Environment

Meet the explorer leading the fight against ocean plastic

National Geographic Fellow, Heather Koldewey, from the Zoological Society of London, says 2018 has been a landmark year in the battle against marine pollution. Thursday, 6 December

By Oli Reed

Heather Koldewey senses a shift in momentum. After more than two decades working in conservation with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), during which time she’s become a leading voice in the fight against ocean plastic pollution, she feels the world is starting to listen. “This topic is beginning to unite people,” says the National Geographic Fellow. “Some conservation issues can be divisive, but I haven’t met a single person who wants plastic in their oceans, or on their beaches.”

For many reasons, 2018 has been a landmark year. National Geographic launched its multi-year Planet or Plastic? campaign in June, while also pledging scientific expertise and $10 million dollars to Sky Media’s Sky Ocean Ventures initiative. “The mainstream coverage can have a big impact,” says Koldewey. “People need to realise plastic never goes away, it just reforms into tiny fragments. Wherever we take samples – even in the deepest parts of the ocean – we find plastic. It’s in plankton, we drink and breathe it every day. It’s a ticking time bomb we’re only just starting to understand.”  

Koldewey is a driving force behind ZSL’s One Less campaign, which aims to make London the first capital city to eradicate single-use plastic bottles. “London used to have hundreds of drinking fountains that have fallen into disrepair over the past century,” she says. “We want to bring them back, revive old traditions, make reusable bottles cool, and start changing behaviours.”

With the average UK adult buying 175 single-use bottles a year, turning off the tap of plastic entering our oceans is the number one priority. “Think about how many plastic straws, bags and bottles your family, friends and colleagues use,” says Koldewey. “If you can influence that small circle, the numbers start reducing quickly.”

Momentum has been gathered this year, but the real work is just beginning. Over one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year, with nine million tons of plastic waste spilling into our oceans annually. “The big challenge for 2019 is sustaining attention,” says Koldeway. “We cannot become yesterday’s news.”