Photo: Matt Hood

Roz Savage was the first woman to row the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. The 44-year-old Brit spent 550 days of her life at sea, for up to five months at a stretch, which gave her plenty of time to see the damage plastic can do to the marine ecosystem. That’s why this March the United Nations Climate Hero is setting out from London on a human-powered circumnavigation of Britain by boat and bicycle to promote plastic-bag free towns. She’ll return to London in July, just in time for the Olympics—and to hand her petition to the Houses of Parliament.  Here’s more on Savage’s time at sea and her new adventure:

DISCOVERY: What was your most sublime moment at sea?

ROZ SAVAGE: The most sublime moments have been mostly centered around wildlife sightings—a whale shark spent 20 minutes swimming around my boat. I have also seen a moonbow, like a rainbow, but it happens at night when you have a really bright moon and a rainshower. And some awe-inspiring sunrises and sunsets.

Photo: Dan Byles

D: There are so many media reports about how much plastic is in the ocean. Tell us how much you saw.

RS: There are some myths going around about the plastic in the oceans. The truth is quite bad enough, without needing to exaggerate. Sometimes I could see identifiable objects, like a drink bottle that looked like new, although it was over 1,000 miles from land. Also mooring buoys, a discarded net, and lumps of polystyrene. And on a calm day I could see that there are lots of small bits of plastic in the water. In a way this “plastic soup” is more dangerous, because those small pieces get into the food chain lower down. They get eaten by little fish, which get eaten by larger fish, which eventually get eaten by us—and we absorb all those chemicals that leach out of the plastic. A friend of mine recently had a blood test done, and they found 257 man-made chemicals in her bloodstream.

Typically, researchers are finding six times as much plastic (bad stuff) as plankton (good stuff) in a water sample taken from the North Pacific. I saw some of these samples on board the JUNK Raft in 2008—a rather unusual research vessel made out of 15,000 empty water bottles, sailing from Long Beach to Hawaii to draw attention to this issue.

Photo: Crew of Junk Raft 2008

D: How does it feel to be back on land?

RS: It’s great to be back on land. I do sometimes miss the solitude of the ocean, but overall I’m much more of a landlubber. It’s easy to romanticize the ocean, but when you’re living on a small boat for months at a time you can get rather tired of the discomfort and general inconvenience. Life on land is a lot easier!

D: Tell us about your next adventure.

RS: I will be kayaking from London to John O’Groats at the north end of Scotland, then cycling from John O’Groats to Lands End way down in Cornwall, then kayaking again from Lands End back to London to hand in a petition at the Houses of Parliament. The journey will be about 2,500 miles, and will take about four months.

Photo: Matt Hood

D: What tangible results would you like to see?

RS: About 16 towns in Great Britain are already plastic-bag free, and another 150 have bag-ban campaigns. We’re going to pick about 20 of those towns with campaigns, and work with the local organizers to see if we can help take them all the way to freedom from plastic bags.

Obviously we can’t get a nationwide ban on a town-by-town basis, but if we can show the government that enough towns and enough people are keen to see a ban, I hope we can follow the example of the quarter of the world’s countries that already have a fee or ban on plastic bags, and get a national policy in place.

But it’s also really important that people are aware of the impacts of plastic – not just on wildlife, but on humans. There’s no point getting a ban on plastic bags if people just go out and buy more plastic bin liners to replace the grocery bags they used to use. We need to understand the bigger picture, and realize the sheer craziness of using “disposable” bags made out of a relatively indestructible substance. Plastic bags being thrown away now could still be sitting in landfills in 500 years time. Globally we’re adding another trillion bags every year. Future generations will surely look back at us, and wonder what we were thinking when we—literally—trashed the Earth.