Paul is to say the least, a very recognisable face along the Thames River. An avid stand up paddleboarder, Paul’s role has been pivotal to the opening of the Thames River for paddlers through central London with his work and negotiations with the Port of London Authority (PLA). Alongside this, Paul has tirelessly campaigned against plastic pollution on the Thames and further afield, including his ‘In the Drink’ campaign, to encourage riverside pubs and restaurants to think about alternatives to single-use plastics that can have such detrimental consequences to the river environment. His other love is Active360, which he founded and has driven forward to be one of the largest and most active paddle sport clubs in the UK.
The first question is inevitable – what have you been doing to keep yourself sane during the current crisis?
I had maybe six weeks off the river during which time we re-thought and re-launched our Thames Skills and Knowledge courses with theory parts now delivered online via Zoom – so people don’t need to travel and can take them from the comfort of their sofa. All in line with Covid-19 social distancing measures and at the same time preparing people for the Thames Tideway conditions when they are ready to paddle.
Lockdown was a strange time but it gave me time to think about our business and how it could work in the post-Covid world where people need to stay away from big gatherings and avoid unnecessary close contact. For Active360 this means no big events and large groups on the river for some time and that’s exactly what we were doing over the last few years.
Instead, we restarted with one to one lessons, small family/same household groups. It was like going back to where we started nine years ago and in a way quite refreshing. I can remember thinking in early June how without Covid we would have been getting ready for ‘Get on Board’ – the SUP river clean-up, which last year attracted 250 participants. Instead of planning for that, we were out on the river introducing enthusiastic individuals to SUP and helping them to progress – which was actually quite rewarding and much less stressful.
It was good to take a step back, slow down and re-think. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the lockdown.
So when and more importantly, why did the idea of tackling plastic pollution first come to mind?
In 2011 when we started up in London – one or our bases on the canal was beautiful but quite plastic polluted, so we got some friends and people from local community to clean it up. We did more plastic clean ups but I always knew it was not a real solution – just a quick fix. It gives people first-hand experience and gets them thinking but what’s needed is a long term change in human behaviour and this needs to be followed by businesses and government. Without this, the problem will persist and we will keep cleaning up plastic that will keep coming back.
We scaled up with picking up plastic and we now run bigger ‘Paddle and Pick’ events (www.paddleandpick.com) engaging businesses in understanding the need to protect the marine environment and reduce their plastic footprints.
What effect do you think the Covid-19 crisis has had regarding pollution?
Throughout lockdown, the Thames was relatively plastic free. I haven’t seen it that clean and for so long for quite a while. With few people out on the riverside drinking and eating and very few powered boats out there, the main sources of plastic trash were removed. Also all the big junk food chains were closed for many weeks, so we stopped seeing the evidence of mindless consumerism. It was very refreshing and gave me hope that change can happen and when it does we can see evidence very quickly.
With the easing of lockdown restrictions – have you noticed an increase again in river pollution and if so, what type of pollution?
Sadly, as soon as lockdown started easing – almost immediately human trash started to return. Riverside bins overflowed as people picnicked and drank in groups. Added to the usual fizzy drink plastic bottles, Covid masks and plastic gloves started appearing in large numbers as well as lots of single-use plastic cups. Reusables were banned when lockdown eased, so you can no longer be served coffee in your reusable cup. Single-use plastic cups were being dished out by riverside pubs as their outdoor service resumed.
There appears to be no place for thinking of the impact on the environment in the attempt to minimise contact i.e. handling cups, washing, etc. If it isn’t looked into, it will become the norm again and all the hard work environmentalists were trying to do to change people’s behaviour will have been wasted. We are actively involved in the ‘In The Drink’ – a scheme to encourage bars and pubs, particularly those on the riverside, to switch from single-use plastic cups to reusable ones. Sadly, all that work was put to a stop for the moment but once the busy summer season is over, I plan to do more work on that.
People may be forgiven to think you only concentrate on the Thames River. Please expand on your travels across the world with your ethos of fighting pollution
I’m based in London but have been over to Odisha, India, a few times to see how they are struggling with plastic there. Chilika Lake in India is a vast (1,1652 mile) and mostly unspoilt lagoon flowing into to the Bay of Bengal and home to 160 species of birds and rare Irrawady Dolphins. We completed a few trips around sections of the lake on SUPs and found that while large areas are still unspoilt, others are plastic polluted. This comes from many visitors to an island pilgrimage and also Indian tourists going to see the dolphins from local fishing boats.
My last visit was to the south – Chennai and Kerala, where again parts are free of plastic and others are polluted. I’ve also been out to Myanmar to see the Mangroves, in the Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park a few times but it was shocking to see how in a remote coastal village plastic was everywhere – on the stunning beach and around the houses. When we first visited in early 2017 they were just setting up their first landfill and organizing the first plastic clean up. We were pleased to be invited to take part in this with the village primary school kids.
We also have a growing partnership with Starboard, who have for years led the SUP industry in single use plastic reduction and who help fund the Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park. I’ve been out to Thailand a few times to better understand their pioneering environmental work.
How can we as stand up paddlers, canoeists and kayakers all get more involved in tackling pollution?
I come from a kayaking background, having been a white water paddler when I was younger and I set up three canoe clubs on the Thames. Kayakers/canoeists are generally quite good with environmental awareness as individual paddlers but perhaps canoe clubs could be a bit more proactive and involved in environmental activism and advocacy. Perhaps some clubs are very involved but we don’t just hear about it, which is a shame.
There are a few things we can all do to reduce our own plastic footprint. Investing in good quality equipment that will last years is a good start – our boats/boards are made out of plastic, we use neoprene, etc. Let’s be mindful what we buy and how we use it to minimise the chance of it getting into landfill. We could try to support brands with environmental ethos and try to influence the ones that don’t appear to have much consideration for the environment. We looked at our suppliers and stopped buying overpackaged goods. There is no need for a plastic boat/board to be wrapped in even more plastic. Every time we buy something wrapped in plastic we are financially supporting the companies who produce it and reduce their urgency to make changes.
If you have bought over-packaged stuff you can do something about it – the power of social media is incredible! You can post images on social media, tagging in manufacturers and campaigning organizations. You will be surprised how much response you can sometimes get. Often manufacturers will engage, make them respond to you and explain. Customer feedback can be a powerful tool in long-term change.
Posting images of trash in the environment and on riverbanks can induce producers and their customers to think about who is responsible. Is it the soft drink manufacturers for packaging in plastic, or their irresponsible customers for mindlessly disposing of it?
As an avid protector of rivers, I imagine that you must have strong views on where food and goods are sourced?
I try to avoid the obvious and enjoy a mainly plant-based diet but I don’t like telling others what to do. It’s complex and without lots of research it’s easy to make mistakes. Where there are opportunities to buy locally produced food or goods then I take them, as transporting goods around the world is rarely a good thing. However, in the SUP world, most of the equipment and clothing we use is manufactured in the Far East and so generally the best we can do is to support brands trying hardest to reduce packaging and use recycled materials. I love Starboard’s initiative to replant mangroves and use paper and cardboard packaging instead of polystyrene and bubble wrap.
What keeps you going with your enthusiasm for rivers and in particular, the Thames?
I’ve lived close to the Thames since the 1980s and now live on it (on a boat) so I can’t get any closer. I love the way rivers change constantly in different light and weather conditions and the Tidal Thames (my back garden) with its huge tidal range and greatly varied riverbanks, is particularly interesting to me.
It can also be really challenging in changing conditions so I can’t say I ever get bored with it. A seal joined us on the river today and stayed with us for a while enjoying a fish dinner in front of us. The couple I was coaching got an unexpected birthday treat – what else can you ask for on a day out on a river?
Are there times when you feel really deflated and fighting a losing battle or do you see real signs of progress?
I do feel deflated when I see how we abuse nature and spoil our environment. The way traffic levels, air pollution, road noise and plastic in the river have returned so quickly shows that not much has really changed. The cars queuing at drive-through fast food outlets with engines running is mindless. But there are good signs, like the increase in cycling and the new pop-up segregated bike lanes appearing.
Also working from home is reducing the need to travel and gives many of us, a better work life balance and more time to think.
I don’t think the battle is lost. To say that would mean to give in. I don’t give in.
You and Active360 organise so many events on the Thames – are they all set to return in 2021?
There are signs of things coming back. A few enquiries about river clean ups from businesses for late summer and events for next year. It may take a couple of years for the really big events to build up again with the economy damaged and some companies tightening up their spending.
As well as endeavouring to keep the Thames clean, you are also heavily involved with keeping paddlers safe on this world-famous stretch of water – how do you intend to keep that momentum?
We are running the sixth series of online TSK courses since the end of the Thames lockdown and we are running as many on-water TSK sessions as we can fit in. Work on bringing TSK2 theory online is underway. We have just contributed to a PLA safety bulletin on ‘Use of Leashes for Stand Up Paddleboards’. This follows a recent incident, which nearly resulted in two people drowning because they were wearing ankle leashes and their boards were dragged under a pontoon by the powerful Thames current.
We have been anticipating this type of drowning for years while advocating quick-release leashes and buoyancy aids on the Tideway. It’s good that these unaware paddlers survived and everyone can learn from the incident. We want to offer training to as many people as possible, so we will keep running courses and promoting them, while making the most effective equipment readily available locally.
OK – so please leave us with just one last thought on what we could do better to keep our rivers clean…
Buy a reusable bottle and use it. Tap water tastes fine and you will be much healthier skipping the fizzy carbonated stuff full of sugar or chemical substitutes. Discarded plastic bottles and cups are the main offenders of plastic pollution in the rivers. Pack your lunch in boxes, avoid plastic bags and wrappers. It’s all quite simple really if a little less convenient.
Pre-Covid, I would also strongly advise to refuse beer served in a single use plastic cup. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible as all pubs/bars are serving in single-use plastic. Hope we can soon return to that and demand again that pubs and bars invest in reusables.
In your time at Active360, what is good about the club, and what is your proudest achievement personally?
Some would say against the odds I’ve set up an organisation on the Tidal Thames when SUP was still very niche and hardly known in London. We have introduced thousands of people to SUP on a beautiful but challenging stretch of a very powerful urban river. This was done with an excellent safety record despite some thinking we were cowboys.
I’m also proud to be using SUP as a vehicle for environmental change, sticking to my principles and making the business not only about earning a living but some higher values like environmental awareness, community inclusion and sharing love of the rivers with city dwellers who sometimes don’t see the beauty on their doorstep.
Any final shout outs?
Don’t buy cheap rubbish boards!