In 2013, Lizzie Carr was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After months of treatment, her stage two cancer went into remission and she took up paddleboarding as a low impact way to regain her strength. It was then that she noticed the state of the UK's plastic problem.
"I saw how much rubbish there was on the waterways and decided that I needed to do something about it," she tells me now.
The first step came in 2016, when Lizzie unofficially launched her Plastic Patrol movement by paddleboarding the length of England, using the name as a hashtag on Instagram to simply showcase the sheer amount of rubbish she was discovering along way, gaining more and more support and followers as she travelled across the country.
It wasn't until last year that the organisation was officially registered. Since then, the movement has grown rapidly, with volunteers taking part all over the world.
On a recent Saturday morning, I joined one of Lizzie's patrols, in the heart of Hackney Wick, east London, launching from Hackney Milk Float – a floating bar and cafe moored in view of the Olympic Stadium. Plastic Patrol runs three sessions a day every weekend in the summer, and corporate clean-ups during the week.
Following a quick safety briefing from Lizzie, the 12 volunteers in the day's first session – two of whom had come all the way from Switzerland to take part – headed out on their paddle boards, confidently balancing while occasionally dipping into the water to grab discarded crisp packets, plastic bottles and styrofoam cups.
Each piece of rubbish was logged through the Plastic Patrol app, and a photo taken, which was then uploaded onto the interactive Plastic Map that monitors the work of volunteers around the world. So far, 170,000 pieces of rubbish have been logged across 61 countries, ranging from plastic bottles to bikes. The most exciting item they've found? A revolver.
"We handed it into the police," Lizzie remembered. "It was wrapped in a plastic bag, weighed down with bricks. We found it on the canal where it was quite shallow. It was only at the end when we separated everything out and logged it that we opened up the bag and revealed this gun. The police have said to us that, if they connect it with any crimes, they'll let us know."
It didn't take long to spot the day's big find: a shopping trolley just out of a picker's reach. After some quick thinking, one of the instructors fastened a make-shift winch out of some tape, a rope and a carabiner. Five minutes later – presumably using skills honed following hours of practice on an arcade claw machine – the trolley was hooked and lifted onto the paddle board.
Lizzie has set a goal of logging 1 million pieces of rubbish this year. Plastic Patrol are working closely with the University of Nottingham to analyse everything they collect to ultimately better understand the makeup of the plastic that's clogging up our waterways. This isn't a finger pointing exercise, though – it's about informing and educating the specific brands on how to improve their products and practices.
"Brands are trying to be more responsible and they're creating what we call a circular economy with their products," said Lizzie. "Where items escape that circular economy – where they escape the loop – and it ends up in the waterways or in the streets, we can identify these products, inform the brands and allow them to improve their practices."
The UK loves plastic; we use 500 million tons of the stuff every year. In fact, the average UK household throws away an average of 40 kg of recyclable waste each year. For Plastic Patrol, it isn’t as simple as collecting the rubbish and dropping it into a recycling bin. "One of the major problems we have with collecting rubbish is that, once we've picked it out, it's so contaminated that it's no longer recyclable," Lizzie explained.
Plastic Patrol has now partnered with TerraCycle, which specialises in recycling items the council won't, to ensure all of the rubbish found is recycled or reused in the most appropriate way.
It's not just canals getting the Plastic Patrol treatment. Lizzie and her team now work with different instructors and organisations that provide various wellbeing based activities, from yoga to parkour. In return for the free session, participants are expected to go out litter-picking and log all their finds in the Plastic Patrol app.
"It's brilliant, because it means the litter we're collecting isn't just on the waterways," said Lizzie. "We're reaching a lot more people with wider interests – it really diversifies what we're doing, plus it's growing these types of sports and connecting more and more people with their own wellbeing."
Since taking up paddleboarding, Lizzie has achieved three world records: paddleboarding the entire length of England’s via its waterways; the first female to cross the English Channel on a paddle board; and paddling the entire length of the Hudson River in just eight days (while getting caught in Hurricane Florence).
"I don't really see these challenges as achievements, because they serve a bigger purpose," Lizzie says. "They're a vehicle to talk about Plastic Patrol, and to be able to talk more about the cause."
Most of her spare time is spent organising and running the clean-ups, but that doesn't faze her. "I love doing it – coming out on the water, meeting new people and taking them out on patrol," she said. "Plus, I get to paddle board and litter pick as well, which is where it all started."
So what's next for Lizzie and Plastic Patrol? At the end of 2019 they'll be releasing a report of the findings from their partnership with the University of Nottingham, hoping to build the evidence and understanding of where the problem starts, and encouraging people to get involved.
"For me, the one thing I want to communicate is that we need to stop thinking about litter picking in isolation. Every time you pick up rubbish, log it in the app. If the whole world was capturing evidence in a centralised location, we would actually make a difference."
Scroll down to see more photos from a recent Plastic Patrol.