Everyday Icon: Claudia Sick, Biologist & Environmental Advocate

Prepare to transform the way you see your throwaway grocery bags and other expendable plastic items, thanks to these powerful insights from Claudia Sick of the Danish environmental NGO called Plastic Change.
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Image Credit: Plastic Change

Image Credit: Plastic Change

Not doing your laundry has never felt so good, thanks to biologist Claudia Sick. Turns out, putting off this household chore isn't avoidance — it's doing the planet a favor. Washing fabrics like polyester and nylon that are made of plastic actually releases harmful pollutants, which can cause irreversible harm to the environment as they move through our water sources.

"Hanging clothing outside is well enough for getting odor out, and spots can often just be cleaned 'locally' from clothing," Claudia explains. "New washing bags to hold back plastic fibers are also starting to appear on the market."

As a project manager at Plastic Change, a Danish environmental NGO, the 35-year-old is an expert on the cause and effects of this type of pollution, which largely go unseen to the naked eye. From trawling the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas to test microplastic levels, to creating an app that allows users to identify beauty products containinf microbeads, to developing environmentally-friendly legislation for the European Union, Claudia is fighting the good fight by any and all means available.

And for substantial reason — according to Claudia, chemicals associated with plastics are harmful not to just a human's hormonal system and reproductive and brain functions, but also to most of our planet's organisms. Many of the direct and indirect effects are still unknown variables, but she's determined to do everything within her power to end to plastic pollution and inspire others to do the same. Learn more, and get seriously inspired by her advocacy, below. 

How did you become interested in studying plastic pollution, and how did you become involved in Plastic Change?

I have been fascinated by the variety of life on earth, both terrestrial and marine, since I was young, and I have especially worried about how us humans have a clear detrimental effect on it — in the end, to our own detriment, since we are so dependent, much more than most are aware of in their daily lives, on nature and its free services to our healthy lives. For these reasons, it was easy for me to decide on taking a master's degree in biology with a special focus on conservation and environmental issues, and pursuing a professional career within this field.

Nature and wildlife face many threats from humans, and plastics are one of them. So when I found out that Plastic Change had launched in Denmark, it was a really exciting new place and concrete relevant theme for me to contribute to.

What are some solutions we can all be a part of to end plastic pollution?

In people's everyday lives, it is important to look at how plastic is being used in their own households, and how they handle using plastics. Most importantly, one can reduce the use of plastics where it is not necessary or can be replaced by natural alternatives. Especially the single use of plastic products is really relevant to look at. For example, one does not need a plastic straw to drink; we can replace plastic cotton buds or plastic tooth picks with ones that are made from wood; and we can choose products in the supermarket which are wrapped in less (or zero) plastic.

Instead of buying bottled water, make it a habit to always have a long-life bottle and use tap water (if safe to drink, of course). In Denmark and many other places, tap water is actually much healthier than bottled water. Also, when plastic products are used in our lives and households, make sure they are being re-used as many times as possible and have a long life before being recycled (most ideal, if possible) or thrown away appropriately for incineration (only if recycling is not an option). For example, boxes for storing food and reusable bottles are good ways to use plastics, since they are durable and have a long life. A good durable bag, whether of plastic or another material, is also a really good thing to always have on you for shopping, instead of getting plastic bags that are thrown away after only one or few uses.

Why are there plastics in beauty products? Can you share some brands we should steer clear of?

Microplastics in cosmetics are used mainly because they're cheap and easier to handle, compared to natural alternatives. They serve many different functions, as exfoliating agents, binding agents, in film formation and aesthetical (glitters), amongst others. Microplastics from these products are lost to our environment and are not able to be picked up once lost — hence this is a very poor and inappropriate usage of plastics.

Plastic should only be used when it is not lost to the environment where it has detrimental effects, and especially because there are already plenty of natural alternatives in cosmetics, as many products without microplastics are proof of. This is an area where we should really avoid using plastics and get clear legislation on it. In Europe, more than 4,000 tons of microplastics may be used in cosmetics each year — plastics that are lost to sea.

As there are so many products out there, it's hard to give general advice on which in particular to avoid, since it's not only limited to a few brands. My best advice is to use the app Beat the Microbead, if available in your country (when you download the app, you can see this under settings), and to look at the product lists on the Beat the Microbead website.

What sparked your interest in marine biology?

Generally, it is my fascination with life and its variety — the fine and well-adapted balance, collaboration and connection between different organisms. And then I love to dive and experience this unique and different world, as it's like a completely different planet. I am not one that has a favorite animal or group of animals — I rather like diversity and to study the different aspects of life, behavior and adaptions for different environments.

Thus, during my studies and work I have been involved in projects that vary a lot with respect to environments and organisms, working with both birds, ants, baboons, sharks and elephant seals, in forests, semi-deserts and oceans.

The really interesting part with marine biology is that there is so much that is unknown to us still — so many organisms probably yet to be discovered and so much we still don't understand. This makes plastic pollution really interesting and relevant to deal with, since it is such a great challenge and potential disaster for especially the marine environment, as that's where plastic ends up when we lose it to nature. This is really an issue we need to deal with now, before it's too late.

Please tell us all about the expedition you went on to record the level of plastic pollution in our oceans. It must have been amazing!

I sailed in the Mediterranean Sea (from Greece to Spain) and in the Caribbean Sea (from Trinidad to St. Maarten) in 2015 and 2016. I mainly used the manta trawl to collect samples of microplastics in the surface water, in order to see the concentration of different sizes and types, but other students also studied other things on a more chemical level.

We also tried catching lantern fish to look at the stomach contents, but this was trickier than imagined. We did catch a few, but we need more samples to say anything, really. Lantern fish are really interesting because they are such a large biomass in the sea, and they are probably the most important group of prey species for larger organisms. Since they feed in the surface waters at night (and thus are exposed to floating microplastics) and migrate down to several kilometers at day, where they are eaten by predators, they might serve as an important species with respect to transporting microplastics into the food chain.

Due to mechanical forces and sun exposure, all macroplastics will eventually be broken into smaller pieces and end up as microplastics. Once they're microplastics, they're impossible to clean up, as they're so small and are distributed everywhere in the ocean, both vertically and horizontally. Microplastics are important to look at because once this size, they're available as (mistaken) food items for smaller organisms which form the basis for the larger food chain. If the small organisms are affected, the whole food chain and the balance may collapse in time.

Generally,  we found many fragments (broken pieces of large plastics) in our surface samples — and they were mostly polyethylene (but also other types), which tells us that much of the plastics come from packaging or storing items. But there was a large variety, and the sources are many!

How can we help remove the plastic that is already out in the ocean?

Completely cleaning up the ocean is simply not possible, and we need to stop the plastic that ends up there. Cleaning coastlines, where plastic is about to enter the sea (or already has been in the sea, but will be taken out again eventually if no one picks it up) is a good place to start. But even before that, preventing plastic from ending up in nature, stopping it at the source, is the first place to start. Here are seven good tips to prevent adding more.

If you could pick a few key things that you wished every human knew about the dangers of plastic, what would they be?

Plastic is not an overall bad thing at all. It solves many crucial things in our daily lives. But it's our improper usage and handling of it — our plastic and throw-away culture — that is the problem. Once in the ocean, one cannot clean it up! There are initiatives that do this, but do not be fooled, it is only a small fraction that can actually be cleaned up — only larger pieces and only on the surface water with the current technologies. It is not realistic to clean up the whole ocean, and we need to have our primary focus on avoiding that it ends up there in the first place. Working together as consumers, industry and politicians —we need to solve this together.

Most organisms in the ocean are harmed by plastic pollution, either physically by getting tangled up, ingesting it and blocking vital organs, or chemically by the harmful chemicals that are part of the plastic or gets adsorbed to it. Humans are thus also at risk by eating marine foods.

Why is it important to you be a part of a greater cause?

It's important simply because this is what drives and motivates me in my professional work. One spends a lot of time at work, and it only makes sense to me to make the most of it and help creating a better world founded on a healthy nature and environment.

Knowing what you do about the precarious position we've put our planet in, how do you stay hopeful about the future?

We have already seen a large increase in the attention that this issue has gotten, both by consumers, industry and politicians, so lots of awareness, projects and initiatives have already been started. We need to continue this work — on local, national, regional and international levels — across borders and backgrounds.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

p.s. If you are going to do that laundry, here's a tip to make it more eco-friendly