For Plastic Free July I have interviewed local campaigners, business owners and community heroes from Devon and Cornwall, who have put living plastic free at the heart of the way they work.

Meet Harry Dennis, CEO of Cornish based social enterprise, Waterhaul

Tell me a little about yourself and the work that you do.

Waterhaul is a social enterprise based in Newquay, Cornwall. We intercept plastic from our oceans and transform it into high-quality, functional products for adventure and ‘symbols for change’.

I founded the company 2 and a half years ago. With a background in marine biology, and having previously worked for Surfers Against Sewage, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of ocean plastics on our marine environment, in particular ghost gear (lost or discarded fishing nets, ropes and lines). I wanted to find a way to reduce the negative impact of this type of plastic waste, by creating a circular-economy business that cuts virgin plastics from the production chain. All of our products are made from recycled ghost gear that we collect from our local beaches, and they in turn are fully recyclable at the end of their lifetime.

We also work with marine charities and other plastic-reducing organisations to have an even greater positive impact, and show people how they can make an individual difference.

What first got you started on plastic free campaigning?

As a diver and surfer, my passion for the ocean quickly transformed into a need to protect it, and to show others how they can do the same. Every year at least 640,000 tonnes of fishing nets are lost or discarded in the ocean, killing over 100,000 marine mammals a year, and millions more fish and seabirds. Fishing related debris are particularly harmful in our oceans due to their tendency to entangle marine life and damage seabed habitats, such as kelp beds and coral reefs. In a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’, the entangled carcasses of trapped marine life will attract more species, resulting in further potential entanglements. As these discarded nets are produced from plastic, they will not degrade, persisting in the ocean to catch and kill marine life indefinitely.

We see waste as a misallocated resource, one that can be recycled into something new. We hope that we can inspire others to use the discarded materials that we already have in our environment in the production chain, rather than producing more. Not only does extracting and recycling this waste reduce fossil fuel consumption, it also protects our wildlife from further harm.

What has been your biggest achievement so far?

Our biggest achievement has been our Retask the Mask campaign. In the last year, the number of facemasks thrown away could wrap around the world in a straight line 550 times. But we wanted to change this. Working in collaboration with the NHS, we transformed over 115,000 single-use facemasks into litterpickers as part of a global clean-up. We partnered with our local Royal Cornwall Hospital who use a machine on site at to melt the masks down into blocks, sterilizing the material. We then purchased this waste material for recycling, and transformed it into litterpickers to tackle this new wave of plastic pollution… From waste, into resource.

We also partnered with ReWorked to include PPE Recycling boxes as part of our campaign – they’re a perfect addition to the workplace or litterpicking groups. They are delivered flat packed, and people simply fill them with PPE and arrange for collection. We hope this will inspire people to look at PPE differently, and make recycling it much easier.

During COVID-19, we noticed an increasing number of facemasks and other PPE waste washing up on our shores. Without effective disposal and recycling systems, this increase in plastic pollution will cause irreparable damage to marine life. We have an opportunity here to tackle this issue both at the source and where it’s causing most harm, and by encouraging people to get outside and litterpick we can help protect the natural world around us.

What would be your advice for people trying to live a life with less plastic?

Start small, and remember that every change you make in your own life is making a difference somewhere. For us, we try to limit the amount of plastic that we buy, opting for loose fruit and vegetables, or choosing to re-use as much as we can, and ensuring that we dispose of our waste – including any single-use PPE – safely and correctly, so that it doesn’t end up in the environment. It’s also worth remembering that all drains lead to the ocean, so whether you live near to the coast or inland, always be aware of how you dispose of plastic waste. It’s up to us to take care of our planet, so being plastic-conscious and litterpicking wherever you can is a great start.

What do you love most about Cornwall?

The Cornish people, and anyone living along the coast, are so passionate when it comes to marine conservation. On a business and personal level, we’ve met the most incredible people, from individuals to litter picking groups to other businesses tackling ghost gear and plastic pollution.

I think the reason why people are so actively involved in these issues is because they are reminded of them every time they visit the beach. The amount of plastic waste, fishing gear, crisp packets, BBQs, bottles, torn swimwear, abandoned body boards and general litter that we see is worryingly abundant. If people can’t see a bin nearby, we encourage them to take it home with them. If people could see the impact their waste has on wildlife shortly after they’re left the beach or the park, they wouldn’t leave it behind.

But on a more positive note, there is a community in Cornwall who are actively protecting the places they love, and all in their own time, too. We hope that our leaders saw this passion when they visited during the G7, as well as the threats to our coastline.

How can people get involved or support your work?

One of the best things people can do is report any trapped nets or related ghost gear on their local beaches. If you live in Cornwall, let us know and we will come to collect it.

We always encourage people to get in touch with us on social media with any suggestions they may have. We’re always keen to collaborate with local organizations, charities and businesses to find new ways to maximise our positive impact, and inspire others to do the same. 

On an individual level, the most positive action that people can take is to litterpick wherever they can. Whether people live by the coast or inland, if everyone collected waste and safely disposed of it, we could make a huge difference. That’s why we began making our recycled litterpickers in the first place, to encourage more people to join us in cleaning up their local outdoor spaces. It’s up to us to protect our home, nobody else is going to do it for us.

What are your plans for the future?

We’ve recently launched PlaNET action: a new education and outreach programme led by our education officer Amy. She will be hosting workshops within the community, inspiring people to take positive action against ocean plastics, and feel good doing it. We’ve recently been given funding by Cornwall Council to proceed, which we’re so grateful for! We’ll be running workshops around Cornwall – and beyond – teaching people about the impact of ghost gear and plastic pollution, and showing them how they can make a difference. We have a mini plastic shredder that we’ll be bringing with us to show people of all ages how nets and plastic debris can be recycled into new products, rather than polluting our oceans or going to landfill. More information about this will launch soon on our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

If you want to find out more about Waterhaul and the work that they do, you can follow on Facebook, Instagram or Twtter or visit their website here.