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Meet the woman with a 'radical' solution to water pollution

Lizzie Carr founded Planet Patrol after her paddle boarding hobby alerted her to the severity of water pollution in the UK.

Lizzie Carr, founder of Planet Patrol, sitting on a paddle board

Carr has an MBE for services to environmental activism. (Image: Lizzie Carr/Planet Patrol)

“People need to know what’s happening with our waterways. The scale of the problem is huge,” says Lizzie Carr, founder of the environmental NGO Planet Patrol.

Carr started Planet Patrol after becoming a paddle boarder forced her to wake up to the issue of pollution in the UK’s water. Seven years later, the problem is worse than ever.

“Pollution needs to be addressed urgently in a radical way,” Carr told the Big Issue, highlighting how people can no longer rely on water companies or the government to make those “radical” choices.

“People need to get involved so they can be motivated to fix the issue,” she said.

There have been significant conversations about the scale of the water pollution problem in the UK in recent years, after reports of sewage pouring into the sea last summer dominated headlines.

According to the Environment Agency, there were over 300,000 sewage spills in 2022 – 825 times a day.

A combination of poor water infrastructure and illegal sewage discharges by water companies has caused England’s water quality to decline significantly – it is now one of the worst places in Europe when it comes to water quality, with just 14 per cent of rivers in “good” ecological condition

Campaigners have been increasingly calling for change. Megan Corton Scott, political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said: “The government must end their snail-like approach and urgently set ambitious, binding near-term targets to improve water quality, and give the regulators the legal powers and funding necessary to enforce them.”

The environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has faced calls to resign over the sewage spills. Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey said Coffey has “let” water companies “get away with this environmental crime for far too long” and argued she “must now resign or be sacked so we can have an environment secretary who actually cares about saving our rivers from destruction”.

Izzy Ross from Surfers Against Sewage added: “It’s long past time for water companies, Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the government to step up.”

Carr herself has had experience with poor water quality. When she was training to paddleboard across the Hudson River in New York, she ingested water in her local area near Nottingham and became quite ill.

Carr agreed: “Sewage is a massive problem and it is absolutely scandalous what is happening with water companies.”

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She believes that people need to be engaged with the problem so that something can be done about it. That’s how she got involved in fixing the problem.

All of the litter seen and picked up by Planet Patrol’s volunteers is recorded in the organisation’s app, providing a collective snapshot of the types of pollution in the UK’s waterways and where it happens.

“We need to mobilise people who care about this issue to come together and collect this data so that our academic partners and scientists can understand what’s happening,” Carr said.

“There’s a massive knowledge gap that needs to be filled, and what Planet Patrol is trying to do is demonstrate the power of citizen science and collective action,” she continued.

The data collected allows Planet Patrol to build “undeniable evidence” of the “state of the situation”, she said, so that there can be solutions to tackle it.

Planet Patrol volunteers picking up litter for water pollution
Volunteers for Planet Patrol have picked up half a million pieces of litter in the last seven years. (Image: Planet Patrol)

Her paddle boarding pastime began with a desire to get “stronger and fitter” following a cancer diagnosis. But she ended up learning a lot about the nation’s waterways. 

“I was seeing a lot of plastic pollution and swans entangled in bits of plastic or birds nests made up almost entirely of wrappers and straws,” she said. “It was really heartbreaking, to be honest.”

The organisation started out as the hashtag #PlasticPatrol in 2016, when Carr aimed to paddleboard the 400-mile length of England over 22 days  and measure the litter she found along the way.

“I plotted every single piece of plastic that I encountered on that route to show people the scale of the problem from one person’s perspective,” she said.

The organisation rebranded Planet Patrol in 2020, with the aim to “invite people to come out and paddle board for free with the only payment being that they would help collect any litter that they saw and record it on my map”. 

The organisation has expanded significantly since Carr’s solo litter-picking trip, with representatives across Europe and the Americas running  litter picking and other activities.

Litter picked up from Planet Patrol water pollution clean ups
The organisation has volunteers across the world. (Image: Planet Patrol)

“We’re at nearly half a million pieces of litter recorded in our app across 113 countries around the world. It’s given us this amazing repository of data to really understand plastic and water pollution at the source,” she said.

Every year, the organisation produces a report looking at the types of litter its volunteers have found and uses that to make evidence-based recommendations to the government. 

Plastic may seem like the obvious problem, but the data from Planet Patrol shows there are many other issues: “More and more brands are moving away from plastic to other materials like metal, aluminium cans, or composite materials and they are just as damaging to the environment.”

“This isn’t about demonising one material, like plastic, and it’s not even just about materials. It’s a much bigger fight, it’s about the chemical and sewage pollution affecting our waterways,” she said.

Planet Patrol has now launched its own water quality testing programme, with 57 volunteers across the UK testing six different pollutants in 48 freshwater environments in 2022. The organisation also runs a “water watch”, where they encourage people to contribute to the information Planet Patrol collects around “water quality and testing”.

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Carr said: “We got 1,229 water quality readings over a three month period and 1,178 metal concentration readings across that period. The findings were staggering: 98 per cent of sites failed across at least one of the five parameters tested.”

Now she wants to roll out that testing programme nationally so that anyone can receive testing kits and find out the water quality in their local waterway.

“I don’t want to put an estimate on it, but we could exceed what the government is doing in terms of water quality sampling, just through community action. A lot more respect and credibility needs to be given to citizen science as a credible way of collecting data and using that to inform frameworks and decision-making that currently don’t exist,” she said.

Planet Patrol has regular paddleboarding and activity-related litter picking cleanups running from April to October that people can participate in but people can record any litter they find using the organisation’s app.

“All litter is data, and data is what we need to fix this,” she added. “We’re all connected by the same waters globally.”

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