Can We Make Open Water Swimming Plastic-Free?

By Finn van der Aar | saltwater stories

Finn van der Aar is passionate about the environment, low impact travel and how to help people live more sustainably. She lives, surfs and works on the wild west coast of Ireland. Finn holds a BSc in Earth & Ocean Science, an MSc in Marine Biology and a Certificate in Culinary Arts. 

Here she gives swimmers some top tips on how to reduce the use of plastics and improve the impact our swimming has on the beautiful locations we swim in.

In an ideal world, I’d love if our swims could be completely plastic free and just used all natural, but still high performance materials. But we live in an imperfect world and often the most sustainable alternatives are more expensive. So here’s my top ways to massively reducing the amount of plastics supporting your swim, while ditching the single use plastics all together!

What are you wearing?

If you open water swims are in a wetsuit, you can look for sustainable companies who use  natural rubber or limestone neoprene to create their suits with as minimal amounts of plastics as possible. Unfortunately this is more common in surfing, but hopefully something that will be developed for swimming too. I use an Orca suit myself for swimming and just do the best I can to take care of it so I can use it for as long as possible.

If you’re just in your togs, this a great chance to get involved in recycling ocean plastics and learning about microfibres! Most swimwear is made from polyester – a plastic fibre very commonly used in sports clothing due to its stretch and wicking properties. Unfortunately microfibres shed from your suit and while sustainable companies are creating swim wear from ocean plastics, this issue of microfibres still remains.

The easiest way to tackle this is always hand-washing swimwear. The heavy duty action of your washer machine causes greater fibres loss. If you prefer use the machine (no judgement here, we’re all strapped for time these days) then try using something like a Guppy Friendly Wash Bag (put any polyester garments inside before popping them in the wash) or a Cora Ball (roams around the machine picking up fibres).

Look at companies creating swimwear from recycled plastics like Patagonia or Finisterre or use sites or apps like Thriftify or Depop to buy unwanted pieces (that are still new) and avoid buying virgin plastic.

The other bits.

Here’s my go to kit to give you some ideas for dodging single use plastics;

  • Sturdy plastic gardening bucket – holds my wet gear, stops my car getting soaked. I’ve had it for ten years and it will see many more seasons to come. Much better then plastic bags (even the so called reusables) that break after a few trips to the beach.
  • Goggles/hat/cap. It took ages to get this one right – but buy once and buy well. I did to many years of crappy goggles and thin hats that would snap. This is the most affordable place to invest well.
  • Tow float. This one is pretty exciting! These are typically plastic, but last year I was gifted a Puffin Swim biodegradable tow float and I absolutely love it!

What you’re putting on your body directly affect the water you swim in.

It was in college that I first learned about how sunscreens negatively effect coral reproduction – ultimately having catastrophic repercussions for their population. You can very easily mitigate this issue though by;

  • Using natural hair and body care products when you shower ( check out my instagram for lots more on this). Two favourites are Three Hill Soap shampoo bars (don’t leave a residue) and Soap Out Loud conditioner bars (even works if you’ve a big wild mane like mine!).
  • Use natural/zinc based suncreams to protect your skin – look for the term “reef safe”. I use  Amazinc – the heavy zinc oxide cream on my face when I’m in direct sun/surfing for hours (doesn’t come off easily)  and their non-zinc (and therefore translucent) suncream butter the rest of the time.  

The final step – removing plastic from the ocean.

Most of the time I’m just stuffing it in the straps of my swimmers or up the leg of my wetsuit. When I’m snorkelling I’ll bring a net bag to take away more. If you’re part of a swimming group, you can connect with Clean Coasts and organise a beach clean for your favourite swim spot!

When you encounter plastics in the ocean/on the beach, see what part of your life they correspond too. I firmly believe that the onus should be on politicians and policy makers to ban single use plastics, but in the mean time we can become more aware of our own consumption.

I’ve found (around my local beaches in Donegal) that after fishing waste the most common plastics were related to personal care (shampoo, razors, toothbrushes etc) or snacking (water bottles, crisp packets etc). So now I’m buying toiletries plastic free and being more mindful of food I’m packing for my beach days.

I’m so excited to hear from you guys! Let me know your favourite tips for reducing plastics or  resources you’re like to share with the rest of us! If you’ve any questions I’ll be checking the comments here and answering them over on Instagram too.

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