Natalie Banks admits she was “totally green” when she started her non-profit organization, Azraq – and she doesn’t mean in an eco-conscious way. She had been in the UAE only a few months, had no idea how to go about starting her venture, had no connections and the cause behind Azraq – marine conservation – was not high profile at the time.
Yet her first campaign, Stop Sucking, succeeded in getting 55 food and drink outlets to stop giving out plastic straws, unless customers specifically requested them. Among the big name supporters Banks persuaded to come on board was the vast Jumeirah chain.
Another big success was the “Useless Utensils” campaign which donated 68 kilos of unused equipment to schoolchildren who then created artworks to raise awareness of the damage caused by plastic to our oceans. Smart move – get them interested when they’re young. Another big one was persuading the authorities in Ras Al Khaimah not to release 15,000 balloons for a festival – balloons which would have ended up the sea choking marine animals to death.
Banks, a qualified scuba-diving instructor, first became involved in marine conservation in her native Australia when she took part in protests against plans to keep sharks away from west coast beaches and beachgoers by killing them (the sharks, that is).
“I felt it wasn’t right to kill something in order to protect something,” she says, “and history was on our side. It had been tried in Hawaii and it hadn’t worked. Science was on our side, too. Lots of scientists spoke out against it. It got under my skin.”
She started a charity No Shark Cull and after the plans were defeated in Western Australia, Banks took the campaign nationwide.
When her husband’s job brought them to Dubai in 2016, running her charity from thousands of kilometers away was unfeasible so she closed it down. But finding a job proved difficult. She approached companies, knocked on doors, all to no avail.
“I was getting nowhere and I can’t stand not to be busy. I was complaining to my mother about it on the phone one day and she said ‘Why don’t you do what you were doing in Australia?’”
Twelve months later, Azraq – it means “blue” in Arabic – was launched.
“It was a very difficult process,” says Banks. “I had zero networks. I didn’t want to just jump in without knowing the region but that’s just what I ended up doing. I wish I had found someone who had already done it but maybe it’s better that I didn’t because I might have been deterred.”
Marine conservation was not a “hot” or trendy cause at the time and Banks knew her project had to be about more than saving sharks.
“As a diver I knew about marine debris. Shark protection is a very divisive issue but if you talk about protecting the ocean from debris, very few people would see that as a negative,” she says. “Most people will go along with cleaning up rubbish.”
Beach clean-ups have a dual purpose, she explains. Obviously they remove trash from beaches but they also bring home exactly what the despoiling of our waters means for the marine environment and all that depend on it.
“I’m a nerd. I read annual reports and scientific papers but a real eye-opener for me was seeing what’s left behind after a beach clean-up,” says Banks.
Cigarette butts, for example, leave behind filters which are made of cellulose acetate and take decades to break down. “And what remains of those thousands upon thousands of discarded cigarettes leeches arsenic, lead and nicotine into the environment.”
And then there are microplastics – tiny bits of plastic which are inescapable. ”They are literally in the air we breathe,” says Banks.
There are two main sources of microplastics in the ocean. One is abandoned fishing nets. The second source is more surprising: clothing made of synthetic fibres.
“Polyester and plastic are connected. When you wear polyester you are wearing plastic threads,” says Banks. Washing dislodges those tiny bits of plastic which then get flushed away into the drains and into the sea. The filters in our washing machines and sewage plants are simply not good enough to prevent it.
You can buy filters such as Cora Ball and Guppy Friend to install your in your washing machine. “But why aren’t they already installed? Why is it up to the consumer?” says Banks.
Microplastics also enter the food chain; if fish ingest them, we do too. Banks no longer eats fish because of microplastics.
“The reality is that no matter how much we try to avoid them, microplastics are everywhere,” she says.
The pandemic has inflicted its damage on the environment too.
“One study I read said that by the end of 2020 the top rubbish item was no longer cigarette butts – It was PPE [personal protective equipment]and takeaway containers,” says Banks. “When I walk my dog along the Eastern Mangroves promenade in Abu Dhabi I will find ten discarded PPE masks within two minutes. I find them in the compound where I live. Those masks contain plastic threads. You are breathing microplastics straight into your lungs. Those ear handles contain plastic and they get wrapped around birds and marine creatures. Globally we’re using billions of them per month and it will affect us for centuries.
“There are masks made of recycled plastic bottles but to promote them as a sustainable product is frankly immoral. There are even masks for kids made of recycled single use plastic bottles. Plastic has been connected to development issues, reproductive issues, cancers, yet they’re marketed as something safe to put over a child’s mouth.”
Removing plastic from our oceans is not the end of the problem, either, says Banks.
“What do you do with it? Only nine percent of waste is recycled. The other 91 percent goes into landfill so then you have the impact of released gases and damage to the ozone layer.”
But, as overwhelming as the problem is, we should not be discouraged as individuals from doing what we can, she stresses.
“We can all try and reduce single use plastic because microplastics also come from macroplastics breaking down. All those plastic bottles, plastic bags, bottle caps and straws that we find find on beach clean-ups – they are all single use plastics. That takeaway coffee cup can’t be recycled because it’s made of a mixture of paper and plastic but you can take your own reusable cup and support cafes that support the use of reusables. If you buy one coffee a day, that will save 365 coffee cups from going into the ocean. And small changes like that have a massive knock-on effect. People tell their partners and friends. You ARE enough to make a change.”
And there are reasons to be hopeful about the future, she adds. As well as partnering with numerous corporations and sponsors, Azraq gives presentations in schools and now has 15 youth ambassadors, aged ten to 18. Azraq’s Reef Rescue project – protecting coral reefs – was their idea, she says.
“I have hope in bioplastic, the technology is coming. I feel hopeful when countries ban single use plastic. There are benefits to plastic but in the 85 years since it was commercialised, it has had such an impact. Is it reversible? Only time and techonology will tell.
“But everyone can play a role, everyone can make one change. After all, I never thought I would stop millions of straws being given out.”
Natalie Banks, founder of Azraq, was a guest on the Livehealthy podcast on March 24, 2021.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.