Sunday, March 31, 2013

Winter's Wave of Waste

The fight goes on:  Plastic does not go away, it simply goes somewhere else.

The Easter long weekend signals the start of the tourist season here in the South West of the UK, and over the next seven months a whole economy will be running off the back of our beaches.  And they're in a right state.  Last weekend there were two consecutive beach cleans on my local beach, Polzeath, and at the end of it all there were still multi-coloured bits of plastic in the sand.
On the Friday the local VMCA (Voluntary Marine Conservation Area) did a litter pick on the beach, and then on Saturday there was another one organised as part of Surfers Against Sewage's Big Spring Beach Clean.  At the end of it all you could still turn over any one of the big piles of rotting seaweed (natural and normal) and at the bottom, where the sea lice have decomposed the seaweed into a stinking mush, you could scoop up a big handful and it would be full of tiny particles of plastic.  They were almost impossible to pick out; all of the volunteers were just picking up the visible pieces of plastic - those big enough to grab with rubber gloves on and, usually, the brightly coloured and highly visible pieces.  All of the tiny pieces of clear plastic remained for another day, and that's the sad fact of the matter; you could spend all day every day picking up all of the tiny pieces of plastic and each high tide would just wash in even more.


These little pieces of plastic, often called "nurdles" or "mermaids tears", come from a variety of sources.  Many are the small pellets used in the primary production of injection moulded plastic products such as buckets, bins and things like that.  You know when plastic products have that little circular blob somewhere on the bottom with a kind of stringy bit of plastic hanging off it?  That's a product that's been injection moulded, a process where tiny plastic pellets are heated up and squirted into a mould.  Other tiny plastic particles come from things like face-scrubs and exfoliators.  Yup, those tiny beads that you rub into your face to clean it are actually plastic, and they go down your plughole and end up, eventually, in the sea and on the beaches.  One positive point is that Unilever announced in January that they will remove all plastic microbeads from their products by 2015.  It's a start I guess.

So what's the problem with such tiny pieces of plastic?  Out of sight, out of mind no?  Definitely not.  Plastic acts like a sponge to chemicals and toxins, absorbing them and carrying them around.  Fish, shellfish and seabirds ingest the plastic and it often fails to pass through their digestive systems, so they accumulate plastic and the toxins that they carry.  We eat said fish and shellfish, and the process of bioaccumulation stops with us, the apex predator.  Of 504 fish examined in a recent study undertaken by a team from the University of Plymouth and the UK Marine Biological Association, more than a third were found to contain pieces of plastic less than one millimetre in size.

Sir David Attenborough can say it far more eloquently than I can.

Part of an outdoor art installation on the beach in Rio constructed entirely from discarded plastic bottles.  This was an exhibit for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) from which the EU pledged to be at the forefront of efforts to reduce marine litter.

Beach litter isn't a particularly pleasant subject to photograph.  I've got a whole folder on my hard drive full of images of beaches covered in plastic, bits of fishing net, bottles and dead birds.  It's grim.  This May 21st I'll be giving a presentation on Marine Plastic Pollution for Polzeath VMCA at the Tubestation in Polzeath, and whilst I'm certain that they could have got somebody in who is much more of an authority on the topic than me, I've definitely got enough images to illustrate an hour long talk.  It will be publicised more nearer the time but if you're in the area then you're more than welcome to attend.  I have a feeling that I will be preaching to the converted however I've been keeping a few choice images back and I hope that I'll be able to make it as interesting and engaging as possible.

For past rants about the subject of marine litter and plastic on our beaches (they're becoming an annual feature on here) and for hints and tips on small things that you can try to do to make a difference, please click through to read previous posts "Give Up SUP's" and "Pick Up 3".  

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