This article follows a talk that I gave to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) when the Highland Environment Forum met on the 6th of September 2017. Firstly I’d like to explain what is known about the consequences of marine plastic pollution in the food chain, as well as to humans, from my review of the literature. I will then show the data I have collected in Durness and the surrounding area, in order to answer 2 questions: How much plastic is there in the area? and how fast is it getting to the shoreline? Finally, I will discuss what I have been doing locally and nationally to tackle the problem in collaboration with many other people in the Highlands.
How bad is bad? How do plastics harm the whole food chain?
Today, you will hardly find an earth, water or air body, nor an organism, without plastic. Our craving for plastics has resulted in Earth being entirely smeared with the substance. Worst of all, the production of plastic is still growing exponentially.
In the illustration within this article published in the prestigious journal Science in July 2017, you can see that plastic production is climbing steeply and is expected to be becoming steeper and steeper, meaning the quantities of plastic within our environment will grow exponentially. Despite all the fairytales that plastic producers tell about recycling, what is recycled is only a very minor fraction of the plastic produced. Recycling means reusing it as it is, and in reality plastics loose their quality in the process. With regards to packaging specifically, 2% is truly recycled of the c. 80 Mt (80 000 000 000 kg) generated in 2014, 8% is reused for lower quality products (cascaded recycling) and 4% is lost in the processing according to this post (illustration bellow).
So basically, most of the plastic today is in the environment, at least 70%, even including the increase in the quantity of plastic ‘recycled’. The big concern here is that at least 6300 megatons of plastic is in landfill sites and the environment (actually landfills are the environment too). The next question is can we see this 6300 000 000 000 kg of plastics surrounding us?
Yes! It is the equivalent of a blue whale pod which has 36.5 million members in it or if it were piled up it would make a mountain about 80 km in diameter and 3.5 km in height, dwarfing local Munros. Plastics are pervasive in our environment and will stay in it for hundreds of years.
Plastics are now ingested by all the members of the food chain from microscopic organisms to top predators, including us. There are many studies which give examples of highly contaminated animals. In particular for langoustines, one of the most important sources of income in the NW of Scotland, 83% of sampled animals contained plastics in their guts. According to a report of the European commission, at least a third of the sea birds have plastics in their body. Entanglement is also killing all kind of animals from the smallest to the biggest. If you live by the sea, you will inevitably find dead animals stranded and entangled. You will also find a lot of plastic.
I would like to remind the reader that plastics are extremely long lasting and are slowly broken up mechanically and by the sunlight. However, their elemental chemical components are still present because nothing can digest/ break them down, with just a few exceptions. So basically oceans are becoming a “plastic soup” containing billions of invisible particles. Alone, plastics are not necessarily dangerous, that is if they have been manufactured properly. However, large toxic particles like to “stick” (sorb) to them, in particular Polycyclic Aromatic Components (PAHs). PAHs are very carcinogenic and come from many sources: industrial (e.g. air pollution) or natural (hydrocarbon seeps). For this reason they are detected on most particles of plastic found in the marine environment. They also attract dioxins, flame retardants and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). The later is a renowned endocrinian disruptor that seriously messes up your thyroid gland. In particular it affects children’s growth by disturbing the hormonal system. According to Wikipedia the list of major health consequences is long: obesity, diabetes, female reproduction, male reproduction, hormone-sensitive cancers in females, prostate cancer in males, thyroid, and neurodevelopment and neuroendocrine systems. So basically it kills us faster and it impedes our children to grow normally including brain and limb problems. People might say that we are not effected but recent studies show that some western countries have recorded a serious drop in fertility.
To conclude this section, everyone is effected, everyone is generating far too much long-lasting trash, and the whole environment is polluted, even in scarcely populated areas. Plastic is a very dangerous substance and it is our responsibility, if we want humanity to have a future, to tackle it now and remediate what we have polluted.
Waves of plastics in North-West Scotland
Visiting tourists and residents of the beautiful NW Scotland might be absorbed by the majesty of the landscapes, the brutality of the sea and the soothing comfort of all the shades of light and colour. However if you look more closely you will see a lot of plastic, some chucked out on the road, or blown by the wind and caught in the fences, as well as piling up on our sumptuous beaches for up to 2 meters in thickness.
Most of the plastic you find is no accident, thrown from a car, flushed down the toilets, not properly stored in a bin or thrown overboard from ships. Here is a set of pictures of things you find on the beach:
These are mainly industrial waste from ships.
You can ask yourself, how much is there out there and what can I do on my own? First of all, you cannot leave plastics outside where it sits. It will degrade and go into the food chain very quickly, especially in the NW Highlands areas situated close to the sea.
Everything you take could save an animal and reduces the pollution, this is the only tool we have as individuals to become part of the solution.
In April 2017, I decided to do something about it. I am a member (and since June, the local representative) of the association Surfers Against Sewage. As such I organised a beach clean in Balnakeil beach (Durness). We recovered about 500 kg of plastic pollution. The next day we got 350 kg from Oldshoremore beach. You have to know that only 5% of plastic pollution arrives on the shores, 94% sinks forever at the bottom of the ocean. The numbers are staggering and the next tide when the beach got polluted again I felt overwhelmed.
The Balnakeil Bin
To have a more durable strategy, I had the idea of putting a bin at Balnakeil beach following other volunteer-based actions that exist in the world such as the 2 minutes beach clean. I liked the idea of reusing what was thrown away instead of buying a brand new system, it was litter after all. So I put up a fish bin found on the beach, a few planks discarded on the skip made some embossed lettering on it and off you go. I honestly did not expect it to work but I was wrong.
From the 5th of April to the 26th of July 2017, I have counted and classified everything which went into the bin for a total of 3577 particles during these 3 ½ months. Here are the results:
These contribute to a large variety of pollutant that are unfortunately common in the ocean. I have tried to show this variety during the 2017 Durness Highland Gathering and people were uniformly shocked by the amounts of 2 weeks of the bin displayed (next picture).
How much is too much?
One wonder’s if this amount is more than elsewhere – it is too much, but then how much is too much? I decided to investigate the rates of accumulation of plastics at Balnakeil beach based on the bin.
It seems to me that there is a permanent supply of the same pollutants whatever the period and that it is only the bulk amount which varies. Since it is very tedious to do these surveys and since they demonstrate that the relative concentration of each pollutant source does not really vary, I have switched to a systematic weight measurement. The results show again a permanent, relatively constant, background of plastic shoring.
Between 1.5 kg and 3 kg of plastic arrive daily on Balnakeil beach. This is a conservative estimate. Tourist walkers, which are the first users of the beach, cannot carry a lot of things and would tend not to as most of them are actually on holiday. Most of the big parts are brought by locals which care about the beach. So there is still a lot to count and I continuously make beach cleans.
You may wonder if these numbers are particularly high. I have thus asked someone I know who is doing an exceptional job, picking up plastic every day on the south coast of England! She photographs and weigh’s it all. She is Beach Clean Girl! A modern super hero!
There are more peaks of pollution but it seems that the background of pollution is the same if not lower than in the NW Highlands. The peaks could be associated with river floods or the ocean might be cleaner there despite being a much more densely populated area than NW Scotland.
Not all coves are created equal
When cleaning the beach or just randomly picking up what I find as I go, I started observing a pattern. And all my observations progressively confirmed the model. At first I was puzzled that some beaches where absolutely horrendous and others had almost no plastic accumulating. For example, when surveying a beach in Scourie, I calculated that there was 70 t of plastic within a 200-m-wide cove. In the next cove you would find only a couple of plastic items. In addition, I have noticed that strong storms from the South are the ones which are bringing pollution way above the ‘normal’ background amounts. Plotting the most polluted beaches on the map (here in red) you directly observe that they all are on headland and pointing towards the South-West.
The thought follows that most of the source of pollution found here is from industrial fishing and fish farms which are situated to the south. Some of the pollution comes from far but according to SAS studies, 90+% of the litter is locally sourced. This is confirmed when looking at the state of most of the ropes arriving almost new on the shore, and the absence of encrusting organisms on most of the rafts. You can tell that rafts have come from far when they have goose barnacles or serpulids on them but it is very rare.
We are very few living in the NW of Scotland, on one hand we depend on the sea for fishing on the other hand we depend on tourism, as a result of the beauty here. We have an ocean that is horribly polluted and we are continuously shooting ourselves in the foot. There are a few people out there who are polluting the seas heavily and are getting away with it. Very soon, some people will start to refuse to eat fish from here. People will be put off by beaches where one has to walk over meters of ropes and nets in the ‘wildest’ places of Scotland.
Polluting is a crime and the law needs to be enforced. We also have to massively clean our shores so that the pollution does not sink and become unrecoverable. This is a concern for everyone living by the sea but also for the global ocean. You can ask yourself how by reducing our fertility and making ourselves sick are we going to survive? We don’t have 10 years to act, change must happen now. Governments give some small funds to sort the problem – but money will not solve this, behaviour must change, economical model and product design should be re-thought so it is completely different.
This is the challenge of humanity.