By now, you’ve probably heard the alarming statistics: by 2050, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean. There are more micro-plastic particles in the oceans than stars in the Milky Way. It’s hard to ignore and impossible to deny the plastic pollution crisis our world is currently facing, but it’s taken the hard work and devotion of many individuals to bring the problem to the forefront of our minds. I had the chance to sit down with Chloe Dubois, founder of the Ocean Legacy Foundation, to talk about how she turned a passion project into a nonprofit that has helped remove more than 200,000 pounds of marine debris from remote coastlines around the world, and created a global community tackling the plastic problem.
I first met Chloe in 2017 at a zero-waste event put on by LUSH Cosmetics. Chloe and her partner and cofounder of Ocean Legacy, James Middleton, were hosting a workshop and delivering a presentation on their remote coastline cleanups and afterlife potential for the marine debris collected. I was struck by their raw passion and truly grassroots approach. Photos and videos of their band of plastic pirates resembled those of the early days of Greenpeace; an eclectic crew with dreadlocks and piercings aplenty, smiling aboard vessels piled high with their plastic booty. I always wished I could have experienced Vancouver in the 1970s, when radical grassroots organizations were born in the basements of Kitsilano homes. Watching this duo explain their cause in the living room of a cabin in Whistler gave me hope that the heart and soul of that bygone era still exists.
I have since seen them in action on cleanups and sorting events, orchestrating diverse groups in making a concrete difference, whilst igniting a fire in volunteers that will undoubtedly create future changemakers. They are the perfect mix of direct action and diplomacy.
When I get together with Chloe to talk about this article, she is in Deep Cove, the quaint coastal town she resides in at the end of a steep fjord north of Vancouver, Canada. She is getting ready to leave the following week to speak to United Nations delegates in New York about ocean plastic pollution. She speaks with intent and has a warm and easy-going demeanour, and gives hugs that let you know that you matter.
Her story started with a pure love for the outdoors, raised in eastern Canada where she worked as a canoe and kayak guide. She always loved the water, and honed leadership skills in the lakes and rivers of Ontario’s Blue Mountains. Through adventure guiding she developed a love for sharing her passion and connecting others to nature.
Pursuing an honours degree in environment and resource management from the University of Waterloo, Chloe went on exchange in Brisbane, Australia and deepened her understanding of interconnected systems and whole system thinking. She became an expert in desert soils and geomorphology, before graduating and continuing to travel extensively. “Once you start traveling and experiencing new environments and new people, your curiosity only increases over time,” she expresses. An academic at heart, while backpacking, paddling, and climbing mountains, she still used her travels to learn about community organizing and sustainable waste management from diverse cultures in South America, Europe, and Oceania. She also took a course in Chinese medicine, because why not?
Eventually, she came home and took part in a workshop with environmental activist and author Joanna Macy. The course, called ‘The Work That Reconnects’, is an “empowerment process designed to strengthen our ability to act for the wellbeing of life on Earth”. It gave Chloe the tools to connect all her interests and passions and transform her into one amalgamated force to be reckoned with. Macy encouraged her to dive into the discipline of deep ecology, and showed her how in Western culture, there isn’t currently a place where people can unite and grieve over the degradation and loss of our ecosystems. “There is nowhere to unite and mourn over the clear cut forests, or the oceans filled with plastic”, explains Chloe. She wouldn’t fully understand the meaning or necessity of this message until she saw a film that changed her life.
She watched an advance screening of artist and photographer Chris Jordan’s Albatross in Macy’s class, which he was also taking part in. The film documents the sheer decimation of the Laysan albatross population on Midway Atoll. On this island, more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, halfway between North America and Asia, thousands of decomposing albatross bodies were found with stomachs full of plastic. Seeing recognizable items—bottle caps, lighters, tampons—in such a remote area far from civilization having such a disturbing impact was eye opening and devastating. “Recognizing the effects of plastic pollution on such a global scale, and the fact that these remote islands in the middle of the Pacific, in the middle of nowhere, are covered in our waste that has traveled so far really changed my life.”
She knew she needed to act.
She began diving into the plastic problem, reading staggering numbers and statistics that began changing the course of her career. She became a self-taught expert, learning how plastic is made, how it breaks down, what is done with it after it has served its fleeting purpose. After a lot of reading, networking, reaching out to experts in the field, and a move across the country to the west coast, she was able to develop her first education book to proliferate to others.
The more she learned the more she became committed to devoting her life to solutions, but where to start with such a dynamic and interconnected issue? The plastic pollution crisis touches on poverty, economic development, environmental degradation, wildlife and human health, food supplies, market shares, etc. There is vested interest in growing the plastic industry while others try to minimize production, which are all conflicting sources in a dynamic soup. The complexity presents a huge challenge in deciding where to start, and what will have the largest impact. Chloe explains how she is cautious of organizations and companies that claim to have the answer because it’s such a complicated issue and there isn’t one solution. “Solving the crisis is going to look different depending on where you are in the world, what community you’re in, and who you are in the world,” she explains, “and that’s important to honour.” The goal that Chloe and Ocean Legacy have is to create the tools that others can use to empower themselves to help solve the plastic problem.
She began to develop a framework of how to lead by listening; she didn’t want to replicate any of the hard work that is currently being done by other organizations. She also didn’t want to exclude any major stakeholders from the conversation, even if they may not align with her values. “As soon as you choose to deny to consult with a large stakeholder or producer of the pollution you’re wanting to stop, you’re putting a wall up against bettering the situation to develop solutions that will support both of your end goals”, she argues. “Be open to at least listen to who you may consider the opponent.” That is what has helped Chloe set Ocean Legacy apart from a lot of other nonprofits; she has her ethics but is also open to listening. It has helped her understand the plastic industry, which is essential in creating solutions that are realistic. What she did want was to create an organization to fill in the gaps and be a part of every part of the process: cleanups, sorting, recycling, repurposing, lobbying, innovating. Recognizing that many plastic cleanup organizations send their collected debris to landfills, she wanted to learn how to create value in the afterlife potential of pollution.
She now had the knowledge, ideas and drive, but needed a plan—and a boat—to make her vision come to life. Enter James Middleton, her future ship captain and partner. He floated into her life in the right place at the right time, and with a little brainstorming and a lot of commitment, their Ocean Legacy was born.
So, Who is Ocean Legacy and what do they do?
Five years since its conception, Ocean Legacy is now a fully fledged international nonprofit, running remote coastal cleanup expeditions in Canada, USA, Mexico, Belize, and Panama, and have successfully kept their grassroots hearts intact. Their diverse and eclectic team of plastic pirates have removed more than 200,000 pounds of marine debris from more than 120km of coastline, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The core crew of about 20 volunteers devote their time to work at creating afterlife solutions for the debris at Ocean Legacy’s facilities in Delta, BC. As North America’s first Marine Debris Solution Centre, it acts as a hub to connect recyclers, manufacturers, artists, NGOs, government, scientists, and concerned citizens in innovative collaboration to give the collected ‘garbage’ value.
Debris is brought in from more than 25 other cleanup groups, and is then sorted, cleaned, dispersed, and effectively transformed into new resources. From packaging to art to completely new products, an estimated 90% of collected materials are recycled in some way. Personally, I helped the OLF team put together world renowned artist and author Douglas Coupland’s ‘Vortex’ installation at the Vancouver Aquarium, using plastics we collected from remote British Columbia shorelines. The exhibit used marine debris to create a sense of what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may look and feel like, but instead of being so far from society, it’s in your face. It immersed visitors in a transformative and contemplative experience on ocean plastic pollution, at the intersection of art and environment.
Ocean Legacy has even helped develop plastic-to-fuel technology through pyrolysis. They use converted plastic to run their ship ‘The Imperial’, and are working at funding large scale portable machines to be delivered to coastal communities around the world. Chloe has written and released a number of policy recommendations and reports on behalf of the organization, and regularly works with government to advise on how to redesign waste management systems, and create policy with corporate responsibility.
Through creating an online plastic hotspot map and a global ocean directory, OLF has rallied together an international community around ocean pollution solutions, but Chloe is still thinking much bigger. Within the next few months, Ocean Legacy plans to unveil its new international ‘EPIC’ program, a comprehensive strategy that will combat the plastic crisis through Education, Policy, Infrastructure and Cleanups. It is a framework that will be a “lifeline for those who want to create change in their community”, Chloe says. There will be an online platform where anyone in the world can apply to have OLF come and help develop local capacity to mitigate plastic pollution. They will help tailor different tools for each environment/community that they work with, truly listening to the needs of all stakeholders.
Ultimately, what the Ocean Legacy aims to do is replicate nature by finding strength in diversity. Its solutions are an ongoing materialization of the lessons Chloe learned as a kayak guide, in academia, and after countless hours deep in outdoor reflection. Only with a diverse global community will we be able to create the resilient systems able to bounce back from intense change.
So, how can YOU get involved?
I asked Chloe how individuals can get involved with Ocean Legacy and help solve the ocean plastic crisis, and she gave a lot of solid advice: