Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For using drones and data to track and eliminate plastic pollution

Ellie Mackay traveled to the Galapagos Islands in 2019 and didn’t like what she saw. "The Galapagos are known globally for being the cradle of life on Earth, and one of the last living examples of what our planet used to be like," she says. "And yet, when we reached the shorelines, they were thick with plastic, covering every inch of the coast."

As a kid who devoured David Attenborough nature documentaries and dreamed of one day seeing blue-footed boobies and hammerhead sharks, the gap between the global perception of the pristine islands and their plastic-choked reality was dispiriting. But it was also a turning point. "That trip was my motivation to ensure the world had access to accurate data—so scientists can spend their time solving the problem, not wasting time figuring out what the current state is."

The current state is quite alarming: Every year, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world's oceans. And that can be deadly for wildlife—and harmful to humans, too. In 2020, a global coalition of scientists warned that toxins from ocean plastics are seriously imperiling human health by entering our bodies from the seafood we eat.

Over the years, Mackay has seen the problem up close, crisscrossing the globe with her mother as a kid and traveling on her own as a young adult. "I've had the opportunity to see amazing parts of the world—and there isn't a single place that is unaffected by plastic pollution," she says. "Once you start spotting plastic trash, it's hard not to notice it's everywhere."

To solve a problem, first you must define and measure it. Mackay had begun flying drones while making a documentary on palm oil production and went on to specialize in extreme environmental aerial footage and surveying. When she considered how to best capture data on plastic pollution, "it seemed madness that I would be working alongside scientists on the ground, walking along with a clipboard and pencil, manually noting down what they saw."

Instead, she and her company Ellipsis Earth, took to the skies—using drones and an AI-powered software platform to efficiently and accurately track plastic pollution. The data is then shared with governments and nonprofits to help policymakers determine how to clean it up.

To date, her startup has helped lead plastic cleanups all over the world, from the U.K. coastline to the banks of the Ganges in India. In addition, more than 3,000 students have completed Ellipsis Earth's online education course.

The organization takes its name from the grammatical device that can indicate missing information in a sentence. But ellipses, Mackay points out, "can also be used to indicate an unwritten ending. And I know that together, with the right data, we can write a better future for our planet."

Q&A: Ellie Mackay on the glory of color-coded spreadsheets, upskilling and staying hopeful about the planet's future

What project is exciting you most right now?
We're launching a roadside littering survey this year with Starbucks and Hubbub that I'm really excited about. It will give us detailed data about an issue that's plaguing the entire U.K. and will hopefully influence some national recommendations.

What recent project has influenced you personally?
When Ellipsis Earth surveyed the length of the River Ganges in India, we were able to upskill a young and disadvantaged Bangladeshi team member. He became a qualified drone pilot and is now working for the government. That was an emotional success story for us all, and one we aim to scale up in the future.

What's your project management superpower?
You'd have to ask my team to know for sure, but I'd guess it's keeping the vision in mind. That, and my love for color-coded spreadsheets.

What advice would you offer young people who might feel overwhelmed by the climate crisis?
Use the powers you have and control what you can control. That means reassessing how you eat, how you live, how you travel, what you purchase. No matter how small the steps might seem, you will feel less hopeless if you take them.

Despite the field I work in, I'm hopeful about the future of the planet—because we're in the middle of a technological, ecological, lifestyle revolution and because every young person I speak to has so much awareness already.