A father of three who has led volunteer beach cleans for the last four years in west Wales is quitting because of the insurmountable plastic problem around Britain’s coastlines.
“It’s like you’re trying to mop up a flood but the tap’s still running.” Cookson feels like he’s spent the last four years on the losing team: “If it was a football match you would have changed tactics by now.”
He first noticed the sheer amount of plastic littering west Wales’ beaches when he started collecting driftwood to make Christmas trees. It quickly turned him into an anti-plastic activist.
Four years on and his house is like a marine plastic museum. In the garage he has 1,731 cigarette butts collected in an hour and half from the town’s north beach. Each are made of tiny particles of plastic which take at least 15 years to biodegrade.
Inside he shows us a piece of lego that traces back to a ship spill that dumped millions of pieces off the Cornish coast in 1997. And there are toy soldiers – apparently a valued find for beach cleaners.
He also has a huge map on his kitchen wall with Wales’ main watercourses marked out. The main road into Aberystwyth, the A44, crosses the Rheidol river multiple times and there’s a very good chance that the plastic that litters the lay-by will end up in the sea.
Cookson, a former Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) volunteer, is deeply critical of the charity sector. When it comes to the anti-plastic fight “they are not even in the ring”.
He also says that initiatives like SAS’s “plastic-free communities”, and charity campaign “keep Wales tidy” are not working.
He’d like to see charities challenge “corporate consumer capitalism”, by which he means companies like Coca-Cola, who are producing 3m tonnes of plastic packaging ever year – equivalent to 200,000 bottles every single minute.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson said: “We don’t want to see any of our packaging end up as litter. We are supportive of reforms, including the introduction of a deposit return scheme here in Great Britain, to help us get more packaging back. In Great Britain, all our bottles and cans are already 100% recyclable. When disposed of properly, our bottles can be recycled into new bottles over and over again.”
For his final beach clean Cookson has enlisted the help of his friend Gilly Thomas who, when she started paddle-boarding three years ago, found two balloons stuck in a tree and the top of a cleaning bottle.
She now devotes her spare time to fishing plastic out of rivers.
The pair are also working with the National Citizen Service, who have assembled 40 teenagers on a summer course at the University of Aberystwyth. Cookson calls them “generation plastic” and tells one boy that the bottle he is drinking Coke from will take at least 400 years to biodegrade.
It comes as 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg arrives in New York after a zero-carbon yacht trip across the Atlantic to speak at UN climate conference, and in a year in which she has inspired thousands of kids to walk out of school demanding urgent action to fix the climate crisis.
On the beach, volunteer James Philpin, 16, says he is scared about what comes next. “Obviously I can’t vote yet, but people need to change things for the better in terms of the climate.” He thinks there is too much focus “on the older generations. It’s not their world any more.”
As the other teenagers find pens, beauty wrappers and tampon applicators, Cookson explains that “plastic pebbles” are a feature of the summer. These are created when people burn plastic rubbish in beach fires, which gets washed into the sea and forms small, round balls.
Last year Aberystwyth was named a “plastic-free town” by Surfers Against Sewage. Yet under the “plastic-free Aberystwyth” flag, holidaymakers drink out of single-use plastic bottles and eat ice creams with plastic spoons.
Around town there isn’t much evidence of it being enforced either. One of the few cafes with a visible “plastic-free” sign sells single use plastic bottles and gives out plastic cutlery. Both Thomas and Cookson are sceptical that the label has helped the broader battle against plastic.
Back at the beach, Cookson’s last clean-up is over. He refuses to get emotional and says he’d happily return to it: tomorrow, or in five years’ time – but only if can be sure that “the action I’m taking, the energy that I’m putting in, will actually clean the sea.”