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WHEN PEOPLE COME TOGETHER TO PROTECT OUR PLANET

Stella McCartney Winter 19 Campaign

OUR COASTS ARE LITTERED WITH GARBAGE AND CONTINUOUSLY THREATENED BY CATASTROPHIC POLLUTIVE EVENTS, SUCH AS OIL SPILLS. MAKING A CHANGE IS LARGELY UP TO OURSELVES, AND INITIATIVES SUCH AS THE INTERNATIONAL COASTAL CLEANUP AND WORLD CLEANUP DAY INSPIRE US AND SHOW US A GREATER WAY FORWARD.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza

Time after time, we encounter heartbreaking images of oil spills, trash flooding beaches and dead animals washed up on shores in every corner of the world, as we are reminded that there is so much we must do to mitigate the harm inflicted on our marine and coastal environments. Many may remember the Exxon Valdez disaster in the late 1980s in Alaska, or the Prestige oil tanker in the early 2000s in Europe. As is often the case, some events are more mediatic than others, but this does not make any of them less serious, where damage inflicted on marine ecosystems is always severe. Fortunately, initiatives like International Coastal Cleanup remind us that we can do our bit and show us how communities can work together.

Photography by Jess Vide

We all love the beaches of Mallorca, Punta Cana or Bali, where we find crystal clear waters and white sands, to enjoy our vacations. Despite this, we continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, the extraction and storage of which poses significant environmental risks, combined with our overuse of plastic objects, often ending up in the oceans after disposal.This same year, marked by the decline in the number of international tourists in much of the world and the rise of local tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the south and east coasts of England have suffered the impact of this change. Many holiday towns like Great Yarmouth have seen their beautiful seascape littered with garbage after heaving beach days.

The oceans represent more than 90% of the biosphere, are essential to preserve life on Earth and also constitute a huge source of food and of economic sustenance for coastal communities around the world. As human activity has intensified over the centuries and industry has boomed, rivers have been seen as simple and convenient means to dispose of waste of all kinds. In this way, discharges of sewage, textile dyes, and heavy metals, such as mercury, have ended up in the sea.In recent decades, efforts have been made to reverse this process in many countries, using water treatment plants in cities, launching public waste awareness campaigns, and developing environmental protocols for factories, as well as specific legislation to favour greener practices. 

It is important however that we understand the threat from microplastics continues to grow and oil spills continue to spread death in black waves, only a few weeks ago wreaking havoc in Mauritius and Venezuela. There is a distinct moral obligation as societies to avoid this through more conscious behaviours; from littering avoidance in our day to days to taking into account the type of textile fibres we buy in our clothing and whether we could make more sustainable and natural choices. And what if an accident happens and gallons of oil end up in the ocean? Then we can dedicate part of our free time and energy to cleaning those places we love. This is the basis for voluntary cleanup initiatives.

Almost 20 years ago, thousands of tons of crude oil covered the cliffs and shores of Galicia, in northwestern Spain. More than 4,000 volunteers donning white overalls worked incredibly hard for weeks, armed with masks and gloves to clean the coast and the toxic spill in order to save marine life. We have also seen this type of action on other occasions in more recent times, and they show us the importance of volunteering and civil society initiatives in times of extreme urgency. In the face of catastrophe, people are often capable of giving their best. This same summer, as the oil slick washed away the biodiversity of Mauritius, local teams and volunteers strove to create absorption barriers and contain the extent of the leak. Some 1,000 tons of fuel from the vessel MV Wakashio were spread over more than twenty-seven square kilometers of coral reefs and sandbanks of this tropical paradise, as reported by the BBC and other international media.

In addition to volunteer organisations of a more general nature and with many decades of experience, such as the Red Cross or UN Volunteers, other initiatives emerged in the late 20th century whose purpose is to unite people of any origin and background to cooperate and clean the natural landscapes that we all enjoy. In 1993 Clean Up the World was born as a global initiative driven by the success achieved three years earlier by the Clean Up Australia Day promoted by Ian Kiernan AO and his partners. Today, this self-defined non-profit, non-governmental and apolitical organisation provides volunteer groups and local projects in 130 countries around the world with the logistical and planning tools to carry out natural site cleanup events.

Since its inception, they have collaborated in running more than 48,000 environmental projects.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, two friends living in Texas started the International Coastal Cleanup powered by Ocean Conservancy 30 years ago; today bringing together volunteers from all over the world in more than 100 countries. This movement does not seek only to free the coastline of garbage, but to analyse the nature of the trash collected in order to develop more effective methods of cleaning the seas. The more we know about the problems threatening us, the better we can act to solve them.

Now that summer is coming to an end and we can fully evaluate the impact of tourism on our beaches, it may also be the right moment to explore how we can collaborate in one of the many environmental projects that empower people to save the planet.

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