Volvo Ocean Race: Keeping it Clean

The Volvo Ocean Race sees some of the most technically advanced sailboats compete over 83,000 kilometres around the world, using just wind for power. At sea, competitors see a lot of deep-sea pollution - so they are doing their bit to reduce consumption. By Jeremy Torr.

Volvo calm.jpg

Puerto de Alicante , Spain. 2 April 2019. Sailor Dee Cafari, says that in the time she has been racing sailboats around the world, she has seen many changes in the oceans. “I’ve seen the horrible reality of plastic pollution. There is an issue, and we can do something about it,” she adds. “If we can raise awareness and get everybody to change the way they think and act even a little bit, we can have a huge impact.”

For the next Volvo Ocean Race in 2021, the organisers say they are looking to help deal with plastic pollution in the oceans by teaming up with other organisations to “use the race as a global platform to maximise the impact of the sustainability message.” And although there are many organisations and sporting events saying the same thing, it looks as though the Volvo Ocean Race is putting its money where its mouth is.

In the last race, the organisers tackled plastic use at key stops around the world, set up local educational programmes, and promoted pollution research in some of the world’s remotest waters. Working in partnership with UN Environment, the aim was to assist in the UN’s Clean Seas campaign to help educate and possibly stem the tide in marine plastic pollution.

Last year the overall plastic footprint of the whole race was estimated at 21.3 tonnes, including 2.6 tonnes of soft non-recyclable plastics. Impressively, more than 17.5 tonnes was recovered, removing the possibility that it might end up in landfill or worse, the sea.

Meegan Jones, the race’s sustainability manager, says an important part of the success was due to commitment from the event’s workforce, contractors, vendors and the public. “We had to work on engagement. We put rules in place, but how we get people to willingly comply is where the magic happens,” she says.

The organisers estimate that one million plastic disposable items were replaced with compostable or reusable tools, cutlery, crockery and the like. And instead of around 180,000 single-use cable ties, the race bought 30,000 reusable bungee cords to attach banners and flags at ports of call.

Wher possible, branding materials were recycled or repurposed. In Lisbon, for example, repurposing groups were invited to collect the material, some of which was recycled into bags and boat shoes.

Race sailors have a unique role in promoting sustainability. Courtesy VOR.

Race sailors have a unique role in promoting sustainability. Courtesy VOR.

In Cardiff, Wales, around 280 kg of plastic waste was collected and repurposed by RPC bpi Recycling to make heavy-duty recycled wood-style benches.

“The oceans are under attack,” says Wendy Schmidt, of race participant 11th Hour Racing. “So we feel the sailors who love the oceans can be wonderful messengers (for the message) as the sail around the world.”

One significant challenge the race faces is dealing with soft plastics, like cling film and bubble wrap, which are essential for life on board but often not accepted at recycling plants. Race organizers collected 2.6 tonnes that would otherwise have gone to landfill and found partners who would take it.

The organisers also established tie-ups with specialist organisations and sponsors to make the most of their specialist expertise. These included sustainability brokers 11th Hour Racing, Ocean Family Foundation; Stena Recycling; and Swedish firm Bluewater. Bluewater, which uses reverse osmosis technology to turn polluted and waste water into drinking water, set up three hydration stations with mineralized, chilled and carbonated water at each stopover. Each station provided up to 8,000 litres of recycled, plastic bottle-free water a day. This meant an estimated 380,000-plus single-use plastic bottles were not used. And better still, at the various race control stations, some 20,000 people signed UN Environment’s Clean Seas pledge.

For those interested in the race but not lucky enough to visit the ports of call, online lesson plans are being made available in 32 countries, accessing over 35,000 students who can learn more about the effects of pollution (and the benefits of a sustainable approach) on the oceans.

The ocean may look clean, but it is definitely in danger says 11th Hour’s Schmidt. Courtesy VOR.

The ocean may look clean, but it is definitely in danger says 11th Hour’s Schmidt. Courtesy VOR.

“The race has also launched a program collecting scientific data on CO2, salinity and sea surface temperatures as well as microplastic concentrations – a test that has never been done before,” says spokesperson Anne-Cecile Turner.

“It is very interesting and helpful for us to understand what is happening out there in our endangered playground,” she adds. But simply throwing light on the problem is not enough, says 11th Hour’s Schmidt.

“We are all part of the system that has created this waste that is now a problem for our oceans, so we all have a role to play; let’s pay attention,” she warns.