Hello! I’m Charlie, Lulu’s little brother. She still calls me that – and I’m 30 now! I guess it is sweet. I live in Vancouver on the west coast of Canada, and I work for an ocean conservation charity called Ocean Wise. Like Lulu, I was fortunate to spend masses of time outdoors when I was growing up. I always loved being outside. I probably took my access to outside space and countryside for granted, but it definitely set the foundation for my environmentalism now, though I did not take a direct path into conservation. I did an international relations degree and when I left university, I just wanted to travel, go to cool places, experience different cultures, and turn it into a career somehow, all while doing something purposeful.
After trying and failing to get into the Foreign Office I eventually got a job in consulting, and that was my career for around five years. I did investigative research for companies investing across Africa. I got to travel a lot, meet a lot of interesting people (and lots of weird and uninteresting people, too…) and work on some genuinely exciting projects. That was great but being on the corporate hamster wheel nagged away at me. Particularly because I did a lot of work for some companies with…dubious…records on environmental issues. By 2021, I’d had a gutful of that so I quit. I thought – “I’m gonna stop feeling guilty for not doing enough on the environment, find a great job in the environmental sector, and make sustainability my career!” As it turns out – it ain’t all that straightforward!
I took Cambridge University’s ‘Business Sustainability Management’ online course which is a pretty standard introductory corporate sustainability course. The next course I took - ‘Regenerative Economics’ by the Capital Institute - had a much greater impact on me and my career. The concept of regeneration had resonated ever since Lulu first started banging on to me about soil (!), and I got pretty inspired when I then learned that some of the same principles can be applied to how we design our economies, businesses, and ways of life. I would highly recommend that course! It was then that I felt ready to go get some real-world sustainability experience. The regen course had made me particularly hungry to go and work on systems change. And then an opportunity came along to join Ocean Wise, as the manager of a microplastics research program, and I grabbed it with both hands. Despite not really knowing what it would entail or how on earth I was qualified for it... So here I am, a year and a half in. In the role, I lead a team of research scientists working on microplastics and toxic chemicals. We collaborate with industry and government to try and develop mitigation measures and interventions that will enable us to ultimately eliminate these forms of pollution. Pretty straightforward, really…
I enjoy the intellectual challenge of understanding their work. Part of my role is to make sure our research is always driving us towards our conservation aims, and so I often have to get deep in the detail to understand the science, and then zoom back out and figure out what it could mean for our partners, or the public. Science communication is a whole field I wasn’t aware of before but it is so crucial that we are able to deliver messages in a concise, easy-to-understand manner, and that is a challenge that I enjoy.
Microplastics research is pretty new. I think the term ‘microplastic’ was coined in 2004. Unlike with climate change, which most people get by now, a lot of the work my team is doing is still building the base of evidence to prove that microplastics are a problem, and inform decisions and actions that will help to address them. For example, we just published a study into the biological effects of polyester microfibres on zooplankton – a teeny tiny but super important creature in the marine ecosystem. We showed that zooplankton consume these fibers, confusing them for food. When these small creatures are consumed by larger animals – like herring or salmon - the plastic will move up the food chain. You can start to see why this is a problem… (By the way, if you are interested in learning more about plastics specifically, the Plastisphere podcast is very good.)
Alongside this, our work aims to identify key points of intervention, and solutions that could make a difference in eliminating this pollution. The best example of this is our work on microfibre shedding in home laundry. It turns out, the synthetic clothes we all wear every day, are a major contributor to microplastics in the ocean. Ocean Wise research has shown that clothes ‘shed’ fibres, particular in the laundry, due to abrasion. So we’re working with the apparel industry and laundry machine manufacturers to figure out how to stop that from happening.
We are still figuring out how to get people’s attention about this. It is a tricky balance of raising awareness about an issue without getting people to ‘switch off’ because it is yet another depressing message about how we’re screwing up the planet. So we try to be as optimistic and action-oriented as possible – you don’t have to be perfect, but you can take some small steps that will add up to a big difference!
The reality is that plastic pollution will not go away unless production and consumption is drastically reduced. We need to 'Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle' – in that order. There is a place for recycling – and that is as a last resort when plastic usage is absolutely necessary. The truth is that only around 9% of global plastic waste is currently recycled. So that means the most impactful thing that we can all do is reduce our consumption. You can start today with simple steps like refusing single-use coffee cups, using tote bags, and refilling essentials like oats, cereals, etc in bulk stores. I will say it: no one reading this should be buying coffees in a single-use takeout cup. It is 2023, team!
Here's a simple one for you if you want to reduce your microplastic footprint: Next time you do your laundry, switch to a cold and gentle cycle.
Our recent study showed that we can reduce the amount of microfibres being released into the water system – and ultimately, the ocean - by up to 70%!
Ocean Wise’s goals are around educating and empowering individuals, organisations, and communities to take action to protect and restore the ocean. We aim to be an action-oriented NGO, focusing on delivering practical conservation that will have a tangible impact in the water. What that means in practice is that our teams are more likely to be implementing conservation programs on-the-ground than participating in high-level advocacy or lobbying. And we try to inspire and empower people to take action for the ocean with positive, solutions-oriented messaging, rather than guilt-tripping.
I’m driven by the challenge of achieving conservation successes that will have a measurable impact – which is kind of the holy grail. I’ve learnt that conservation is really hard. It is a constant effort to find alignment with partners and collaborators to support projects that you believe in, and then deliver them in a way that meets everyone’s objectives, all with limited resources. We’ve got a lot of cool projects in the pipeline that would be really impactful, and I’m motivated to keep playing my role in driving them forward. I’m hoping that in years to come I can look back with pride at a few programs or projects that made a tangible difference. That would be nice.
I would like to carve out a good career in conservation. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the best role is for me within the field, that makes best use of my skills and experience, but I am hoping that will become clear with time. Ultimately, I’ll be pretty happy if I have engaging and meaningful work that I think is having a positive impact. And provided that I can live somewhere close to nature where me and my partner Meg have plenty of opportunity for outdoor adventures, running, biking and camping…I think that’s all I need!