Did you know that when stray plastic in the environment gets wet, within a very short period of time, bacteria will grow on it? This bacteria often releases sulfur (think rotten eggs), which to some creatures can actually smell quite appealing. Couple this with the fact that plastic, especially in water, can resemble prey items and you literally have a recipe for disaster. Of course, this is all a rather daunting and unappealing topic to explain to a small child, so where do you start?
I wrote, 'Somebody Swallowed Stanley', over six years ago, after returning from a field research position on a tiny island in the Bahamas, known as Bimini. At the time, I had spent day after day on the water in some fairly remote spots, yet plastic pollution was visible in the sea, the mangroves and on the beaches, especially after a storm. At that point though, it still seemed more of a minor issue and I really had no idea how much of a threat it posed to the sharks we were studying and the ecosystem I was working within.
It was at the end of 2013 as I started my outreach project 'Creature', that I really started to read up on the implications of micro-plastic, photodegradation and bioaccumulation of harmful toxins that have bound with it. Before then, even with a biological science degree and a career working with wildlife, I had been blissfully ignorant of the true extent of the problem. Now not only did I realise how huge the issue was, but I was also burdened with a massive sense of urgency to communicate it to a wider audience. In those years, aside from the potential of a much disputed 5p carrier bag charge coming into play, plastic pollution was not the hot topic it is today. Schools were still doing balloon releases without question and the only real reference was 'reduce, reuse, recycle' with no real explanation as to the important reason why.
Back when I was at university, I spent my summer working as an Education Officer at Blackpool Zoo. Basically, I got to do all the fun jobs like delivering sealion talks, feeding lemurs and of course educating people about conservation. It was during this time that I learnt the easiest and most enjoyable way to educate small children (and adults) was not through lectures and facts but through a good story.
When Plastic was created, it actually saved a lot of animals from the verge of extinction - one of the early forms of plastic (celluloid) was created in a competition to replace ivory and the forms that followed soon replaced turtle shell too. Now it is absolutely vital in modern society from hospitals, transport, technology and clothing, whether we like it or not until someone invents a widespread alternative we are reliant on it. However, we created an indestructible material as a throwaway product and this and the improper disposal of plastic waste poses a huge threat to our environment. Then it occurred to me, that perhaps, plastic itself is not the bad guy in this story.
I created Stanley, no ordinary jellyfish, who was unlucky enough to be chewed up, swallowed and spat back out multiple times before (spoiler alert) his true nature was revealed. 'Somebody Swallowed Stanley' has since been used in schools and homes in this country and abroad. I hope now, with the help of Scholastic and Hannah Pecks lovely illustrations, that Stanley's adventures will help even more children (and adults) to understand the issue of plastic pollution and our role in it, so that instead of feeling scared, they might feel empowered to act.