When Flora Blathwayt attended her first beach clean-up event in November 2019 she had no idea it would kickstart a business fighting plastic pollution in the River Thames.
Like millions of others, the 33-year-old was furloughed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and later lost her job making condiments out of surplus fruit and veg.
Flora, from Peckham in south London, had always been passionate about sustainability and was looking for a way to occupy the time and spend lockdown doing something good.
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“I thought I’d have a job to come back to, but you don’t have a job, you’re at home and there’s a scary virus which you’ve never heard of before taking hold,” she told the Big Issue.
“I went through a break up as well at the time, and I was living on my own and I just knew that I had to do something to keep myself going.”
Like many others, Flora felt isolated in the lockdown and soon realised she could fuse her interest in fighting plastic pollution with gifts that made everybody feel good.
Now, she has sold hundreds of greetings cards through her Washed Up Cards business and is continuing to earn money while raising awareness about plastic waste.
The company creates cards using plastic washed up from the Thames, making each one unique with a different design. The cards are created by hand and Flora aims for messages that are both thought-provoking and raise a smile.
One sees a Covid mask decorated with plastic and the message “Merry Christmask”. Another features a washed-up toffee wrapper and says “you’re such a sweetie”.
In July, scientists revealed pollution levels in the River Thames were higher than many other rivers in Europe and contained huge levels of plastic, making it one of the most severely polluted rivers in the world. Researchers at Royal Holloway University of London estimated that 94,000 microplastics a second can flow down the river in certain places.
Clean-ups, like those Flora joins to harvest the ingredients for her cards, have a dual environmental impact by removing litter or invasive species. This can make waterways a nicer place for people and wildlife to enjoy.
“Raising awareness about plastic pollution has always been a huge passion of mine and spending a lot of time outside beach cleaning has hugely helped my mental health and wellbeing,” Flora said.
“It’s also been very helpful to earn some extra money while I’ve been on my reduced salary.”
In the latest figures, 9.6 million jobs have been furloughed across the UK, with 1.2 million employers claiming back £43 billion in wages.
Flora describes her tale as a “positive” lockdown story in a time where the world could do with some good news.
“I started making a few cards just for friends and family and then it was lockdown. I wanted to reach out to the community around me and tell them that I was on my own as well,” she added.
“The cards said things like ‘I’m thinking of you’ or ‘everything will be okay’ with little bumblebees.
“I sent about 10 cards to my neighbours. They have been so brilliant to me the last few months and they said ‘these cards are brilliant you need to do more of them’.”
Flora is now using her skills to help others clean up beaches. She has qualified as a Thames 21 River Action Leader and started running Covid friendly beach cleans with up to 15 other volunteers.
“This is just the start, I hope. I want to keep open-minded about where it’s going,” she added.
“Yes, the card business could be really exciting, but I think where I actually feel most passionate about what I’m doing is how I have been running these beach clean-up events since we were allowed out after the first lockdown.”
Flora said that she wanted everybody to be able to experience the mental health benefits of the activity.
“I honestly think that beach cleaning, and I know it sounds a bit weird if you have not done it before, is so positive in all these different ways.
“I would love to work with a charity like Mind trying to get people to come and beach clean to feel all the benefits that I feel. And then maybe, you know, the cards can be a thing as well.”