Ocean Plastic Pollution - scientifically proven

Sally Welburn is an oceanographer and environmentalist based in North Devon, UK.  She obtained a degree in Ocean Science from the University of Plymouth.  Her final year research focussed on the distribution of marine plastic in Areas of Outstanding Beauty within the UK.  The results she obtained are saddening, and are representative of the evidence documenting this problem.  Countless organisations are driving forwards to tackle this problem, and to educate everyday people on ways in which they can effect small lifestyle changes to have a real impact on plastic pollution.  Sally shares with us her research which shows firsthand the scale of plastic pollution in the UK, and her views on how best to tackle the problem of ocean plastic pollution.

"Growing up in landlocked England, the magic surrounding the ocean is something I fell fortune to at a young age, but rarely encountered.  When my family relocated to North Devon just as I started secondary school, life quickly changed.  After-school surfs and life saving club took precedence over any indoor activity.  I learned how to dive, surf and kitesurf and spent as much time in the sea as I possibly could.  I idolised the selfless tribe of coastal dwellers who thought nothing of spending their time cleaning the shorelines they loved so deeply.

On my 18th birthday I booked a one-way ticket to Sri Lanka eager to see what the world had to offer.  I spent time volunteering and working in Sri Lanka, Australia and India, encountering inspirational women such as Emi Koch, Liz Clarke and Ishita Malaviya.  My mind was opened to the fragility of our seas, and the polarities of the world.  I felt the only way I could help leave our ocean environment a little better than I'd found it was to become wiser than I was.  I enrolled onto a degree reading Ocean Science.  The next chapter began.

During my degree I developed a particular interest into the harsh interaction between humans and the oceans, and this led me to focus my studies on the topic of marine pollution. 

I spent time volunteering in Greece at the ARCHELON Sea Turtle Conservation Society of Greece.  Tracking and recording nesting sights of loggerhead turtles, we were then able to moniter hatchlings and maximise their chances of reaching the ocean.  Unprecendented coastal development on the Greek Islands over the past 30 years has led to beach erosion at an alarming rate.  Couple this with the debris left behind by a swell of seasonal visitors, and it is not surprising that turtles and other marine life suffer directly. My experiences at the Sea Turtle Conservation Society are documented here:


During my final year at university, I worked alongside Professor Richard Thompson, the world leading expert in microplastics.  My research was focussed on the distribution of marine plastic in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK.  The aim was to identify and quantify the amount of microplastic present in the top 1 metre of the water column.   I carried out the fieldwork in the Isle of Scilly and on the beaches of North Devon.  Back at the laboratory, I analysed the samples using infrared spectrometry.  The results I obtained were harrowing.  Micorplastic was found in excessive amounts from all samples from both locations, in the sand and floating in the surface water. The most common type was Rayon, found in a fibrous composition in the majority of our clothing.    This investigation, which was the first of its kind in the Isle of Scilly, led me to question how these clothing fibres had reached the marine environment and what could be done to prevent them from getting there in the future.  

Despite this study being relatively short in both time and space, it revealed the widespread and accumulating nature of ocean microplastic.  The problem lies when these tiny plastic pieces are ingested by small fish and other marine life.  Due to the absorbent nature of plastic it adheres to toxins in the water which are also ingested when consumed.  These toxins bioaccumulate up the food chain and eventually reach our plates as we enjoy dining on the fruits of the ocean.  The long lasting effects and potentially seriously harmful outcomes of these poisonous substances, especially to women, is a fundamentally important area of research but is still mostly unknown.

I believe that knowledge and education is the best way to encourage change in human behaviour.  Understanding the problem of marine plastic pollution, and how it could affect us and our children on a personal basis, I believe  will lead to long-lasting change.  By communicating the efforts of those dedicating their time to protecting our blue space, I hope to inspire others into making positive changes.  The power of story-telling and education has a fundamental role to play in marine conservation.

I'm on a journey to share the different ways that women around the world are tackling marine pollution in their own unique way.  I'll be talking to scientists, artists, explorers as well as those yet to be labelled.  My first interview is with scientist and ocean enthusiast Imogen Napper:


Back at home and walking along Croyde Beach, the place I first fell in love with the magic of the ocean, I'm reminded why this movement matters more than ever.  Toothbrushes, plastic bottles and skeletons of plastic-swelled seabirds litter the tide line.  Shifting my gaze to the horizon I see children bending down to pick up pieces of rubbish, handing them to their parents who fill buckets to the brim.  I'm reminded that where there is life there is hope, and I feel buoyed up to continue on my quest.  After all, the only real positive changes we will ever see are those we make ourselves."

Follow Sally Welburn here:  


Socia:  @sallywelburn

Deepa Shah