Emily Stevenson: Creating a Stronger Community Through Beach Cleaning

It was a crisp autumn afternoon when I first met Emily Stevenson, Co-Founder of the Beach Guardian. Beach Guardian is a Community Interest Company (CIC) that holds beach cleaning events across several beaches in North Cornwall, which is in the Southwest of the UK.

At just 22 years old, as well as running the Beach Guardian, Emily is also an Ambassador for The Sharks Trust, Plastic Oceans, The Thrive Programme, MARINElife and Keep Britain Tidy.

She is currently studying a Masters in Conservation Science and Policy with Exeter University, having graduated last year from Plymouth University with a degree in Marine Biology.

Emily Stevenson, the co-founder of Beach Guardian.

Our meeting point was Harlyn Bay, one of seven beaches Beach Guardian regularly cleans. The sun was beaming and the sound of waves gently lapping the shoreline could be heard in the distance. Gulls cried overhead, wheeling above and joyful in flight.

The golden hues of the sand and the deep blues of the sky and sea were a visual feast for the eyes. However, myself and 50 other volunteers were not here to enjoy the scenery. We were here to join Beach Guardian’s Saturday Beach Clean.

A small amount of litter collected over the course of three years.

Tubs and litter pickers in hand, we scoured the beach looking for litter, the most notorious being plastic. The more we looked, the more we found: fishing wire, plastic bottles, polystyrene pieces and plastic bags to name a few.

The volunteers consisted of people of all ages, but all sharing the same goal – to gather as much rubbish as possible. After an hour of picking, we headed back to the meeting point at the top end of the beach.

Emily appears as we all gather around, carrying a bulging bag of litter over her shoulder. In an hour, we had collected roughly two bags full of litter, which was to be taken back and sorted at the Beach Guardian Lab, my next stop.

A small amount of litter collected over the course of three years.

Emily showed me the collection of litter her and her father Robert Stevenson, also co-founder of the Beach Guardian, had gathered over the course of three years with the help of volunteers. The amount was staggering.

Emily was kind enough to speak to me about her experiences as the Beach Guardian, discussing it’s initial beginnings, career highlights (which include a crisp packet dress), university and advice to those wanting to pursue a career in conservation.

How did the Beach Guardian begin?

This story is one of my favourites. It started in art class. Our project was to make something out of the stuff found on the beach. Our teacher told us to go and find some natural things, like feathers and stones.

So, I went to the beach – this was about ten years ago – and I was finding plastics back then. I decided to take those in and make that my project. I made my art out of the plastic I found … But I was just finding so much of it I didn’t know what to do with it.

From there I made a website called Cornwall Beach Combers. The idea was I was going to sell the plastic that I was finding so other people could make art out of it, then all the money I’d raise I’d give to the Marine Conservation Society.

That’s when I decided I was going to do something about the plastic in the ocean and become a marine biologist and dedicate my life to this. That’s where it all started.

I was then involved in something called the Seven Bays Taskforce, which was a Facebook page where a group of us would post whenever there had been a big dump of plastic on the beach that needed tackling.

My dad had also setup other Facebook pages around the local area, showing pictures of the local beaches. But after seeing what was happening to the beaches, we began to post pictures of all the plastic we were finding.

Most people were behind this, but some didn’t want to see litter along their beaches. So we decided we needed to set up another Facebook page focused on beach cleaning, but we just couldn’t think of a name.

Robert and Emily Stevenson at one of their beach cleans.

We then went to a wedding and someone introduced me and my dad as the Beach Guardians. We thought that’s perfect, we’ll take that. So we set up the page and named it the Beach Guardian. It was crazy – within the first week we had a thousand followers; we couldn’t believe there was so much interest.

We timed it perfectly as it just so happened that Blue Planet was on around the same time. We started the Facebook page in October 2017 and became a CIC in February 2018. We are hoping to become a charity in the next year or so.

How has university contributed to your career?

I think university has been the biggest contributor to my career. It has given me the chance to network through guest lectures and learn new skills – I’m currently self-generating a research project which has meant I’ve had to organise interviews with loads of academics, which has been really useful.

The more you learn about something, the more you want to protect it. Learning all these new skills and about the situation the ocean is in has just made me more driven and motivated with Beach Guardian.

I see the work we do as the Beach Guardian in five different elements:

  • Outreach, which is the beach cleans, the events and various workshops.
  • Education, which involves running classes for children in schools.
  • Working with businesses to reduce their reliance on plastics.
  • Collaboration which is working with other environmental groups.
  • Policy, which focuses on working on change at a more national level.

Policy is why I’m doing my Masters – because whilst its fantastic we’re working with businesses, schools and people everywhere, if I want to see real significant national change, I need to go into policy – so working with the council right up to parliament.

Last year, we were lucky enough to be sponsored by our local MP to run a session in the Houses of Parliament. We were set up in a room for about three hours with a vast collection of items from our beach cleans so that MPs could see what was happening along their coastline.

They could pop in for half an hour and have a chat, and it was really good. But to actually have an impact we need to keep doing it, for them that was just one thing on one day. I’m hoping with my Masters course I’ll have more experience when it comes to the policy side of things.

University has also given me the chance to network, more so with my current course. Every week they’re getting in guest speakers, so we get hear about a different topic every week, from tracking seals to human genomes. Hearing all these different ways of researching and looking at all these different problems, but also hearing different people talk and how they present is massively helping me as well.

What has been some of your career highlights?

One of my highlights is the crisp packet dress. With our beach cleans, we find a lot of crisp packets, particularly Walkers as they are the biggest brand in this country. The interesting thing about these crisps packets is that they have use by dates, but a lot of the ones we find have ancient use by dates.

The first one that I found was the same age as me – it was from 1997. The colour was still there, 22 years later and it hadn’t degraded at all, and it was as strong as it was the day it was made. It was just staggering. It really showed the true potential danger of plastics and just how well we’ve made this product.

Since then we’ve found loads and loads of crisp packets. I’ve actually got a folder of all the crisp packets we’ve found, all in date order. It is my prized possession! The oldest packet is from 1972. It just shows that whatever is littered today will still be here when our grandchildren are around.

I just couldn’t believe this everyday casual littering was happening and no one was being held accountable for it. So, I wanted to try and get Walkers attention, who are owned by Pepsi Co. The second largest food and drink manufacturer in the world. I decided what I was going to do was make a dress out of crisp packets and wear it to my graduation last year.

So I did.

Emily wearing her crisp packet dress at graduation.

It did exactly what I wanted it to do in that Walkers knew who I was. I got loads of fantastic opportunities to speak about it – I had interviews on BBC Spotlight, ITV and Sky.

I stated in one of the interviews that some of the answers are there, all Walkers need to do is set up a collection point system where people can send their collected crisp packets off to be recycled. There already is a company called TerraCycle who recycle crisp packets so it could be done.

I threw them a lifeline and told them what could be done. Low and behold, a week later, in the newspaper ‘Crisp Packet Recycling Scheme announced’ and in December 2018, they launched it. The nation’s very first crisp packet recycling scheme and I think what makes me feel so proud about this scheme is that it’s revolutionary.

It was the first time that a company has shown that they’re willing to make changes and take the responsibility away from the consumer. This scheme is by no means the final solution, but it is a step in the right direction.

Walkers have set a target that by 2025 they will have 100% compostable, biodegradable packaging – yet within that time they would have produced 28 billion more packets of crisps. But the urgency is there.

They had to do something and I’m just glad they’ve done it so quickly. I still have an ongoing relationship with them – in November of this year I headed up to PepsiCo’s main office in Reading to be on a guest speaker panel with their head of manufacturing, in front of 400 PepsiCo staff.

I feel if I can befriend them, we can find a solution together; it’s much more positive for both sides. I don’t want to be screaming at them and telling them what they’re doing is wrong – they know that. They know it’s a big problem. So hopefully together we can start making these changes. So, I’m very proud of the dress as it enabled me to do all of this!

More so, however, is the difference we’re making in people’s lives – that makes me feel more proud than the dress as we’re actually affecting people in a more direct way. We have to address the plastic issue from the bottom up, so if we can get someone down the road to get a reusable bottle then that’s it, we’ve solved the issue.

Emily celebrates clearing litter off one of their local beaches.

If everybody can get reusable items most accessible for them and reduce their reliance on plastic, then we’ve solved the issue. It’s millions of people doing it imperfectly rather a handful doing it perfectly.

It is achievable; people need to realise we can actually do this. We’ve got this; we just need to get a move on with it.

Everybody needs to realise the power that they have and acknowledge when they do something good, like if you’re stopping in a service station and choose a can instead of a bottle, just know and tell yourself ‘Yes, I’m doing good today, well done.’ And you’ll just do it more and more until it becomes automatic.

And how did you turn litter picking into a community interest project?

There are so many great organisations out there that do pretty much the exact same thing as us, but we’ve tried to keep it as simple and as accessible as possible for all people from all backgrounds. When we do our events, we just say ‘let’s do an hour.’

We don’t want to push people or have people give up their whole day, we just want to do an hour and make it as simple and easy as possible for people to join in. We also try and make our beach cleans more like a treasure – at the start we’ll do a brief and say to look out for this, this and this.

At the end we then look at what everyone has found. It’s fantastic, as everyone is obsessed now. We’ve got some people who literally fight over the plastic!

We try and get as much as we can about something so simple as picking up litter. That’s all it is! We’re just down there picking up rubbish but we trying to turn it into a whole awareness thing as well, educating people and making it about fun and family and bringing people and the community together. We’re just trying to make as many positives as we can from doing something so simple.

What’s so special about Beach Guardian is that it started because the community was interested in it, and it has now grown to what it is today because of the community. And as the community has learnt more about plastic and their knowledge has grown, Beach Guardian has grown alongside it. It’s so special to see the place that I love the most all behind it. It’s all about taking care of the local environment so if the locals are onboard it just makes it so special.

Emily with a group of volunteers after a beach clean.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

The best and worst parts go together. The worst parts are when we find big fishing nets, tangled in marine life. But the best parts are following on from that when we’ve got it off the beach and you feel so elated.

Emily with a large haul of fishing gear collected from Trevone beach.

You’ve just put in so much energy and effort, you’re covered in dirt, and you just hauled this couple tonnes worth of net off the beach and you know it’s not going back out there on the next tide and causing more damage. You know that what you’ve just done in the last few hours has just made such a difference.

And how has running Beach Guardian helped you grow as a person?

It has shaped who I am today – it’s just made me so much happier. Just the beach cleaning, not everything else linked with Beach Guardian, but just beach cleaning has just made me so happy and appreciative.

This is very cringy, but I just feel so much more connected to nature and the environment. I find myself just looking around, which I never did before, and all these things have been happening around me my whole life; the only difference now is that I’m taking notice of them.

If I see a beautiful view, I acknowledge it, I take it in, and I’m inspired by it. Whereas before, I’d just walk past it. I think that all comes from Beach Guardian as I’ve just learnt to appreciate everything.

There is tons and tons of research looking at how being involved in your community and volunteering has limitless benefits on your mental health and wellbeing. One of those papers I remember is that when elderly people go into care homes; a well-known fact that has come out of research is that after the first year 50% of them will die. To increase their life expectancy by 30% is to give them a house planet.

Just one plant for their room or the communal room. Having that house plant there gives them a sense of purpose – they have something to care for and responsibility. I feel it’s the exact same thing as beach cleaning.

Just going down and spending five minutes just picking up stuff off the beach is like I’m caring for something – I’ve got a purpose and a passion. I feel confident in myself as I’m doing something good and getting out. It’s helped me to not sweat the small stuff and really appreciate everything. I’ve seen that in all of our volunteers as well.

I’m so glad I chose to focus on plastics as we really do have a way in here to get more and more people involved in all conservation – as it’s so simple and easy to see the difference you can make. You go to the beach, and it’s dirty. Ten minutes later, and you’ve cleaned it. You can then see the difference you have made on that day.

Today, after the beach clean, I saw everyone felt good about themselves, they were happy and they’ll want to come back and do it again to get that same feeling. It’s helped me as a person to be happier, and I feel when you’re happy it has knock-on effects for everything else in your life.

All I’m doing is beach cleaning – I’m just picking up rubbish. But it has massively rippled into the rest of my life – I’ve got better relationships with my family and friends, just from picking up rubbish.

Emily picking litter alongside other volunteers.

What have been the key steps in furthering your career?

Going back to do my master’s was a big thing for me – I originally was just going to focus on Beach Guardian. I made the decision because I felt the skills and knowledge I’d gain from doing a master’s are going to be so transferable in what I decide to do in life, which hopefully will be continuing with this.

But wherever this takes me, I know the skills I’ll learn at university will help me with that. Doing my undergraduate as well has massively helped me – I wouldn’t be sat here if I didn’t do my undergraduate degree.

Moving out for three years to go to university has massively shaped me as well; I learnt so many life skills. Going to university has definitely been the biggest step in my career, it has really helped push me in the right direction.

What is going to be your next career step?

I have thought about a PhD, but I think once I’ve finished my master’s I’d like to get back to focusing 100% on Beach Guardian, because that is going to continue and hopefully get bigger.

So… I really don’t know what my next step will be. With Beach Guardian, every day is different. I never know what is going to happen week to week. I’m so, so lucky that I always get the most fantastic of opportunities and people have just been so kind to me by offering me them.

I’d like to potentially focus on my environmental reporting. I did some work over the summer; shooting a five part mini-series exploring plastic waste in the Southwest called ‘Emily Explores’. I really enjoyed – I had the chance to go diving with sharks off Falmouth, probably the highlight of my life.

I’ve always had it in my head that I’m going to be a marine biologist, I’m going to work in conservation, and this is my life planned out. But as soon as I did the mini-series I loved it, I really loved it. So I’ve been looking at that going down that avenue as well. I’m just going to work really hard and see what happens!

What do you hope to achieve with Beach Guardian in the future?

What I want to see happen is that I don’t have to do it, because I don’t want there to be plastic. But at the same time, I love what I’m able to do and don’t want to stop. So, it’s a weird one. I want there not to be plastic in the ocean, but I want to continue working in conservation.

In the most cringy way possible, I’m already so happy with what we’ve already achieved. Everything from now is just a bonus. The people we see on the beach, the older people in particular – I love it as I’ve seen the difference beach cleaning has made in their life.

Some of these people are retired and feel a loss of purpose, especially in Cornwall when during the winter months everywhere is a ghost town. These people might go six months without seeing anyone.

To then have the opportunity to spend an hour on the beach with likeminded people, doing something good for the environment but also getting fresh air and doing something good for yourself is brilliant. Seeing that we’ve facilitated that for these people is enough for me; everything else now is just an extra.

And what advice can you give to those looking to work in conservation or start their own conservation-based organisation?

Networking! I think the best advice I could give is to network. But there’s this quote that as soon as I heard it, I knew I was going to use it. It is: “The worst thing that we can do in our lives is think somebody else is going to do it.”

You must realise that you’re somebody and you can do whatever you want to do. For me, if I thought someone else was going to come along and clean the beach, and I didn’t do it, chances are, that beach is not going to get cleaned.

We’ve got to stop diffusing responsibility to other people and realise the power that we have as an individual and the change that we can all make. So it’s all about having that confidence in yourself and your ability to make change and achieve your dreams, whatever it may be.

You don’t have to follow the stereotypical route to success, you don’t have to follow everyone else – just take advantage of what’s around you and use everything you can.

So, networking and reclaiming your power is my advice!

And if you could have dinner with two people in the world right now, who would they be?

Jo Ruxton! She produced A Plastic Ocean and is one of the reasons I do what I do. Then David Attenborough…or Sylvia Earle. No, Sylvia Earle. She’d empower me as a young woman to make change and claim my power!

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