It was a turtle that changed everything. Victoria Cairns, 45, a headteacher from Derbyshire, was diving in Bali in 2008 when she saw one of the island’s famous turtles. It loomed towards her in the crystal clear water, and she was delighted – until she saw the plastic bag in its mouth. “I just thought: ‘Oh God, we are parasites’,” Cairns remembers. “Humans are at the top of the food chain and we’re having a devastating impact on the environment.”
She set up anti-litter Instagram account, @plastic_reduction, to raise awareness of the damage caused by plastic pollution. She regularly litter-picks around her neighbourhood. “She’s done amazing work keeping the area clean, tidy and beautiful,” says friend and fellow litter-picker Laura Clifton, who co-runs @plastic_reduction.
Cairns estimates she has spent around 12 hours a month for the past three years litter-picking. She keeps a litter-picker in the boot of her car, and will frequently pull over on the way back from work to clean something up. When running, Cairns carries a portable litter-picker in her backpack, and picks up rubbish on her cool-down walk. “Sometimes I pick a particular stretch of road and do it as a project. It might take 10 or 15 sessions, and I’ll keep coming back until it’s cleared.”
The amount of rubbish littering Britain’s streets is horrifying. Packaging from the fast food giants is the biggest problem, she says. Then there are the truly grim finds. “I’ve found water bottles someone has urinated in,” says Cairns. “And condoms.”
She never catches people littering. “This makes me cross,” she says. “It means they are doing it when people aren’t looking, as they know it’s unacceptable.”
Cairns litter-picks because she loves the sea. She always has. She grew up in Ponteland, near the sandy beaches of the Northumberland coast. “All my childhood pictures are of me in my little pigtails, a frilly bathing suit, in the sea.” After graduating from university she visited the Great Barrier Reef, where she tried diving for the first time.
“I was staggered by the beauty,” she says. She remembers Christmas tree worms blooming on the coral reef like corsages on a prom dress, lampshade-shaped jellyfish, scuttling crabs and the majestic sweep of a shark fin.
When she is underwater, Cairns has a feeling of complete calm. “You are very present,” she says. “There’s no distraction. The sound is so different. You don’t have to paddle or move your fins; you can just look around. It is just beauty, everywhere.”
She has dived in Thailand, Australia and Bali. “It is a luxury,” she admits, and during Covid she has missed travel sorely. But over the years she has seen the beaches of these idylls overflow with plastic. “There are times of the year in Bali where there is trash everywhere. The tourists call it trash season. You’d be on the beach but the litter wasn’t from Bali; it had come from elsewhere.”
Cairns hates what this says about capitalist culture. “We are by nature greedy overconsumers: we have a huge amount of waste products, and we don’t value things. There’s no value in a plastic bag, so we chuck it away. But every piece of plastic you put in the bin is sitting in the earth somewhere. (It might be buried, or burned, or floating in the ocean, or on the side of a road. But it’s not going anywhere.)”
This article comes from Saturday, the new print magazine from the Guardian which combines the best features, culture, lifestyle and travel writing in one beautiful package. Available now in the UK and ROI.
When she collects plastic bottles and carrier bags, it feels like a small act of care: this bag will not end up in a turtle’s mouth. It is an infinitesimally small act in the scheme of things, but it’s something.
Cairns balked at the prospect of me doing anything nice for her. But then she realised what could be helpful: a paddleboard, so she can litter-pick along the waterways near her house. UK-based carbon-negative brand The Paddle Co volunteered to provide Cairns with one of its boards.
“It landed on the last day of school,” she says gleefully, when I catch up with her after her two-week holiday in Pembrokeshire. “Perfect!” She went paddleboarding in the Irish sea, where there was – thankfully – no litter to be seen. Since coming home, Cairns has been litter-picking in the canal near her house. “It’s so beautiful,” she says. “You get a different perspective being on the water.”
In a year with no scuba diving, the paddleboard is a good substitute. “It’s such a treat, really. I haven’t been able to get under the sea recently, so it’s lovely to be on it. It gives you peace.”
Want to nominate someone for Guardian angel? Email us – with their permission – and suggest a treat at firstname.lastname@example.org