Elizabeth Sherr had always had a passion for the ocean since she was young so trying to clean up the trash that litters beaches and the sea seemed a natural move.
When she moved to live next to the sea in Barcelona, the native New Yorker posted some videos on TikTok encouraging others to help rid the beach of cigarette butts and plastic bottles but did not hold out much hope it would catch on.
To her surprise, after one video went viral, Sherr became the face of a global cleanup operation that removed almost 800,000 pieces from public spaces worldwide in ten days.
The European Parliament asked Sherr to front its world World Ocean Day campaign in the run up to 8 June after seeing the video on her lizlivingblue TikTok account.
“Trash challenge was launched to pick up rubbish from around the world so with the European Parliament’s backing, the reach was much further than I could manage,” she told VOA.
“The challenge was to pick up 502,000 objects between 28 May and 8 June. In fact we went over that target and have 794,207 pieces,” she said.
The initiative came as the European Commission is poised to introduce a ban on single-use plastics next month.
Single-use plastics are responsible for 49% of all marine pollution, while 27% is caused by plastics linked to fishing, according to data from the European Parliament.
The 24-year-old campaigner said people from 33 countries from Peru to Honduras and Jordan to Cyprus joined in.
“Many people got in touch to tell me that their attitude to sea pollution has completely changed since taking part in this challenge,” she said.
Sherr, who grew up in a Manhattan suburb, revealed the success of the challenge was due, in part, to a literary mistake which caught the imagination of other TikTok users.
“In one video I wrote ‘Every follower is a piece of trash’. People on TikTok thought it was very funny. That was the video which went viral with 1.3 million views,” said Sherr, who works for a nonprofit organization that works to combat deforestation.
“I never imagined it would take off like this. It has taken me aback but it has been good. I have always loved the ocean. It has always been my passion.”
The European Commission’s directive will oblige all 27 member states to ban the use of plates, glasses and paper packaging covered with a single-use plastic film from July 3.
The measure has met with opposition from some countries like Italy, which produces large quantities of these products.
Frederique Ries, the European Parliament lawmaker who led the campaign to ban single-use plastics across the bloc, recently told an Instagram conference on trashchallenge: “There were people who were hard to convince but we brought them on board for the ban on single-use plastics.”
Catherine Chabaud, the first woman to travel solo around the world by boat, is a European Parliament lawmaker who has compiled a report on how to combat single-use plastics.
“We must strengthen knowledge of nano-plastics, integrate the land-sea link as 80% of pollution in the seas comes from the land and we must launch an action plan to collect litter in rivers and estuaries,” Chabaud told an Instagram conference about #trashchallenge.
Holding a masters graduate in marine conservation, Sherr was inspired by the pioneering marine biologists Jacques Cousteau and Sylvie Earle.
She said Cousteau’s book "Silent World" and Earle’s "Sea Challenge" put her on the path to trying to save the oceans.
“Cousteau opened my eyes but I would say that Dr. Earle was my real inspiration,” Sherr said.
Earle was the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Cousteau, who died in 1997 at 87, was a former French naval officer who wrote a series of influential books and films about marine conservation, the most notable being "The Silent World."
Carolina Sevilla, founder of the conservation group 5 Minute Beach Clean-Up was also involved in the European Parliament’s #trashchallenge.
She said that her country, Costa Rica, hopes to become the first in the world where cleaning up the ocean will be part of the educational curriculum for 7 to 11-year-olds.
“We really hope that Costa Rica will become the first in the world mandatory program for students about cleaning up the ocean,” she said.