Imagine your life was going along exactly as expected: you went to university, studied hard, bagged yourself a job in the corporate world and fell in love with running along the way. And then everything changed.
That’s what happened to cover star Lizzie Carr, 32, from South London, when a stage-two cancer diagnosis became the catalyst that turned her from a high-flying city girl into a passionate environmentalist and adventurer.
“I was 26 at the time and I was just shocked by the diagnosis,” Lizzie remembers. “It completely blindsided me.”
Yet despite the pain and fear that cancer brings, Lizzie viewed it as her wake-up call.
“I think in some ways, everyone at some point goes through a trauma that makes them re-evaluate and get a new perspective on things,” she says. “And cancer was mine: that was my trauma. It just hit me – what was important and what I value most: being with friends and family, making time to reconnect with them again, and spending more time outdoors in nature.”
Lizzie walked away from the security of her city job and, on finishing radiotherapy, went to stay with her father for a few weeks on the Isles of Scilly, to recuperate. Still drained from her ordeal and unable to do any high-impact exercise, including running, she needed something to focus on – but didn’t know what.
“It was there I first saw somebody paddle boarding,” remembers Lizzie. “I’d never even heard of it before. I was exhausted and had lost a lot of my strength, but I looked at my dad as we sat on the beach and said, ‘I’m sure I could do that.’ The sailing club across the bay lent me a board and honestly, that was it – I was hooked immediately.”
On her return to London, Lizzie’s love of the water grew and she started paddle boarding along the capital’s canals.
“It was then I started to see just how bad the problem with plastic was. It was everywhere. I was just shocked and appalled. I suppose like most people, I’d been in an environmental sleepwalk – out of sight, out of mind. But that was a turning point for me – specifically when I saw a coot’s nest that was made up mostly of plastic. It was just heartbreaking – she had her little eggs in there, but the nest was just straws, bags, wrappers, all these man-made materials that we’d just absent-mindedly discarded.
I remember thinking, what can I do to make people understand how bad what I’ve seen is? Because it’s one thing telling people you’ve seen a coot’s nest made up of plastic, or that you keep getting plastic bags caught on your board fin, but people need to see it to believe it. That’s when I came up with the idea of paddle boarding the length of the country using our waterways, to highlight the issue.”
And so, in 2016, Lizzie became the first person to stand-up paddle board the length of England (some 400 miles) along connected waterways from Surrey to Cumbria, to highlight the plastic problem, photographing and documenting what she saw. It marked the
start of her #PlasticPatrol initiative.
But Lizzie didn’t stop there. The following year, in May 2017, she also became the first woman to solo stand-up paddle board the English Channel, a feat she accomplished in seven-and-a-half hours, while also collecting environmental data.
“Crossing the Channel was an amazing adventure and a big challenge, but it had a really strong environmental purpose, too,” she explains. “Every fourth mile, I dropped a trawler net into the water, dragged it along for a couple of kilometres, took it out and then syphoned everything into sample jars. When these were analysed, there were hundreds of pieces of microplastic that I couldn’t even see with my naked eye. I was covering a very small area on my paddle board but, if you scale that up to that entire mass of water, based on what I found, that’s a huge quantity of microplastic.
“Afterwards, I started to get people asking me, ‘How can I help?’ So that’s when I came up with the idea of offering people the opportunity to come out paddle boarding with me, completely free of charge over the summer, to help clear up plastic from the waterways.”
Lizzie’s invitation proved highly popular – so much so that she’s doing the same again this summer.
“A lot of people have got in touch about this year’s #PlasticPatrol,” Lizzie reveals. “Things like Blue Planet 2 have highlighted the problem so much, and people are really starting to pay attention to how serious and immediate this is. It can seem an insurmountable problem, but if everyone made a few small changes, it would have a big impact. When I did my first challenge, the plastic problem was being talked about on a global scale, and the stats were so overwhelming people couldn’t relate to it. The issue was, how do I show people how bad it is on their doorstep? Because it’s a localised problem that needs to be addressed on a local level.”
The ocean plastic problem is not just a coastal issue: some 80 per cent of plastic that ends up in our oceans actually starts off inland, swept into drains and waterways. Which is why Lizzie – who is still a keen runner – is inviting all runners to get involved in #PlasticPatrol in 2018.
“This year, #PlasticPatrol is also about getting people out ‘plogging’ [a trend that started in Sweden involving picking up litter while out jogging] in as many UK locations as possible, and getting runners using the #PlasticPatrol app, to log the plastic they see,” explains Lizzie.
“Because yes, it’s really important to remove the litter but, by photographing it and then logging it beforehand, we can use the information – the types of plastics, the brands, the quantities – to start gathering data and help local authorities make more educated decisions about where they concentrate their efforts. We’ll also use the data to campaign and lobby the government and manufacturers to make changes, too.”
If you’d like to get involved and help make a difference in your area, simply download the #PlasticPatrol app on an iPhone, or use the hashtag #PlasticPatrol on social media sites. Then, when you’re out running, take a photo of the plastic in situ before picking it up, and upload this image to social media (geo-tagging your location) or on the app (which will automatically log your location).
“It’s so easy just to go and pick up any plastic or rubbish that you find when you’re out running or walking,” says Lizzie. “It breaks my heart when you see people absentmindedly drinking from a plastic bottle or plastic straw and then leaving it in nature. I mean, who’s going to pick it up? Where’s it going to go? Picking up plastic should be like a nature tax. It should be something that people naturally want to do. We’re not in that place at the moment, but I think we’re getting there. And with things like plogging now, it’s making that connection that, if we’re out enjoying the natural world and environment, we should also be protecting it.”