plastic tides

Plastic Tides Junior Ambassadors use standup paddleboards to gather samples for microbead research.

Nonprofit Finds Victory Using SUP Research To Change Environmental Legislature

Words by Nicole Baker and Christian Shaw
All photos courtesy of Plastic Tides

A 240-mile journey is finally complete. Though this may not seem like a long distance with some modes of transportation, it's not exactly a cake walk on a paddleboard. Especially considering this SUP journey took place during wintertime in upstate New York. This feat is precisely what Christian Shaw and Gordon Middleton of the environmental nonprofit, Plastic Tides, completed on November 19th, 2015.

The 2015 expedition marked the team's second attempt after a polar vortex of winter weather created impassable ice to halt their journey in November of 2014. They came back with a vengeance, as well as a renewed determination to raise awareness about microbead pollution in the Finger Lakes, Great Lakes, and other waterways of their home state.

The journey started as a means to draw attention to the issue of plastic pollution, and more specifically microplastics and microbeads, in response to a disappointing legislative letdown on the issue in months prior. In Spring 2014, a pending bill in the NYS legislature was passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly; the bill was then shelved, and the Senate refused to vote on it. That's when Plastic Tides decided to take action.

plastic tides

Team Plastic Tides tows trawls behind their boards to sample the waterways for microbeads and microplastics.

Even after the November 2014 Erie Canal SUP expedition, which resulted in the film, The Canal, and a growing body of microbead research in NYS, history repeated itself in 2015. After being reintroduced to the state legislature, the bill failed to make the Senate floor once again. This provoked Gordon and Christian, in collaboration with their Plastic Tides Junior Ambassador program workers, to fight fervently in support of the legislation. Only this time, they took a more strategic approach.

One by one: Erie, Cattaraguas, Chataqua, Suffolk, Albany and finally, the team's home county of Tompkins passed their own bans on the sale of products containing plastic microbeads. It was the boldest move in environmental legislation the region had ever experienced. The idea was: if the state wouldn’t hear their voice, maybe smaller local governments would. And they did. The evidence found in New York State was too strong for local governments to ignore, especially after the issue was taken up by a group of Middle and High School students whom, after becoming Plastic Tides Junior Ambassadors, contacted the local legislature themselves.

So, how did Plastic Tides use standup paddleboarding to accomplish such a feat? The answer is simple; it's all about paddling with purpose.

In Fall 2014, during their first Erie Canal SUP expedition, which took place amidst a polar vortex of ice and snow and while battling hypothermia, Christian and Gordon periodically deployed a trawl in tow behind their boards to collect water samples from Cayuga Lake, Oneida Lake, the Erie Canal and Mohawk River. The research their team performed on standup paddleboards made Plastic Tides the first group to identify microbeads in inland waterways.

plastic tides

Plastic Tide researchers celebrate their outstanding success as influential agents of environmental improvements in state policy.

To understand the significance of this battle and the importance of SUP in its victory, it's critical to first understand the enemy. Microbeads are plastics that concentrate pollutants, which get ingested by animals ranging in size from plankton and mussels to birds and fish, and eventually climb the food chain to humans. They also leach chemicals known to be endocrine disruptors, which are not remediated at water treatment plants.

Finding high concentrations of beads at home in Cayaga Lake is what sparked the development of the Plastic Tides Junior Ambassador summer program, during which students ages 13 to 15 were immersed in paddleboard research with Plastic Tides for seven days. The week culminated in a three-day, self-supported SUP expedition during which the junior ambassadors collected their own samples to build on the data collected in 2014, carried out beach cleanups and documented their efforts through social media. The team was empowered by a combination of adventure and science and saw the issue through to completion, attaining a local ban well after the weeklong program had ended. Their efforts added Cayaga Lake to the growing list of New York communities that now ban the sale of products containing the disruptive plastics.

While the New York microbead project is a pillar of success for Plastic Tides, it is by no means the end of their battle. Coming up on the Plastic Tides agenda is a cross-country trip to raise awareness about single-use plastics, and later in the year Plastic Tides will host its inaugural SUP race around the island of Bermuda. Stay tuned to for updates on our progress and remember: Don’t ride the Plastic Tide!

If you are inspired by this article, as I originally was when I read about Plastic Tides in the Environment Issue of this magazine, then follow their journeys on social media, @plastictides on instagram, and at their website

For related inspiration and encouragement, follow the progress of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, a recently passed nationwide ban on cosmetics that contain synthetic plastic microbeads. The ban is anticipated to begin implementation in January 2018.

plastic tides

The Plastic Tides fleet of research vessels.