Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

16 October 2024

World Food Day

Olivia Mandle

“The word [activist] simply means acting. We could all do it in many different ways.”


Can a human be considered a creature of the sea? Perhaps not officially, but based on the time she spends in the water, Olivia Mandle could make a good case for an exception.

The 16-year-old environmentalist from Spain has been swimming in the sea since the age of 2, she says, when she first wore tiny flippers, a snorkel and goggles to marvel at the wonders of the blue world below.

“It has always amazed me,” she says of the sea. These days, she scuba dives, too, “discovering species in deeper water.”

But as her curiosity for the blue world grew, so did her worry about the environment she’s come to love – especially the Mediterranean Sea just outside her door.

“I began to investigate pollution in the oceans. I was constantly going out to clean the beaches. It’s daunting to see how far the waste goes and the impact it has on ecosystems.”

At age 12, she invented a device she calls the Jelly Cleaner, a small dragnet made out of old ballet stockings and other recyclables that collects microplastics from the water – tiny particles that end up in the bellies of fish and ultimately in our food chain.

“When you turn the stockings inside out and see the amount of microplastics you’ve collected, it leaves you speechless.”

Gradually, her beach-and-sea clean-ups on the Costa Brava became bigger and more organized. A hundred people showed up to the first annual clean-up day she hosted in her seafront town.

Last year, it was 600 people, including divers, paddle boarders and beachcombers. It took them less than an hour to collect more than 300 kg of waste, she says. “It was frightening.”

It shows both the scale of what’s possible with collective action and the magnitude of the problem she’s taking on. But she’s got no time for cynics, she says. “The important thing is to ignore them and continue.”

Ultimately, it’s about more than cleaning and what amount she collects, she says – it’s about starting conversations. “People ask about [the Jelly Cleaner]. It invites action and reflection.”

And people are taking notice beyond the beach, too. She was named Goodwill Ambassador for the EU Climate Pact and received an award from the Jane Goodall Institute, among others. She also has a TV show in the works on community-led environmental projects, and a book coming out later this year about small actions people can take.

“We can all be activists,” she stresses. “The word simply means acting. We could all do it in many different ways.”