Changemakers: Sian Sykes paddles across Wales to tackle plastic pollution

Sykes left a career in advertising to reconnect with nature in her home of North Wales to make Anglesey officially 'plastic-free'

My mum raised me to be a little activist,” says Sian Sykes, the paddleboarding powerhouse behind Anglesey’s new ‘plastic-free’ status. It might feel timely given the controlled climate chaos driven through central London by Extinction Rebellion, but Sykes has had her eye on the environment all her life. Her mission took her to schools, business, homes – and along the canals and rivers of Wales on a two-month paddleboarding expedition.

Sykes was introduced to the great outdoors when she was only three weeks old, when wild camping with her mother. She was raised boycotting certain brands because of the rainforest destruction they contributed to. “My mum taught me that we all have a voice and we can make an impact,” she says.

She was astonished by the extent of the plastic pollution,

Later, Sykes lived in Manchester and London where she forged a successful career in advertising. She describes this as “18-hour days in an industry far removed from what was important to [her]”. It wasn’t until she was asked to work for a brand she had boycotted for most of her life – for environmental and humanitarian reasons – that she decided to pack it in and seek out a better balance in life.

She returned to north Wales in 2012 to reconnect with nature. But she was astonished by the extent of the plastic pollution on her local beaches and along waterways.

Sykes was in the process of qualifying as an outdoors instructor and setting up her own adventure company, Psyched Paddleboarding. The masses of plastic thrown away by passers-by were cluttering her workspace. This pushed her to spring to action, organising litter picks and beach cleans with the local community before falling into a role as a regional rep with Surfers Against Sewage (SAS). But she didn’t feel it was enough.

What she really wanted to do was go directly to the people and make sure they knew how severe the plastic pollution crisis had become. She hatched a plan that would allow her to do just that – paddleboarding all around Wales, along the coast and inland, meeting communities and spreading her message. Sykes was driven to show inland residents that they needed to care about plastic pollution too; anything they threw away ended up strewn across the coast. She collected plastic litter from the water as she went.

Sykes avoided single-use plastic through the entire trip (“it was difficult, but can be done”) and raised money for SAS, the North Wales Wildlife Trust and RNLI. She often found herself stranded, waiting for the weather to calm, at which point she would engage communities and give workshops. She was met with an “incredibly warm” response, she says, finding many towns and villages were keen to pledge against using single-use plastics. And she was the first person to stand-up paddleboard all the way around Wales.

“We have become a convenient society,” she says. “Changing that won’t be an easy thing. We need to break the relationship we have with plastic.”

When she returned, Anglesey was already raring to get on board. The SAS ‘plastic-free’ community toolkit recognises communities that commit to ending their reliance on single-use plastics. It comes with a set of criteria: the local council’s backing for the motion; businesses that can demonstrate they have removed at least three types of single-use plastics; schools and clubs involved with beach cleans and talks; and the assembly of a steering group to push the movement forward.

Read more from Big Issue’s changemakers here

For Anglesey to be certified plastic-free, Sykes’ every spare moment was used to send emails, make phone calls and visit schools and businesses. One week she travelled nearly 500 miles in total to visit people and give advice.

“People were a bit bewildered about what changes they could make,” she recalls. “But if there’s someone to talk them through, they see it’s achievable and run with it.”

Some cafes have stopped using cling film, using wraps made from beeswax or seaweed instead.

One business no longer sells drinks in plastic bottles. Another has stopped selling single-use coffee cups, only serving customers with reusable coffee mugs, and offers water to anyone with a reusable bottle. Some cafes have stopped using cling film, using wraps made from beeswax or seaweed instead. A local school has swapped individual milk cartons complete with plastic straws for large milk containers decanted into reusable cups.

But it hasn’t all been easy, Sykes explains, particularly when a lack of infrastructure blocks progress. “A lot of companies are trying their hardest to find alternative solutions, but they haven’t thought of the whole end cycle.

“We don’t have a commercial composting machine in Anglesey. That means if someone comes out with a compostable coffee cup, it’s still not compostable here.”

Anglesey was certified ‘plastic-free’ just four weeks ago, but Sykes is already seeing evidence of the change she has inspired. “It’s gradual, but if you pay attention you can see a cultural shift happening in the area,” she says. “I find it weird when I see someone drinking from a single-use bottle round here – it just looks out of place. The cycle can be broken.”