Spotlight On…Suzie Hall (Class of 2011)

Suzie Hall’s love of the ocean has played a huge part in her life since Withington. Most recently, it has seen her set up ‘Plastic-Free Me’, a conservation initiative focused on raising awareness of the global plastic crisis and its devastating effect on our seas. Here, Suzie tells us about her adventures since leaving Withington, including a very exciting experience researching orca in Canada…

“After leaving Withington, I went straight to the University of Leeds to study for a master’s degree in physics. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world, the universe and how it all works – so it was an obvious choice for me. At university, I joined the Scuba Diving Society and very quickly became heavily involved. I’ve always loved the ocean (at one point I wanted to study marine biology) and I quickly found my passion for the underwater world. I really enjoyed my degree and learned valuable skills, many of which were surprisingly applicable to marine science. I am very glad that I chose to study physics, but it became obvious to me that my place was in the water!

My career path is, therefore, not a straightforward one. After graduating, I worked at the university to save money so that I could support myself whilst volunteering in marine projects. Unfortunately, marine conservation is a hugely over-saturated and under-funded area, so volunteering is often the norm for graduates! Alongside my job, I ran my university Scuba club, working towards my instructor qualifications and taking part in scientific diving. I also volunteered with some marine-focused charities. Safe to say, I was busy!

I’d always loved orcas (thank you, Free Willy!) so it seemed very fitting for me to become involved with Orca Aware, a campaign sponsored by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, dedicated to providing information on captive and wild orca (killer whales) worldwide. I got in touch with them detailing my skills and interests, and asked if they needed any help. Fortunately, they were looking for a blog-writer and this was the perfect level of commitment for me. Over the past couple of years, I’ve written articles on all things orca. It’s also been a great space for me to meet like-minded people, which has led to me completing my Marine Mammal Medic. I can now attend strandings of whales, dolphins and seals in distress around the UK.

It was this work that led me to helping with research at a place called OrcaLab in 2017, living on an island just off Vancouver Island. There are two large populations of orcas there, and the lab has a network of underwater microphones and cameras which they use to track the orcas as they pass through. It was such an incredible experience: learning to identify the specific calls of the different orca families, learning about their acoustics and communication, and getting to watch them as they travelled past the lab; not to mention seeing humpbacks, sea lions and dolphins daily, too!”

Plastic-Free Me

In January 2017, my friend Harriet and I set up Plastic-Free Me; a simple, volunteer-led conservation initiative. We are both keen Scuba divers and passionate about conserving the oceans, as they are the source of all life on the planet. The global plastic crisis has only made headlines in the last few years – but the effects we are already seeing are shocking. Unless we do something about it, it will be catastrophic. Plastic and its component chemicals pose a massive threat to the environment, wildlife and human health. The time to act really is now.

Harriet and I were so frustrated at the amount of disposable plastic so readily available in our day-to-day lives. For me, it was the thought that, ‘Every single piece of plastic I’ve ever used still exists, and will remain in the environment for hundreds of years.’ This made me really look at my own consumption. What can I change to live a more sustainable life? How I can spread awareness and encourage others to do the same? Over the last eight months, Plastic-Free Me has really grown and we’re very excited for the future!

We’re not yet a charity, this means that applying for funding can often be difficult as we’re essentially just a group of volunteers with no legal status. A major challenge we face is time. As this is all voluntary and takes place outside of our jobs and other commitments, it’s often difficult to stay on top. Fortunately, we have a great, proactive network of people who are all passionate about the cause, and happy to work on their projects independently.

One of my favourite moments since setting up Plastic-Free Me was a beach clean we organised in Burniston Bay, Scarborough. We were still relatively small, but we desperately wanted to get out and do something in the environment. We started advertising the event on social media. Soon, locals that we’d never met got involved and were printing our posters and putting them up around town. On the day, we got a good number of people along and they were all slightly baffled yet encouraged that two strangers from Leeds cared enough to come and clean ‘their’ beach! So that made us feel that every little thing we do really does make a difference.

We also had a major success within Leeds University Union, where we rallied for policy change regarding disposable plastics. Since then, the union has switched all disposable plastics to a biodegradable alternative (Vegware – plant based and fully biodegradable), and will be implementing a zero-waste aisle for students to buy the basics packaging-free within the university shop.

Our big mission for the future of Plastic-Free Me is to be properly established as a charity or not-for-profit organisation. For the more immediate future, it is to encourage people to cut out disposable plastics in their day to day lives; things like straws, coffee cups, plastic bottles and bags, and then to work alongside local establishments to make this easy! So often when you order a drink in a pub, for example, you’re automatically given two plastic straws and a stirrer; used for about 12 minutes yet will last for up to 1000 years. We’ve been reaching out to local cafes, pubs, bars, universities, etc. to encourage them to use sustainable alternatives. Some ideas include switching to biodegradable straws and only offering them upon request, and encouraging people to bring their own reusable coffee mug to cafes. These are only small changes, but they have a huge impact on the way that we consume. We want to continue reaching out to more places across the UK by way of our volunteer network!

I remember having Sustainability Week at Withington. It’s a great way to spread awareness of environmental issues. If we’re truly going to tackle environmental issues such as plastic pollution, then every week needs to be Sustainability Week!

Advice for Others

If you’d have told me at Withington that one day I’d be sitting on an island in British Columbia, researching orcas and making a website for my own conservation initiative… I’d probably have laughed and returned to my Harry Potter quiz! My advice to everyone would be to not worry too much about what you’re going to do in life. As stated previously, mine has diverged majorly from what I thought I’d be doing when I took my A Levels. Who knows, in ten years’ time I could be doing something completely different! There’s an overwhelming amount of choice for our generation. Anything is possible, and there are so many things that you could be good at. Just take it step by step: do the things you love, try new things and work hard according to your own standards. It may not be clear at the time but, when you look back, your path will make sense!”

Suzie Hall (Class of 2011)

To find out more about how you can support Plastic-Free Me, visit their website or follow them on Facebook/Instagram: @plasticfreeme