With the ebb and flow of the tides, thousands of miles of coastline around the UK testify to the devastation that plastic pollution is having on the marine environment. The oceans are at their choking point, for every mile of beach surveyed there are 159 plastic bottles found washed up.
I’d been on Greenpeace’s largest ship, the Esperanza, for just under a week when I first set foot back on land to conduct a beach clean with the ship’s crew and other volunteers. I think I’d forgotten how to not compensate for the gentle rocking of the sea, and the stillness of the land made me queasy.
We’d let our friends over at the Marine Conservation Society know that we’d be arriving in the Firth of Forth in Scotland to tackle plastic polluting the marine environment. MCS are famed for their beach cleans (they’ve been doing them for 23 years), and so we decided to collaborate, conducting a beach clean with the ship’s crew and volunteers from the local Greenpeace Edinburgh group — MCS had just the beach for us!
Cramond beach is a typical estuary beach, it could be lovely, but instead it’s littered with wetwipes, sanitary pads and other things that shouldn’t (but do) go down the loo. During the beach clean we walked among the piles of tangled used wetwipes (yep, as grim as it sounds) and picked up everything in sight that ought to not be there: sweet wrappers, plastic bottles, single use plastic cutlery and fragments of unidentifiable plastic (‘microplastics’) were among them.
We logged each bit of marine debris picked up, and in the 100 square meters of beach that we cleaned we picked up a staggering 136kg of litter.
But it’s not just the beach cleans that have showed us how big this plastic problem is — on the Esperanza we’ve been sampling for microplastics around the UK using a bit of kit called a ‘manta trawl’, so called for its similarity with the manta ray. During just one short 40 minute trawl alongside the Esperanza showed us just how prolific the pollution is; the sample collected dozens of fragments of plastic, some easily visible and others too small to see except with a microscope.
A big part of the problem is plastic bottles. They take more than 450 years to degrade, and in this process they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces of microplastic which can end up polluting the marine environment and often are eaten by marine life, which can be fatal.
As well as taking action on the beach and in the ocean, we need political change to stem the tide of plastic pollution. That’s why Greenpeace is proposing a bottle deposit return scheme which could see the end of plastic bottles littering the oceans. By placing a value on a material normally seen as cheap and worthless we are incentivised to treat it well and recycle it. The 5p carrier bag levy is a good example of this approach actually working- with 85% fewer plastic carrier bags being used in the year following the introduction of the charge!
Plastic doesn’t belong in the ocean, but there is 12.7 million tons of the stuff entering them every year, that’s a rubbish truck every. single. minute.
Scotland has a chance to lead the way and introduce a bottle deposit return scheme to help reduce the amount of plastic entering the oceans and harming marine life. So we’re starting by calling on the Scottish government to take action now — and you can sign the petition here.