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Plastik einsammeln auf SUPs

Plastic Patrol

FM4 Adventurous

FM4 Adventurous: Paddling Against Plastic

Cancer-survivor Lizzie Carr has travelled thousands of kilometers on her paddleboard along the rivers of Europe and the USA to fight plastic pollution.

By Chris Cummins

Throughout the summer on FM4 Adventurous, I’ve been asking one basic question: Why do we have the urge to set off on arduous, uncomfortable journeys when we could just stay in the safe comfort of our homes? The answers have been diverse: Some do if for the glory, some do it out of a sense of curiosity about life beyond the horizon, or some, and this is probably my motivation, because of an uneasy sense of twitchy restlessness.

FM4 Adventurous: Paddling Against Plastic
Listen to Chris Cummins talking to Lizzie Carr in FM4 Adventurous, Thursday, 29th of August, 0 am and here in our podcast.

A Noble Quest

But there are also very noble reasons. For Lizzie Carr, a cancer-survivor from the UK, it was quite clear. Her adventure was to raise awareness of a massive but often overlooked environmental problem: the plastic pollution in our river systems.

In 2016, a year after being diagnosed with cancer at age 25, Lizzie Carr travelled 650km on her paddleboard, covering almost the length of England via the country’s interconnected system of rivers and canals. On the way she photographed every piece of plastic she saw, geo-tagging the location to create an online map that showed the scale of the problem. She also encouraged others to add to the map, posting their pictures under the hashtag #PlasticPatrol.

Stress-Free Movement

This global environmental movement was launched almost by accident.

Relaxing at her father’s house on the Isles of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall, she saw people on paddleboards and she saw the sport as a way to rebuild her strenght through gentle, stress-free movement following the trauma of cancer treatment. "Everything just spiralled from there,” she says.

Plastik einsammeln auf SUPs

Plastic Patrol

Returning from the bliss of Scilly to London to get back into her well-paid high-octane city job, she started paddling around the canals of the city and was horrified by the rubbish she saw clogging the waterways. After the shock of illness, she was already reassessing her values and resetting her life goals. Then one day, while out paddling, she came across the nest of a water-bird, a coot:

“It had eggs in it and it was made up almost entirely out of plastic. It just upset me. It was an entirely man-made problem. We had created all of that. Those chicks were going to hatch and the first thing they were going to see was plastic. It was just so wrong.”

Plastik einsammeln auf SUPs

Plastic Patrol


There has been great media attention on the issue of plastic in the oceans, but of course most of that pollution is flushed out there through our river systems. Lizzie wanted to lay bare the roots of the problem.

To reach a bigger audience and to demonstrate this was a nation-wide problem she embarked on her big journey across the UK. She was on a shoe-string budget, on a borrowed board and had to carry everything she needed in waterproof bags on her board, including a tent for wild-camping.

The journey was incredibly arduous. She spent up to 12-hours a day on her paddleboard, at one point she fought for 9-days upstream on the River Thames. Her hand started to stiffen into hooked position she held the paddle in.

„I just lay down on the ground and cried“

The system of canals created for boat navigation by England’s industrial revolution is ingenious but complicated, with dozens of locks (or Schleusen) to negotiate. The locks are pieces of engineering that allows boats to travel either uphill or downhill by raising and lowering boats, between stretches of water of different levels. They are like a series of watery steps up a hill. They are part of the fun for holiday makers on canal boats, but for Lizzie they were a nightmare. Each time she came to one she had to lug her board and equipment out of the water, climb around and get back in the water on the other side.

“To be honest this was the worst part of it because it was so physically demanding,” she remembers with a laugh. “I remember one day, it was about day 15 of the journey, I was on a section known as Heartbreak Hill to boaters because it is a section of 13 or 14 consecutive locks. I got there and saw this row of locks in front of me and I just lay on the floor and cried.”

A beautiful river

Chris Cummins

But as well as the hardship there were the moments of glory. The last hour before sunset when “the water starts to calm, and the wildlife is mingling around, and you are on your own because most people have gone home to watch television.” Or the early mornings, waking up in a tent on a wild stretch of river with the early morning hours with the mist rising. It is life at its most invigorating. “I’ve always said that journey was buy far the best adventure of my life.”

Plastik einsammeln auf SUPs

Plastic Patrol

More adventures have followed. The next year, 2017, she crossed the English Channel by paddleboard, becoming the first woman to accomplish that feat. Then, last autumn, she paddled down the length of the Hudson River. She organised clean-ups on the way, did some microplastic sampling and brought her #PlasticPatrol project to an American audience still rather enthralled by the throw-away culture of unfettered consumerism.

Lizzie on the Hudson

Max Guliani/The Hudson Project

She braved the disruptions of the tail of a hurricane as well as sudden, unpredictable thunderstorms and heavy industrial river-traffic. She says it was her hardest challenge to date, but she says the data she gathered and the connections she made among environmentalists and scientists made it well worth her while. And ending her journey standing on her paddleboard looking up at the Statue of Liberty was really special.

The issue has been spreading across the globe and here too in Austria you can get involved. “We run clean-ups all over the world through our network of partners who run free clean ups on our behalf,” she says. That basically means you can borrow the equipment for free and help with picking up litter. Beyond that you can download the #PlasticPatrol app and log “every single piece of plastic you see anywhere in the world at any time, so we can understand the problem.”

Alexa Barton, a paddleboard instructor at SUP in Motion runs free clean-ups independent of plastic patrol in Austria. She says that taking part can help change our consciousness about the way we consume plastic products and gives you an empowering feeling of connectivity: “You realise it is possible to make a difference.”

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