Campaigner paddleboards around the UK picking up rubbish – and starts a movement

‘In the future, when my child asks me what I did to try and fight climate breakdown and address environmental issues – I want to be able to say I did my very best to save their future,’ says Lizzie Carr.

Lizzie is an eco adventurer, environmental campaigner, and the founder of Plastic Patrol; a global mission to tackle plastic pollution.

She has paddleboarded 400 miles over 22 days – the equivalent of 15 back-to-back marathons – and sparked a worldwide movement that has involved 15,000 people and removed more than 400 tonne bags of rubbish from natural spaces.

But all this started as a one-woman crusade, sparked by a diagnosis of cancer.

In 2013, Lizzie was told she had stage two thyroid cancer, and would need a full thyroidectomy, a central lymph node dissection, and radioactive iodine ablation. She went through a gruelling 18 months of treatment and was finally given the all-clear – but that experience changed everything.

‘It completely transformed my outlook and priorities,’ Lizzie tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I’ve always called it my worst nightmare and greatest blessing. I’d never want to go through it again, but I wouldn’t change what happened because of the journey it took me on the things I’ve learned.

‘Cancer was the catalyst that sparked some big life changes which led to where I am now.

‘I think it’s important to see the positives in that situation and I’m grateful for the confidence it gave me to shake up my life and throw myself into something meaningful and important to me.’

That ‘something’ was Plastic Patrol, which started in 2016 when Lizzie, now 33, paddleboarded the length of England, photographing and cataloging every single piece of plastic she spotted along the way.

The idea was simple: to show everyone just how much plastic was clogging up our waterways and hammer home how urgently the world needed to make a change.

Lizzie chose paddleboarding as the way to carry out her journey after falling in love with the exercise following her cancer diagnosis, discovering it as a low-impact way to rebuild her strength and fitness.

But while she was making her way through peaceful waters in London, Lizzie just kept coming up against bits of rubbish.

‘I was horrified,’ she says. ‘Until then, like most people, I was in an environmental sleepwalk but being on the water and seeing scale of the problem from a new perspective – the water – where everything is magnified, transformed my outlook.

‘Paddle boarding helped restore my health, and I grew to love our waterways – the places that are usually seen as dumping grounds and given a bad rep – I felt very protective and wanted to give them a new lease of life.

‘We’re so lucky to have these pockets of nature in otherwise dense, urban parts of the country.

‘The turning point was seeing a coots nest – full of eggs – made up almost entirely of single use plastic (straws, bags, wrappers). As soon as the chicks hatched the first thing they’d see is plastic – it would be their normal.

‘That was the moment I decided I needed to act – to bring attention to this issue – and take on my first major endurance challenge to paddle board England’s waterways to put a spotlight on the issue of plastic pollution using adventure as a vehicle to do it.’

She started with that 400-mile trip, and along with picking up plastic, she picked up support as she went.

Soon Lizzie needed to scale up Plastic Patrol so more people could get involved, She launched an app, Planet Patrol, to allow people to log their own plastic pollution finds and create a comprehensive evidence base to show industry and government the extent of the issue.

Plastic Patrol became a non-profit organisation and Lizzie kept the fight going, working directly with brands on environmental consulting to effect change, and bringing in 56 Plastic Patrol reps from around the world to spread the word.

That’s meant hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic have been logged and removed. Lizzie has inspired thousands of people around the world to not just open their eyes to the truth of pollution, but to do their bit to make a change – and demand the same from big brands and government.

Social media has been a powerful tool in getting the idea out to the masses. Thousands of people use the #PlasticPatrol tag to share the rubbish they’ve found and removed, and 280,000 pieces of garbage have been shared on the Plastic Patrol Instagram account, which asks fellow Plastic Patrollers to submit their photos and aims to clear up one million pieces of trash.

‘It started as a one woman crusade and has grown into a global movement,’ says Lizzie. ‘Litter picking alone will never be enough, we have to record what we find to build a robust evidence base that can drive system change and turn the plastic tap off from source.

‘Plastic Patrol’s foundations are built on its incredibly dedicated community of passionate individuals who really care.

‘On tough days just looking at the global litter map of where people have contributed to our litter records from every corner of the world really keeps me motivated.

‘When I started campaigning almost five years ago it was a lonely space. I felt like the odd one out talking about plastic, and few people understood why I was so passionate and urgent – but that’s changed.

‘Social media has been the biggest tool for activism at Plastic Patrol, particularly when there’s been no money to throw at campaigning and activism work. Word of mouth and social sharing have been very powerful tools that have given us a platform and a voice.

‘The way we operate – taking people out on free activity-based litter picks – from paddleboarding and yoga to HIIT fitness and parkour (people “pay” by logging and recording findings in the app, which I call the nature tax) – it’s a very unique way of tackling the issue.

‘We aren’t just campaigning about the issue, we’re directly taking action.

‘And not just picking up litter – we’re taking the evidence to the top of the system and calling for change based on the facts!’

Now pregnant with her first child, it’s more important than ever for Lizzie to take care of herself amid all the activism.

For Lizzie, Plastic Patrol isn’t just a job – it’s a mission, a moral duty, and a significant part of who she is… so it’s hard to switch off.

‘There’s a constant sense of urgency,’ says Lizzie. ‘It can be exhausting. Seeing wider environmental issues being deprioritised is frustrating and demoralising – but that’s the time to step up, push harder and keep pressure on – not give up.

‘I try and create a clear divide between work and personal time, but it’s not easily done when it’s such a significant part of your life. It’s a very blurred line but this is a marathon, not a sprint and I’m in it for the long haul.’

What keeps Lizzie going? It’s knowing that she’s not alone in pushing for change, and overcoming that niggling impostor syndrome to take pride in what she’s accomplished – and the grit and passion it took to get here

Lizzie says: ‘I’ve been told I’m like a marble in a pinball machine – whizzing around at 100 miles per hour and pinging in all directions.

‘I rarely take time to step back and acknowledge successes and milestones with campaigning because there’s always more to do. But it’s really important to celebrate the little wins. There’s a quote “remember when you wanted what you have now?” that is a good reminder for everyone to reflect on progress and recognise achievements.

‘I used to feel inadequate and unqualified, but the more I work with global brands and government I appreciate the unique perspective of my position. As someone in the ground who understands the problem in a very different way to those creating legislation or developing strategies – and that itself is valuable.

‘I’m proud of the power of the community behind Plastic Patrol. The groundswell of support behind the mission and the belief in what I’m doing is a huge motivator.’

To those who want to join the movement to save our environment, Lizzie has some words of advice.

‘Keep in mind that this is about progress not perfection – that’s key,’ she says. ‘The sentiment applies to individuals, brands and businesses.

‘It’s almost impossible to live without having some kind of footprint but if you can look at every aspect of your life and slowly opt for more sustainable ways of doing things, it adds up to big gains.

‘Don’t underestimate the power of your individual actions. One person can make a difference.’

Proud Of What We’re Made Of

This article is part of our weekly series, Proud Of What We’re Made Of, celebrating inspirational women with powerful stories.

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