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An interview with Anne-Cecile Turner about The Ocean Race’s latest green initiatives

by David Schmidt 11 Jun 08:00 PDT June 11, 2019
Turn the Tide on Plastic - Leg 10 from Cardiff to Gothenburg. © Ainhoa Sanchez / Volvo Ocean Race

Point Nemo is a magical place for sailors, explorers, and those seeking an absolute escape from humanity, as this watery confluence of latitude and longitude lies some 1,400 nautical miles from the nearest bit of dry land. In fact, astronauts orbiting the earth in the International Space Station are sometimes closer to civilization than sailors transiting Point Nemo. If you’re getting the impression of a remote, truly wild place, you’re on the proper rhumbline, but if you’re also thinking “pristine ocean” and “unspoiled wilderness”, sadly, the sailors in the last Volvo Ocean Race (née the Whitbred Race) proved that this is no longer true.

During the 2017-2018 edition of the VOR, sailors aboard two teams, Turn the Tide on Plastic and Team AkzoNobel, collected 86 water samples from various points en route around the globe, and 97 percent of the samples, including those taken near Point Nemo, contained traces of microplastics. These plastics, which are defined as particles measuring less than five millimeters LOA, are rapidly proving themselves to be a true scourge of humanity given their potential to negatively impact the food chain and the marine environment.

To be fair, the worst samples were gathered in the South China Sea and contained 349 particles per cubic meter, while samples taken at Point Nemo contained 26 particles per cubic meter. However, this is far from good news, given that U.S. scientists also recently found microplastics in water samples that they collected in the Mariana Trench, which is the Earth’s deepest natural place.

In short, we humans are spreading our synthetic fibers everywhere. Compounding this is the fact that collecting water samples from places like Point Nemo isn’t easy and often requires sailors competing in events such as The Ocean Race (née The Volvo Ocean Race), which is next set to be contested in 2021-2022, to pitch in. Moreover, raising public awareness to the level of positively impacting this potentially disastrous problem will require an organization (and its web of sponsors and suppliers) with the right blend of credibility and outreach.

I checked in with Anne-Cecile Turner, The Ocean Race’s Sustainability Program director, via email, to learn more about how this time-honored ocean race is working to help address microplastic pollution and other ocean-related environmental concerns.

The race has a new name and new owners—has its commitments to the environment and ocean health changed?

The Ocean Race is the ultimate team challenge and we wanted to use its global platform to spread the message to sailing fans, the industry, members of the public and a wide range of organizations we came into contact with about the urgent need to address the issues and solutions connected to ocean health.

We had an amazing level of success with our multi-award winning Sustainability Program during the last edition of the race, and [we] are determined to build on that legacy in everything we do under our new ‘Racing with Purpose’ initiative, in collaboration with Premium Partner, 11th Hour Racing (http://11thhourracing.org/). This extends to working with our partners, host cities and other organizations with the combined aim of accelerating the restoration of ocean health.

Can you please compare and contrast Volvo’s interests with the environment with those of the event’s new owners? And do you think that The Ocean Race might go even further than the VOR did with its environmental commitments?

Volvo were committed to our Sustainability Program during the last edition of the race with Volvo Cars funding our Science Program and [the] onboard monitoring systems we used to collect oceanographic data. They also made commitments to address the use of plastic within their supply chain and offices so they certainly made commitments to address the ocean plastic crisis.

The new owners have declared that sustainability is at the heart of the race, complementing and building on Volvo’s stewardship. This includes developing a series of Innovation Workshops alongside our Ocean Race Summit program of ten events taking place up to the end of the next edition in 2022. These are tailored to the specific needs of a business-focused audience allowing smaller, targeted groups to define ways to integrate cutting edge sustainability practices within their particular sector.

The previous education program has also been updated and a new module on science and sailing added to further engage with primary-school-aged children. A secondary school element will be developed in time for the start of the next race which begins in Alicante, [Spain] in autumn 2021.

And Volvo, as a Premium Partner of the 2021-22 edition of The Ocean Race, will focus their sponsorship around sustainability initiatives.

Is The Ocean Race making any rules changes to encourage teams to stop using single-use plastics? If not, why not?

We will ask all teams to sign up to the Race’s Sustainability Charter and Code of Conduct, which requires them, amongst other things, to focus on reducing single-use plastics. This relates to team operations onshore and onboard, and also in any hospitality programs.

Certainly no single-use plastic is allowed onshore, and only those single-use plastic items that are necessary for hygiene, health and safety reasons are used onboard.

Of course, any materials used that must be disposed of, including single-use plastic, are collected for responsible recycling/disposal [once the teams reach their next port].

Has The Ocean Race considered buying carbon offset credits to help account for the CO2 that’s created when building IMOCAs and VO65s? If not, does the burden for this fall on the sponsor companies?

Boat development and building and participation in the Race have greenhouse gas emissions impacts, and we work hard to be as efficient as possible. We will encourage the use of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tool, which will help teams to understand the impact of their boat build.

From that, teams can decide to balance their greenhouse-gas emissions. We are also working to review the greenhouse gas emissions impact of the Race and to develop an approach to hopefully also neutralize those areas of impact we are in control of, and to encourage our partners to do the same.

We can’t require our teams to offset their boat build impacts until we formalize our own approach.

One important aspect of sustainability in this sense is simply in re-use. By taking the VO65s for a third edition of the race, we are maximizing their use and [amortizing] their footprint over another lap of the planet.

Similarly, by entering into a collaboration with IMOCA, rather than developing a new class, we are ensuring that any boats built for the next edition of the race have a life beyond The Ocean Race, competing in a wide range of IMOCA events.

Where do you see The Ocean Race having the most positive impact, moving forward? Is it as a change agent at stopovers, or is it as a change agent to better influence the sport of sailing as a whole? Or, is it something else?

The Ocean Race is able to effect change across a range of different areas.

Recognized as an award-winning sustainability leader in the sailing, sporting and event sectors we have extended our influence and hopefully inspired a broad range of stakeholders, including the worlds of business, academia and science. Going forward we will use this template to further extend our reach, leading and engaging to deliver positive change for ocean health.

Taking sustainability messages to the millions of race fans at stopovers and to the next generation through our Learning Program are important elements of our work. The Ocean Race Summits, convening key influencers, before and during the next edition of the race, combined with Innovation Workshops, starting in the Italian port city of Genoa on 20th September [of] this year, focus on how businesses can devise a roadmap to alter their practices in the name of ocean health are integral to our mission.

We want sport, and of course the sport of sailing, to act as beacons of best practice but our work can act as a template that stretches far beyond our shores.

Am I correct that teams will continue to take water samples during the next event? If so, will this be one or two teams, or do you envision this as a fleet requirement?

Our ambition is to have all teams contribute to scientific data collection during the next Race. During the 2017-18 edition, the onboard measurements facilitated by two of the teams highlighted the exceptional opportunity for teams and the Race to contribute to Ocean science observations and advance awareness of some of the pressures impacting our Ocean.

The main focus during 2017-18 was on microplastic pollution and we pioneered sample collection to increase understanding of relative levels of microplastic pollution along the Race route. Alongside this sampling, the boats also measured other critically important ocean variables including dissolved carbon dioxide levels, temperature and weather data.

All of this data collection contributes to scientific understanding of the Ocean and processes that maintain the natural balance of the planet, and will continue to be an important element of our action to support restoration of Ocean health.

Can you bring us up to speed on steps that The Ocean Race is/has taking to make the event more sustainable?

During the last edition we went to great lengths to reduce our [environmental] footprint. In the Race Villages alone we reduced the need for nearly 400,000 single-use plastic bottles through our program and by working with Bluewater, our official drinking water provider.

The most important thing is that for our next edition, we have a longer lead-up to really engage with our host cities, teams and partners—and that our efforts in the 2017/18 edition and the external recognition of our impact means that all involved are already aware and supportive of our Racing with Purpose program.

Our focus, as it was in 2017/18, will be on responsible resource use, including avoiding single-use plastic, minimizing climate change impacts, inclusion and accessibility and responsible sourcing.

In your opinion, what creates the bigger environmental footprint—the actions/activities of the sailors as they race around the world, the physical construction of the boats/sails/electronics, or all of the air miles that are racked-up flying people in an out of legs/stopovers? In all cases, could rules changes help contain/curtail this environmental impact?

Without a full LCA being carried out on a boat’s development it is hard to guess. If we are looking at the greenhouse-gas emissions as an impact, potentially air flights could outweigh the boat build impacts (e.g. electricity used and freight impacts). Those flight impacts could be event or partner’s staff, team’s shore crew or hospitality guests. Once we undergo the LCA with some teams, we will be in a much better position to compare relative impacts.

I recently read the heart-breaking news that microplastics (MPs) have now been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (and other deep places), and we know from the last VOR that they exist at Point Nemo (and from European scientists that MPs also exist in the remote stretches of the Pyrenees Mountains)…has the MPs train already left the station? If no, can you offer a few suggestions for better practices for reducing MPs that everyday sailors can adopt aboard their own sailing programs?

To address microplastic dispersion, it is key that we focus on a circular approach to consumption whilst also developing new technologies, processes and materials to replace plastic, where possible, across the whole manufacturing value chain - stemming this tide at source.

This will take time but we need to aim high and continue to raise awareness amongst sailors and the public in general of the need to use alternatives to single-use plastics in their daily lives. Our Ocean Race Summits and Innovations Workshops, which will focus on industry led topics such as microfiber and the apparel industry and sustainable boat building are just some of the ways we are continuing to lead and inspire.

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