Sunday, March 4, 2012

Give Up SUP's (single use plastics)

WARNING: Reading this post about the problems of plastic pollution in our oceans and it's impact on the marine environment and wildlife might make you sick up in your mouth a bit. Also, it's a massive, massive, subject area and I can't do it justice in a single post (I've tried before) so I'll pepper this piece with links so that, should you wish to, you can click away and learn some more, and hopefully be moved to become a force of change.

Look what I found on my local beach during a beach clean last October. No needle but the plastic body of a syringe (held by Neil of BeachCare) on a beach that I run down without looking where I'm stepping and which we walk our dog on most days. Barf.

Spring is starting to show it's sunny self here in the South West of the UK which means that the beaches are getting busier; there are lots of people coming down to the beach, and there is also a load of litter on the sand that's been washed ashore by the winter storms over the past few months. This is a year-round problem on almost every single stretch of coastline on the entire planet and it's a problem that we can't tactfully ignore or shy away from.

The beach that I live on is part of a Marine Conservation Area and is cared for by a group of legendary volunteers. Part of their work is undertaking regular beach cleans alongside the BeachCare programme run by Keep Britain Tidy who organise beach cleans on 17 beaches across Devon and Cornwall. Neil who runs the project just sent out a newsletter detailing the past years work; 790 big bin bags of rubbish were removed from our local beaches over the course of 113 beach clean events utilising 2200 volunteer hours on the beach. Most of these events last for around an hour and they finish with tea and cake so it's well worth it, and if you can't make it along to one then here's an idea...why not take a couple of empty bags with you when you walking along the beach and pick up any plastic and trash that you find (use one as a "glove") or pick up anything that shouldn't be on the beach when you're walking back up the beach after a surf. If everybody picked up just three bits every time they visited the beach then it'd make a massive difference. Check out the inspirational Pick Up 3 campaign started by a 16 year old kid in California fed up with the state of his local beach.

Some friends and I explored the coast of Oman towards the end of Cyclone season and it seemed that all of the litter in the Indian Ocean had been pushed up into this corner and washed up on the mostly deserted coastline.

The two repeat offenders on the list of items picked up from our beaches are plastic pieces (aka nurdles or "mermaids tears") and fishing flotsam and jetsam such as line and nets. 2011 has seen a large increase in fishing related litter which is being investigated and combated by Fishing For Litter. The impacts of fishing nets and monofilament line, alongside plastic packaging straps, are best illustrated by the Gannets of Grassholm Island, just off the coast of Wales. Each year 40,000 nesting pairs arrive on the island to build or repair their nests, and often the nest-building males collect plastic litter from the oceans in preference to seaweed because it floats and is highly visible, then return to Grassholm to weave it into their nests. Juvenile gannet chicks often become entangled in this synthetic material and as they grow become trapped and tethered to their nests. When the colony returns to sea in Autumn the trapped juveniles are left behind and slowly starve unless released by the small team of RSPB volunteers who visit the island each year to cut them free. Grim. On Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, miles from anywhere, seabird corpses decompose revealing just a skeleton and a gut full of plastic crap that they've eaten.

A juvenile gannet that perished after becoming entangled in plastic litter that was woven into it's nest on Grassholm Island. Image courtesy of the RSPB.

But it's not just seabirds. Plastic bags bob around the oceans looking remarkably like jellyfish to the large marine animals that feed on them. Postmortem examinations carried out on dead cetaceans and turtles frequently reveal guts full of plastic bags which do not pass through or decompose and accumulate and starve the animals. I've harped on about it before, but the fate of turtles who eat plastic bags and then float to the surface because of the increased buoyancy and bake to death in the sun particularly grosses me out.

A lot of this crap blows around in the wind as well as being transported by ocean currents. The correlation between onshore winds and beach pollution is plain to see. The wind blew from the west every day in December, and in January BeachCare removed over 200 bags of litter from local beaches. For ocean borne litter, much of it floats around in the currents until eventually winding up in one of the five Oceanic gyres which are points of confluence for major currents in each of the major oceans.

Maximenko's Plastic Pollution Growth Model from 5 Gyres on Vimeo.

So that's all pretty depressing. How do we, little old "us", make a difference? Here's a few ideas of how you can think global, act local and be a small cog in a bigger engine for change:

  • Pick Up 3. Or more if you can join a regular beach clean event, details here and here.
  • Refuse plastic bags. If you visit the supermarket then take your own bags, buy a bag for life or if you're in the USA use a paper bag and recycle it. If you have your groceries delivered then click the option for delivery without bags so your shopping arrives in crates that the driver takes back to the store.
  • Carry A Cup. Keep a cup or small flask in your bag or car to take into coffee shops rather than getting take-out cups. Those plastic lids are particularly evil.
  • Drink from the tap. In many countries tap water is totally safe so if possible drink from the tap or refill bottles rather than buying expensive and pointless bottled water. I grew up just a few miles away from a plant that bottled water for a supermarket. Exactly the same water that came out of the tap at my home.
  • Try to buy grocery items that aren't overly packaged (loose vegetables immediately spring to mind). If enough people refuse to buy based on excessive packaging then the supermarkets will stop using it. It'd save them money too after all. If you're funny about the possibility of other humans touching your food at some point then wash it or peel it when you get home.



  1. Great blog post. It's incredibly sad to see the large amount of plastic pollution on our beaches and we all need to take some responsibility for it. Definitely time for education and change.

  2. Hi Mat,

    I'm chris smith, the other course leader from the ED Photo course that you'll be visiting soon at Plymouth - This is a great blog post and ties in so perfectly with our brief and the beach clean we have planned. I shall show your blog when briefing them on the first day of the new assignment. Last year we showed them Chris Jordan's work on the great pacific garbage patch and showed a you tube clip about the problem. Am really looking forward to your visit. We were planning to do our beach clean on Slapton beach in South Devon - but if you're aware of anywhere else in the region that needs a clean, let us know!