Yorkshire’s Heather Wigglesworth has swapped high-flying jobs in the polo world to join an ambitious attempt to clear plastic pollution from the world’s oceans. Chris Burn reports.
Leaving behind a glamorous managerial post at Dubai Polo Club to join a fledgling recycling technology company working on plans to clear millions of tonnes of rubbish from the world’s clogged ocean and rivers may not be the most obvious career move but for Yorkshire-born and raised Heather Wigglesworth it was a natural decision - in every sense.
Global travel for her work combined with her love of nature and ocean activities like diving meant she had been growing increasingly concerned about the state of the environment for a number of years; after angst at finding plastic bottles, beer cans and plastic cups when she went diving in Jordan and seeing rubbish washing up on a beach in Costa Rica, she reached her final straw last year after witnessing shoppers in a Dubai supermarket “robotically packing loose fresh fruit and veg into plastic bags, looking at piles of meat wrapped in clingfilm and trays all of which are not recyclable and realising that I was the odd one out”.
She went out to a nearby beach with a friend and a camera where she collected what plastic rubbish she passed before making what she describes as a “video rant” about the fact that 50 per cent of the world’s turtle population have ingested plastic - something that has a high chance of causing their deaths.
“I just wanted to know that if one person listened and thought about it and maybe said no to a plastic bag or coffee cup, that I had done what I could,” she explains.
Wigglesworth put the video on her social media channels and to her surprise ended up being viewed more than 20,000 times as friends, family and strangers shared it.
It eventually led on to a job offer to become executive director and Project and Operations Manager of a company called Ocean Polymers, which is in the research and development stage of a multi-million project to clear plastic from our oceans and rivers using enhanced plasma gasification technology - which turns waste materials into synthetic gas - installed on a fleet of repurposed marine vessels which will be powered by the energy created from processing the plastic rubbish.
Wigglesworth says discussions have been taking place with the Indian Government about the possibility of using the process on the Ganges River, one of the most polluted water sources in the world with an estimated 1.2 billion pounds of plastic dumped in it each year.
It is undoubtedly a big change in what has already been an extraordinary career for the 40-year-old Wigglesworth, who grew up in the West Yorkshire village of Flockton and went to Shelley High School near Huddersfield.
After finishing school, a love of the sport of Polocrosse - a game that combines elements of polo and lacrosse - led her to go to Australia to play competitively before returning to Yorkshire to study Product Design at Huddersfield University. After finding university wasn’t for her, she travelled to New Zealand to play Polocrosse again, staying there for six years.
Wigglesworth, who now lives in Ascot in Berkshire, went on to work between the UK and Argentina managing polo holidays and training events. She then became events director at the Royal Berkshire Polo Club before going on to the senior management team as sponsorship and events director at the prestigious Guards Polo Club, whose president is the Duke of Edinburgh.
Part of the job entailed managing Cartier’s polo sponsorship and events in the UK and United Arab Emirates - resulting in building up contacts in Dubai and leading her to be appointed as Polo and Operations Manager at Dubai Polo Club in February 2018 - becoming the first woman to ever occupy the position.
She says it was a “terrifying” decision to leave her job in Dubai after being approached to join Ocean Polymers by its chief executive officer Paul Rodger, a successful Berkshire-based businessman and keen polo player who she has known for years through the polo world and his sister.
“I’m not sure if I was incredibly brave or stupid! One thing about polo and the level I was at was that it was very financially rewarding and a very comfortable lifestyle.”
But Wigglesworth says she finds it a “massive honour” to be working alongside scientists dedicated to tackling the problem of plastics in our oceans and use her own skills to hopefully make their plans a reality.
“We are not here for that long so to be able to use your past experiences and talents and abilities to commit to something you are passionate about, I just had to do it.”
The big question now is whether Ocean Polymers’ idea, which is currently at the concept stage, will actually work.
Wigglesworth says gasification is “proven technology” and earlier this year, the US Navy invested in a gasification project while Muxina Konarova, a research fellow at the University of Queensland, suggested last year the process could offer part of the answer to Australia’s recycling crisis (albeit with the caveat that using the process to get rid of plastic waste “needs significant initial funding”).
Ocean Polymers has raised £1.5m in funding so far and is now seeking a further £700,000 for the next tranche of work as part of the process of securing the £9.6m needed to launch OP1 which would be the first ship in the fleet.
In May this year the company was granted Patent Pending status by the US Patent Office.
At the time, Paul Rodger said reaching the milestone allowed him to reveal plans to develop the use of a 300m-long recommissioned super tanker with a gasification system that has the capacity of processing 200 tons of plastic and waste per day to be used in the Pacific Gyres to “process the horrific mess that has congregated there”.
Wigglesworth says she is convinced that the technology will be having a significant impact on the world’s plastic pollution crisis in the very near future.
“I would like to think we would make a significant impact in the next two years. Paul is very much a businessman who knows it makes money, it is an incredibly profitable technology,” she says.
“But what drives me is we can make a difference. I have never in any way thought that I am not a part of the problem; we all are. I have just always had to share what I have witnessed and know that I have done all I can.
“Of all the projects that I have worked on in my career I have never believed more than I do in the Ocean Polymers project.
“Paul’s vision and initiative to utilise this incredible, sustainable technology to tackle the plastic crisis in our oceans is inspired. I believe together we can all be part of the solution and create the change we need to see.”
Attenborough's warning to politicians
Sir David Attenborough told MPs this week that the world is finally beginning to wake up to the “horrors” of plastic pollution in our oceans.
In a wide-ranging discussion with Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, the 93-year-old TV naturalist said: “I’ve been going on about plastics for 20 years.
“Anybody who swims know that, or anyone who travels can see, the horrors of what plastic pollution can do. I’ve been putting it in programmes for years, and nobody took any notice”.
Sir David said a two-minute clip in his programme Blue Planet II in 2017 “rang a bell with people” - with Environment Secretary Michael Gove pledging action on the issue after saying it had “haunted” him.