The Big Swim aimed to raise awareness about the threat of single-use plastic pollution on our oceans and our health
Athletes swim from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi to show plastic is not fantastic
Three athletes swam the equivalent of almost three crossings of the English Channel over the past eight weeks to help raise awareness about plastic pollution in the UAE and its impact on marine life.
Triathletes Kieran Ballard-Tremer, Brett Hallam and Lottie Lucas swam 85 kilometres over several weekends along the UAE coastline from Sharjah to Abu Dhabi as part of the Big Swim, which ended on National Day. The gruelling swims lasted between 10km and 20km and took between three and six hours to complete.
Despite the trio being super fit, after each leg it took 48 to 72 hours for their bodies to recover. But it was all for a good cause – the Drop It #rethinkplastic initiative by social enterprise Goumbook.
The campaign aims to encourage people to replace water in single-use water bottles with filtered water from taps. More plastic was produced in the last 10 years than in the entirety of the last century with at least eight million tonnes of mishandled plastic waste washing into the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes every year.
“[Plastic] is a worldwide problem,” said Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of Goumbook. “Either we all decide to do something about it or we will witness the consequences in the future.”
Ms Ballard-Tremer said the swimmers felt that their love of a challenge needed to “serve a bigger purpose.” “Our aim was not only to achieve a personal athletic goal,” she said. “We loved the work the Drop It team had been doing encouraging companies and individuals all over the UAE to switch to filtered tap water and reduce their overall single-use plastic consumption of bags, cups, straws and bottles.
“If you swim regularly in the sea, you’ll notice that single-use plastic pollution is affecting marine life on an urgent and imminent level. An attitude change is necessary from each and every one of us to reduce and refuse single-use plastic consumption, and we hope our efforts to raise awareness through the Big Swim will be noticed.”
Forks, bags, straws and takeaway containers that end up in the sea break down and fragment over time, slowly decomposing into ever smaller pieces that eventually end up joining the marine and human food chains.
A recent report by Orb Media revealed that 83 per cent of drinking water sampled worldwide – from a tap or bottled – tested positive for microscopic plastic fibres. And with experts suspecting that plastic fibres may transfer toxic chemicals when consumed by animals and humans, the plastic threat on human health is urgent and real.
“Plastic is something that’s part of our daily life. Even if you’re not an environmentalist, you can’t avoid looking at the litter and plastic surrounding the sea,” said Ms Abella. “It’s something that’s quite overwhelming and it is growing. If you swim in the sea, you take out plastic pieces all day. It just never stops.”
For Mr Hallam, a 26-year-old South African swimming instructor, the importance of the Big Swim was brought home by the many “weird objects” they discovered in the water. “The first one was in the Umm Suqeim public beach where there was a random two-metre-wide patch of plastic bottles, caps and packets,” he said. “The wrappers from around plastic bottles and plastic toys like buckets and spades are the biggest thing we came across. The general message is to get people to be aware that the plastic they use could end up in the ocean … People could be more careful in their choices.”
This year, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Nuaimi, also known as the Green Sheikh, the nephew of the Ajman ruler, said shop-owners should charge customers Dh1 for plastic bags as well as offer alternatives. He said people and companies should be urged to replace bottled water with filtered water from taps.
Charging for plastic bags would put the UAE on par with countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland, where plastic bag use plummeted by as much as 90 per cent after the introduction of the equivalent of between 25 fils and 50 fils per bag.
“The single use in itself is not good, but the fact that it’s usually plastic is where the problem is. You have alternatives nowadays so you could have items 100 per cent biodegradable, and plastic bags in supermarkets are a problem too,” said Ms Abella, who thinks paying for bags would make people realise just how many they are using.
“It’s not difficult to carry reusable bags,” she said. “It’s just a matter of habit to keep them in the car and use them.
“Local water is actually tap water so why don’t we put a filter and drink from it? It would remove millions of bottles from the garbage and eventually, the landfills – it’s just alarming as a human being and the moment [to act] is now.
“The swimmers themselves realised how much plastic they encountered when they swam,” said Ms Abella, “so they raised awareness that this country has a beautiful sea and environment and we need to protect it.”