both on and off camera. We all were interviewed by Sky live on air.The other nine volunteers were moving the plastic we’d picked up from spread out locations along the coastline to central pick up points on key beaches, helped by the Seychelles Coast Guard.
The final stage was getting all the plastic onto the boats, which was where the Seychelles Coast Guard really helped us! This made everything much easier for us, because they had a lot more training and experience dealing with big waves and boats in challenging situations. Plus, there were a lot of them – an extra thirty people makes a massive difference. We would be sprinting up and down the beach dragging the plastic to them. It was like interval training, really. The people in the boats were in quite challenging positions, so we had to be very quick, but the skippers knew what they were doing. So there was that, you’d finish a beach, go on to the next one, wait until the waves were right and start the process all over again.”
What happened with the plastic after putting it on the boats?
“The 25 tonnes of plastic we cleared was put on containerships, which went back to Mahé to be stored in a warehouse there. The reason we separated the plastic in those particular categories I mentioned earlier was because before the project started, certain people and organisations were contacted to ask if they would be able to do anything with the collected plastic. A chunk of it was taken away to be used for educational outreach and art projects. The aim is to send PET plastics to a PET recycling factory on Mahé. Environmental charities were contacted if they could repurpose the fishing gear, for ships that want to fish in a sustainable way. But it has been a bit unclear what is happening to the rest of it. One of the problems is that recycling plastic is actually very difficult. Once it has been in the ocean and has started to break down, my understanding is that it can be almost impossible to recycle it. The plastic being stored in a warehouse in Mahé is much better than floating in the ocean, but we should have the conversation as to what we want to do with the plastic. Fortunately, there are a lot of conversations happening internationally, asking similar questions, now that the oceans are polluted. Even if you get the plastic out of the oceans: where does it go? It’s an ongoing issue, but at least people are talking about it.”
How did this project influence your plastic usage?
“I’m definitely trying to cut down on plastic since I got back. At least I’ve learned what’s recyclable and what’s not – I now know what the little codes on plastic packaging mean and if certain types of plastic can be recycled or not. I would also like to write letters to companies, to say that all this plastic isn’t necessary. I am hoping to join some campaigns to fight against single-use plastic. I tried taking a picture of everything that I touch in one day that is made of plastic, and it’s just ridiculous. Almost everything around us is made out of plastic. There’s not an easy way to what happens next. The best thing we can do is raise awareness, and I think this project has opened my eyes and helped me understand the situation.”
What advice would you give to Wolfsonians who are trying to cut down their plastic usage?
“I think people should check whether their fish (especially tuna) is caught using fish aggregating devices. They are causing a lot of trouble when they wash up on islands in the Indian Ocean. They can weigh more than a tonne. This isn’t sustainable, it’s sad that the fishing gear being used to catch our fish is turning into dangerous marine plastic litter on some of the most pristine ecosystems in the world.
Everyone can look up the recycling codes which sit in the little triangle of arrows on plastic packaging. Everything that has a one to six in it, can be recycled. But as soon as it’s seven or higher, it can’t be recycled. It's good to understand what products may have a chance to come back into this closed system, and which products can't be reused.”
The Aldabra Clean Up team is in the process of making their own documentary. Follow the Aldabra Clean Up Project on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates about tackling plastic pollution.