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The Aldabra clean-up

Eden Project event marks massive clean-up of plastic on pristine Indian Ocean atoll of Aldabra

Environmental champions from the Seychelles, Oxford and Cornwall met at the Eden Project to show what the paradise island of Aldabra can teach the world about the scourge of ocean plastic.

Earlier this year a team from the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) and University of Oxford carried out a massive clean-up of the remote Indian Ocean atoll, clearing 25 tonnes of rubbish, including 50,000 flip flops, in five weeks.

Aldabra is a UNESCO world heritage site, more than 1,000 km southwest of the main Seychelles island of Mahe. 

It has no permanent residents but for a team of scientists and an incredible array of plants and animals, including rare seabirds, turtles and more than 150,000 giant tortoises, the biggest population in the world.

Its pristine ecosystems are under siege from piles of discarded plastic driven in by ocean currents. The detritus is choking the white sands, being ingested by the tortoises and forming a barrier to nesting turtles.

Eden Co-Founder and SIF Trustee Sir Tim Smit hosted the gathering of 80 people at the home of the world-famous Biomes in Cornwall to celebrate what he described as the wildest beach clean imaginable.

He said: “Aldabra is a magical place but it is very dangerous.  It is possibly the most pristine, unreachable coral atoll in the world and it is suffering.  Its giant tortoises, turtles and rare birds wander through a scurf of plastic.

“It is so far away from humans in numbers but it has so much discarded human rubbish.  It shows that plastic is a problem that goes beyond countries and borders.” 

Praising the huge efforts of the clean-up team, Sir Tim added:  “We want to use Aldabra as a metaphor for the world, to show people that nature is genuinely under threat and part of the solution is being angry enough for that to matter.”

The clean-up was led by SIF project officer Jeremy Raguain and former Aldabra Scientific Coordinator April Burt. Jeremy described collecting and shipping the plastic trash back to Mahe where there are no recycling facilities. He said waste is still being washed up on Aldabra and what to do with it is the biggest challenge.

Jeremy said:  “Coming together here at the Eden Project is an incredible opportunity to connect with like-minded, capable and successful people and to think about what more we can do.  I’m really optimistic about what can happen.”

Dr Lindsay Turnbull, a trustee of SIF and a Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford, who co-founded the clean-up project, said:  “The amount of crap we are putting into the ocean is so enormous that the distance from land doesn’t make any difference.

“We estimated that there are between half a million and one million flip flops on Aldabra alone. Every single flip flop ever made is out there somewhere in the world. No flip flop has ever been turned into another flip flop.”

She added that the clean-up shows what people can achieve:  “If we join forces and harness our collective energies and talents, I truly believe that there’s no problem too big for us to solve.”

The gathering in the Core education centre at Eden included environmentalists from Cornwall who are tackling the ocean plastic crisis.

Brendan Godley, Professor of Conservation Science at University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus and a former veterinary surgeon, said that of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic ever produced, so far only 600 million tonnes have been recycled. Every sea turtle now examined has microplastic in their guts.

He said: “Plastic is everybody’s problem but also everybody can be part of the solution. We can’t be nihilistic and fed up about it.  So many people are now involved in this issue to bring about change.  We have to be ocean optimistic.”

On display was a sit-on-top kayak made out of recycled marine plastic by Rob Thompson, Director of Odyssey Innovation.  He said that there is a massive pollution problem created by what was essentially a resource – plastic. Prevention was the key and industry and the circular economy were ways to fight the crisis.

Eden’s Director of Interpretation Dr Jo Elworthy led guests on a tour of Eden’s summer programme Earth Story, which focuses on biodiversity and species loss. It includes an exhibition on Aldabra and the story of the clean-up.

Date: 8 August 2019