By Brittany Shoot  
The Rotarian -- April 2013

When David and Theresa Wernery plan a road trip, they don’t mess around. In early 2012, they quit their jobs – he as a lawyer, she as a merchant banker – packed up their modified Ford F-150, and headed out from their home base in Dubai on a journey across the Middle East and Europe.

Their aim: to educate people about the environmental effects of plastic pollution. They called it the Plastic Not So Fantastic Expedition.

The Wernerys have both lived in the United Arab Emirates since childhood; David is German, and Theresa is German-British. They originally planned one epic, 18-month trip that would cover more than 110,000 miles through 55 countries. They later decided to split their itinerary into several stages – the first, five-month leg of which began this past May and took them across Iran and Turkey, through the Balkans and Central Europe, to the United Kingdom, then through Scandinavia, the Baltics, Russia, the Caucasus, and back home. They are now raising money for the second leg of their odyssey, slated for next year.

The couple learned about plastic pollution through David’s father, Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai. He has studied the role that plastic debris plays in the deaths of desert animals, finding that many species, including protected ones such as sand gazelles, die after ingesting plastic, either from choking or from blocked digestive systems. Even as plastic breaks down, the tiny particles pose a persistent threat to hungry, curious birds and other animals.

With the elder Wernery’s help, David, a member of the Rotary Club of Jumeirah-Dubai, and Theresa began giving local educational presentations and organizing cleanups at desert dump sites. When they started noticing a buildup of plastic trash at their favorite camping areas, the nature lovers decided to hit the road to share what they’d learned. “I was surprised when they told me they wanted to fight pollution globally, and extremely grateful and happy that they choose this way to make countries aware of this problem,” David’s father says.

As they planned their trip, the couple worked with several eco-minded companies. Fellow Rotarian Jan Willem Van Es donated a fuel additive distributed by his firm, Saham Global, to help increase their truck’s fuel efficiency. “Sponsoring the expedition allowed David and Theresa to reduce their carbon footprint,” Van Es says. GoalZero, which manufactures portable solar devices, helped the Wernerys set up solar power for their truck-turned-camper. Reusable containers filled with power adapters, cookware, and lightweight cotton clothing went in the truck bed next to a makeshift wooden shower stand. The Wernerys took along two folding sinks, a small clothesline, and a mini fridge. They installed a roof rack as well as heavy-duty off-road shock absorbers. Except for the time they spent with friends and family in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Scandinavia, they camped out almost every night.

As David plotted their course, the couple contacted Rotary and Rotaract clubs along the way. David had been a Rotaract club president a decade earlier, while he was a university student in Bonn, Germany; he later served as the New Generations service director and Rotary Foundation chair for his Rotary club. In areas where the couple had no personal connection, they used the Rotary Club Locator app to find nearby clubs.

The Wernerys focused on documenting the impact of plastic pollution on the people and places along their route. At club meetings, they talked with Rotarians about the effects of plastic trash on local nature reserves, beaches, and camping sites. When they were in one place longer than a few days, David notes, they tried to visit as many clubs as possible. “We were able to attend meetings at a number of clubs in London and in North Wales,” he says.

In July, the Wernerys spent five days at Latitude, a music festival in Suffolk, England. They camped in the mud, assisted with recycling and cleanup efforts, and set up a table where they handed out information and talked with festival goers about environmental issues.

Some couples might not do well spending months together on the road, squeezed into a tiny truck cab by day and sharing a small tent by night. But the Wernerys enjoyed the hours of uninterrupted togetherness, and they are pleased by how supportive fellow Rotarians have been throughout their travels. “Rotarians speak a common language,” David says. “Environmental issues are immediately discussed and supported.”