Poetry and Plastics

Art meets science in the Clean Seas Odyssey

by Claire Cox

THE STATISTICS are frightening. Some 8 million tons of plastic waste flow into our oceans every year. That’s five grocery bags of plastic rubbish for every foot of coastline around the world. 40 percent of plastic produced is packaging, used once, then discarded. Plastics can last up to 400 years or more, before breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, which never go away. Globally, it is estimated that over 100 million marine animals are killed each year by plastic waste. At present, about 8 percent of the world’s oil production is used to make plastic and power its manufacture, and that figure is projected to rise to 20 percent by 2050. But how can poetry tackle such an urgent, and growing global problem?

That question was far from my mind when, in June 2018, I traveled to London to attend the ‘Under her Eye: Women and Climate Change’ conference, a biannual international arts-science summit curated by Invisible Dust. Its final session featured the much-anticipated keynote speaker Margaret Atwood. In the large auditorium, I found myself sitting next to a smart, blue-suited woman with untameable corkscrew curls. Along with several hundred other delegates, we listened to Atwood’s words, her unshakable intelligence and laconic fatalism. Afterward, when the auditorium was emptying, something made us turn to each other and strike up a conversation.

Rebecca Sykes mentioned she was a wave-engineer by training, a sailor by passion and that she was just about to set off on a three-month voyage with her partner, Nick Beck, to investigate marine plastic pollution. Half-jokingly, I, a later-life research student and confirmed landlubber, asked if they needed a project poet. By the end of a ten-minute conversation, Clean Seas Odyssey had an on-shore poet. I was going to use the power of poetry to record, reflect and communicate by posting a daily haiku on social media for the duration of the voyage. Haiku, as a form, we agreed would work for its brevity, accessibility, and suitability for Facebook posts. There would also be an opportunity to gain wider involvement in the Odyssey adventure by inviting haiku contributions from other people. I realized later that the fitness of this form for the project was far deeper than I’d first appreciated. The traditional, time-honoured references of haiku, so tied to nature and seasonality, only go to highlight how disrupted the shifting patterns of climate change have now become.

Clean Seas Odyssey set out in June 2018 from historic Buckler’s Hard, Hampshire, to sail 1,000 miles (1,609 km) around the western part of the English Channel in the replica Scillonian cutter, Amelie Rose. The aim was to educate ourselves and others about the problems and solutions to sea plastic pollution. For most of that time, I worked from my desk, either writing haiku in response to events on the voyage, facts about plastic pollution, or tips for reducing plastic use. Coincidentally, the global initiative ‘Plastic Free July’ fell in the middle of the voyage, so providing impetus and information on cutting plastic consumption. I reached out to many other poets and contacts who willingly contributed their haiku, adding to the creative output and sense of shared ownership. I also received haikus from school children, teachers, and writer’s groups. Over the course of the voyage, Clean Seas Odyssey’s blogs, videos, and daily haiku gained over 1,000 followers across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. And, as project poet, I actually managed to step away from my desk: on the stormiest day of the year, I joined the crew for the last leg of the voyage from Brighton back to Buckler’s Hard, via the Isle of Wight. It was my first experience of hands-on sailing, and I felt deeply privileged to be taught some basic practical skills aboard the beautiful Amelie Rose. Over the course of the Clean Seas Odyssey Rebecca and Nick had met and interviewed professors and scientific researchers, waste management experts, artists, experts in the circular economy and economics, business managers, environmental charities, and community leaders to learn from their expertise. This learning was shared through 11 open days at which nearly 400 people visited the on-board exhibition of information and practical solutions.

The Clean Seas Odyssey team had the privilege to interview experts including Professor Richard Thompon OBE from the University of Plymouth who has researched microplastics for over 20 years and who authored the Government Office for Science foresight report, Future of the Sea: Plastic Pollution.

A key concern of the Clean Seas Odyssey was to contribute to primary scientific research on microplastics in association with Birmingham University. As a citizen science pilot project, we set out to see if interested members of the public could be asked to use jam jars cleaned with distilled water to take samples of water and sediments from river estuaries around the UK and France’s Channel coast. Over the course of the voyage the crew and volunteers collected over 68 kg of sediment from 13 locations in 5 river estuaries and 2 island beaches. A series of haiku drew attention to this important aspect of the voyage, including the collecting of samples and the bemused responses of passers-by on seeing jam jars full of wet sand. The samples were boxed up and sent back to researchers at Birmingham University to determine the viability of the sampling protocol and to develop a picture from the returned samples of the different types of polymers that accumulate in river sediments at their confluence with the sea. The results of this initial survey showed a much wider variety of plastic types in the samples than had been anticipated and demonstrated that, even in relatively well-regulated countries like the UK and France, there are a variety of different sources contributing to a high concentration of microplastics in river systems.

On the back of this pilot, Birmingham University secured major funding for their 100 Plastic Rivers Project which engaged with scientists in more than 60 locations worldwide to sample water and sediment in rivers in the first systematic and global analysis of microplastics in freshwater ecosystems. The aim was to understand better how plastics are transported and transformed in rivers and how they accumulate in river sediments, where they create a long-lasting pollution legacy. The project set out to analyze both primary microplastics, such as microbeads used in cosmetics, and secondary microplastics – from larger plastic items that have broken down in the environment or as fibres from clothing. Professor Stefan Krause, of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, explained: “Even if we all stopped using plastic right now, there would still be decades-, if not centuries-, worth of plastics being washed down rivers and into our seas. We’re getting more and more aware of the problems this is causing in our oceans, but we are now only starting to look at where these plastics are coming from, and how they’re accumulating in our river systems. We need to understand this before we can really begin to understand the scale of the risk that we’re facing.” Clean Seas Odyssey contributed to this understanding, and the haikus served to extend awareness of the project through their digital dissemination and through the involvement of various communities.

In another cutting-edge link with the science of microplastics, the crew, including myself, visited the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, and spoke to Dr Katsia Pabortsava, a research scientist, who was just about to set out to sample microplastics in the Atlantic. She alerted us to not only the academic difficulties of arriving at an agreed definition of ‘micro plastics’ but also pointed to another aspect of the marine plastics problem: scientific concerns over potential contributions to climate change through gases released from plastics as they break down and through buoyant particles slowing the sea’s processes in sequestering carbon onto the seafloor as part of the carbon cycle. I’d started out as a poet with a research interest in disasters, now I was learning about front-line scientific research into marine plastics, and what I was learning was impossible to unlearn. This unanticipated involvement was affecting me and my poetry practice in ways I could never have foreseen. I now have a far more informed outlook on the scale and urgency of plastic pollution, and a deeper knowledge about plastic production, its uses and disposal. I have had dedicated time to consider the causes of this pollution, and to adapt my consumer behaviour, as far as possible in a global system that’s currently rigged towards unsustainability. This new knowledge has gone on to underpin implicitly much of my current work. The recent Alastair Reid prize-winning pamphlet A Book of Days is an exploration of lived experience and mediated disaster. Competition judge Roseanne Watt said that ‘this pamphlet really captured a sense of what it’s like to live as an individual plugged into the collective. How personal events measure and collide in an age of endless political, social, environmental crises, Twitter spheres, and 24-hour news cycles. This pamphlet strikes a wondrous balance of playful, witty, urgent, and profoundly moving poems whose interconnectedness are a pleasure to behold.’ I am now researching and writing around eco-poetics and the effect of the Anthropocene on the non-human with a drive and dedication I’d not had before joining Clean Seas Odyssey.

I’ve also been encouraged to engage in gentle forms of activism. Prompted by the knowledge that marine pollution is fed most directly by river pollution, I undertook a leg of the national Waterbike Collective initiative, litter-picking the River Thames from Oxford to Abingdon. The Canal and River Trust (covering England and Wales), estimates that around 80% of the plastic in our oceans comes from litter dropped inland. Their research shows that 1,562 items of plastic (bottles, food wrappers, bags etc.) leave one of our canals or rivers and head to the sea every single day. That’s more than 500,000 items each year. Two years after the end of our voyage, in August 2020, Dr Katsia Pabortsava published the findings of her study in the journal Nature Communications. She’s calculated that the combined mass of the microparticles of just the three most-littered plastics (polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene) suspended in the top 200 meters of the Atlantic Ocean is between 11 and 21 million tonnes, enough to load fully almost 1,000 container ships. This is much more than anticipated and has significant implications for the amount of plastics overall that are lingering on in our seas. The challenge for poetry, science, and life in the twenty-first century continues.


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