They're swimming in it

The oceans are under serious threat from plastic with eight million tonnes of it being dumped into the seas every year. To highlight the consequences for marine life, and the way that young people are using science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to address the problem, The Big Bang Fair posed a unique challenge: asking two of the most promising British Synchronised swimmers to perform their World Championship routine… in a pool full of plastic.

Unsurprisingly, young synchro pair (and school students) Kate Shortman (17) and Isabelle Thorpe (18) struggled to perform their routine swimmingly in a training pool littered with thousands of items of floating plastic. Getting in the way of their normally effortless-looking performance were hundreds of single-use plastic drinking bottles, not to mention a ‘sea’ of plastic toiletries, plastic bags and plastic food containers.

Isabelle and Kate swim in a sea of plastic

While Kate and Isabelle’s synchro struggles epitomised the problem of swimming in waters full of plastic, the solution could lie in the hands of their generation. Indeed, young people across the UK are more concerned about the environment than ever - and think that STEM could be the path to protecting it. In fact, according to The Big Bang Fair nearly a third (28%) of young people say they want to see the oceans being revolutionised by STEM.

It isn’t a case of wishful thinking, either. These young people are putting their hands and minds to the task and coming up with innovative ways to reduce plastic waste, with a 14% increase in those entering The Big Bang Competition 2019 basing their projects on saving the planet.

Isabelle and Kate swimming in plastic

British Synchronised swimmer, Kate says: “I am very inspired by the finalists of The Big Bang Competition who have developed new and innovative ways to tackle the plastics epidemic head-on. There’s no doubt that plastic in our oceans is already a huge issue, with consequences on the daily lives of future generations unless we do something about it, so it’s fantastic that young people are encouraging people to take responsibility and change their behaviour towards plastics.”

Luke De Bretton-Gordon (age 16) from Loughborough is one such pioneering pupil. A Big Bang Competition finalist from Rawlins Academy, Luke has developed an invention he calls ‘edible water bottles’. As opposed to the traditional plastic bottles we currently use, Luke’s invention does away with the need for a plastic bottle, using instead an edible membrane, which is consumed with the water it contains.

Luke showing his edible water bottles, poolside with Kate and Isabelle

Luke said: “In the UK alone 13 billion plastic bottles are used every year of which only 7.5 million are recycled. These can take upwards of 450 years to degrade and do not decompose but photodegrade meaning they break down into smaller fragments over time called microplastics. These are not only ingested by animal life but, through the water we drink and the food we eat, humans too. All life on earth is suffering from the success of plastic in modern civilisation, and I’m really motivated to find a way to help reduce the burden plastic causes.”

Luke will be participating in the finals of The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Competition at The Big Bang Fair at The NEC in Birmingham in March, alongside other finalists from across the UK, where they will vie for top prizes including the GSK UK Young Scientist and GSK UK Young Engineer of the Year.

Beth Elgood, Director of Communications at EngineeringUK, added: “Every year Big Bang Competition finalists use their STEM skills to tackle a whole range of issues - from the very local to the global - and this year is no exception. With projects ranging from designing an energy saving kettle, to improving recycling at school, to finding ways to prevent plastic entering our oceans, making a difference to the world around them has obviously been a driving factor behind many of the innovations entered in The Big Bang Competition this year.

“Innovation is at the heart of The Big Bang Fair, where young visitors, teachers and their parents get the chance to get hands on with engaging activities, workshops and shows and discover where science, technology, engineering and maths could take them in the future.”

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