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Why it is the sea and SDG 14 for me

A blog post by Suzanne Roberts

As a charity, our work spans a huge range of areas, communities and climate issues. Reflecting this, #TeamKSBScot is a community of people with different interests, so we’ve asked them to choose one UN Sustainable Development Goal they feel most passionate about and to tell us why. Our first is from Suzanne, our Communications Manager.

SDG 14 – Life Below Water - To conserve and sustainably use the world’s ocean, seas and marine resources. 

I am aware that the pollution of our seas and oceans has reached levels that are almost irreversible. Not only can we see massive floating ‘islands’ of plastic, beaches strewn with mountains of waste, but also the science is now showing us clearly that micro-plastics and fibres are permutating into marine microflora and fauna.

Our oceans absorb about 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced by humans, acting as a buffer to global warming, but our disregard for our impact on marine life puts this at jeopardy too.

While many feel unable to take action due to the sheer scale of the negative news, the overwhelming feeling of doom, for me it is the simple actions that can, and do make a difference.

One of the key indicators of SDG 14 for me is the ambition that by 2025 we will have significantly reduced marine pollution of all kinds – in particular from land-based activities. This is an indicator that I feel a connection to – because for over two decades I have been slowly chipping away to contribute to a reduction in marine litter in particular.

This blog explores why I chose Global Goal 14.

I was reminded recently, while reaching down to pick up a cotton bud stick from the vast expanse of sand that covers the shore of my favourite beach, just why saving our seas means so much to me. This beach, the sand, the sea and the space created by the horizon that seems to stretch to infinity, has over the years become my sanctuary. The place that resets me.

It is where I remember childhood winter walks with my grandparents, guddling in the rockpools for anemones and limpets. It is the place I remember family picnics with friends – come wind or rain. It is where I sat and cried when I found out I had failed a university exam I was sure that I should have excelled at. It is the place I walked with my parents the day before my mum had surgery for a terminal brain tumour. It is the place my daughter first threw off her wellies and charged towards the sea for a paddle – in February. And, it is the first place I organised my own litter survey and clean up.

It was probably written in the sand that I would link my career to looking after our seas. A keen swimmer, a sailor, and later a diver. To me the magic of water and the wildlife hidden beneath the waves was always something I strived to know more about.

And so it was that I found myself studying at The University of St Andrew’s, and having failed that exam I mentioned earlier, changing course and ending up with an BSc in Marine and Environmental Biology.  Again, it was the beach and the sea at the West Sands that saved me from my thoughts when I was there. But, what do you do with such a degree if you need to work when you graduate and if you aren’t gifted enough to stay in academia?

You become a reporter for a local paper????? But, you chose the stories you write about to reflect your passion for the sea, the wildlife and those that care for it. I gravitated to writing stories about bathing water quality, beach awards, litter picks and community action, even back then I was determined to highlight the importance of these things to our communities and our local places.

Little did I know that when I was making a ‘bog monster’ out of unflushables for the ‘Think Before You Flush’ campaign led by the three water authorities which preceded Scottish Water, that I would  be, almost two decades later supporting the #NatureCalls campaign to ban the plastic wet wipe. It has taken almost two decades for us to get to this point, but as a valued colleague from another NGO in Scotland once said – if we hadn’t started campaigning on these issues all those years ago, we would be a lot further behind on the action than we are today.

I moved on to work in comms with Scottish Water, and those years opened my eyes to the scale of the problem caused by a very specific marine litter type – sewage related debris. Once you have descended into one of Edinburgh’s Victorian brick-built sewers you don’t quickly forget the impact of wipes, sanitary items and the dreaded cotton bud (this is also one of the reasons I became a very early adopter and blogger about the menstrual cup). Banging on about such ‘taboo’ subjects two decades ago was my norm, and it is heartening to see these issues now discussed openly, and campaigns such as ‘Trial Period’ being funded by the Scottish Government. I was delighted also to play a tiny part in the debate that led to Scotland becoming the first UK nation to ban the plastic cotton bud stick in 2019.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some fabulous initiatives with inspiring people, both in Scotland and across the world. From establishing the Clean Coast Scotland network in 2000, to growing the beach award schemes in Scotland and working with beach managers from around the world, to developing Scotland’s first marine litter education toolkit with other NGOs, then becoming a partner of ‘Save the North Sea’ an EU funded project that worked to raise awareness of marine litter in the North Sea, and more recently to supporting a pan European project to look at litter pathways from land to the marine environment. 

In 2014 I was hopeful as I helped launch the Marine Litter Strategy for Scotland with Richard Lochhead MSP and Calum Duncan from the Marine Conservation Society, and it is now, almost eight years later that I have been supporting our team to make a response to the Scottish Government consultation on a revised strategy looking to the future and calling for more with a new urgency.

Many of the issues remain the same – and there is always so much more to be done. The UN estimates that 5 to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic enters the ocean, costing roughly $13 billion per year, and that 89% of plastic litter found on the ocean floor is from single-use items like plastic bags.

It was a conversational rant that I had with a former employee that started the seed that became our award-winning Upstream Battle campaign. For years we had understood that up to 80% of marine litter in Scotland came from land-based sources, but we were doing nothing to share that information and to tackle litter from source to sea. Now, we are running the campaign on the Clyde and the Tay, working with communities to address local issues, to raise awareness and to capture data and use it to campaign to reduce the problem.

A little spark still ignites every time I talk about marine litter and what more we could all be doing to address it. We need to scale up action, roll out what we know works, ensure proper funding is available from national and local government and from industry. We must empower people to do more to tackle the issues, and to understand the scale of the problem and the breadth of actions that can be taken.

I believe that without the seas and oceans we have nothing. But, the shared love and passion of those I have worked with over the years means that I trust we will make a difference to ensure we have the future we and our planet needs. It makes me feel humble. It makes me feel alive enough to get back to the day job and continue to try and communicate often complex messages.

In Scotland and across the world we have already put in place policy measures, campaigns, and partnerships to reduce marine pollution. Yes, we still need to mobilise deeper and broader action. We still need to focus on doing more at all levels, but every small win will help us with the big win – sustainable seas.

Rant over, I’m off to recharge at my special beach, picking up some litter as part of my Spring Clean Scotland pledge as I go – because that is a small action I can immediately control.

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