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Lucy Siegle’s design for life: Plastic people and Devon scientists

PUBLISHED: 12:16 16 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:16 16 February 2015

Lucy Siegle: 'I am probably peculiar in that I can actually remember storylines from Nationwide from when I was a small child'

Lucy Siegle: 'I am probably peculiar in that I can actually remember storylines from Nationwide from when I was a small child'

Matt Austin Images 2013

Television presenter, journalist and Devon resident Lucy Siegle writes each month for Devon Life

Plastic people and Devon scientists

Welcome to the Plasticene. This is an era of unparalleled production and consumption of plastic. Made from oil to be durable, we increasingly treat it as disposable and herein lies the rub. To our eternal shame it’s not hard to see plastic litter, from milk bottles to syringes, in the world’s oceans.

We also live in the age of the ‘eco adventurer’ (yes, this is now a job title). And these two phenomena dovetail quite neatly. So the oceans are awash with plastic and the internet awash with swashbuckling eco adventurers high tailing it to the planet’s five subtropical oceanic gyres. Here the visible plastic waste tends to congregate and our eco adventurers vlog (a hybrid of videoing and blogging) for Nat Geo and other groovy channels.

But here’s the thing: the real breakthrough research on plastics in the ocean is being done by Devon scientists sieving through sediment in the Tamar in all weathers. They’re at the cutting edge of a global emergency.

I call Dr Richard Thompson of Plymouth University - the plastic detective -because he reminds me a bit of Lt Columbo and has dedicated his professional life to scouring the oceans for plastic. He has discovered our plastic litter fragments into tiny bits coupled with feedstock for plastic and microbeads used in face washes and other beauty products. He coined the term microplastics in 2004 and has found them in Antarctic ice and in the depths of the ocean.

Head up the A38 to Exeter University and there’s more cutting edge research from marine biologist, Dr Matt Cole. He has been following plastic microbeads introduced by the cosmetic industry and so small they are not filtered at sewage works, going direct from plughole to ocean. Dr Cole’s research shows them to be ingested by zooplankton. Seeing as this is the basis of the entire oceanic food chain, this is critical.

So there’s two things to shout about: Devon scientists impacting on global research and ridiculous face scrubs needlessly polluting the oceans in the name of exfoliation.

Free spirits…

Congratulations to anyone who completed a dry January or who is on the wagon on a more long term basis. How was it/is it? I ask because there’s a dearth of options for the non-drinker. The social fallout can be worse than declaring vegetarianism at a meat-fuelled barbecue.

Declaration of non-drinking in a social setting is all too often followed by embarrassed silence (the inference being that you’re a party pooper) followed by the hasty offering of a sugary pop drink out of a can or water – wow! Let’s do better! For inspiration there’s Mr Fitzpatrick’s Temperance Bar in Lancashire. Remember - teetotalers like a party too.

The Oscar goes to…

The end of the Hollywood Awards Season always provides me with a period for personal reflection. You see, I think I once went to the Oscars. I say ‘think’ because it all seems like a distant dream with only the odd fragment of proof: there’s some photographic evidence, a long black dress that hangs mysteriously in my wardrobe and a plane stub confirming I travelled to LA in 2011 at precisely the time of the Oscars.

Then there’s the flashbacks of the post-Oscars parties: me gawping at Jane Fonda, a conversation with Tom Hanks in a kitchen, dancing next to Madonna and bumping into Justin Timberlake. But this could all be fiction. As anyone who has ever been to Los Angeles can testify, it is a fairly unreal place. Add on the annual Academy Awards jamboree, and a couple of hundred of Hollywood’s finest trotting up the world’s longest red carpet (fact) and it feels as if you’ve been supplanted in Alice in Wonderland. There is a great chasm between the Oscars and real life - but that’s the point.

Awards are important because we need to celebrate the best in any industry. This is why ten years ago I founded the Ethical Awards giving out gongs to those in the UK who are doing the most to change things for the better. Gratifyingly I’ve heard them referred to as ‘The Green Oscars’ and the winners will be celebrated at a ceremony in London in the summer. There’s ten categories and still time to enter! observer.co.uk/ethicalawards

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