We all know that plastic is a problem. Take a walk just about anywhere and you will at some point encounter a piece of plastic, in the form of a wrapper, discarded bottle, grocery bag or as some unidentifiable item now fragmented. But what is not immediately obvious is quite how big the problem is.
This week, we meet Karen Pollock, just one of the small army of individuals doing battle against a rising tide of plastic pollution.
Lochgoilhead on the Cowal Peninsula, Scotland
The global production of plastics increases by an average of 11 to 13 Million Tons each year, a staggering total of 359 Million Tons in 2018 - a large proportion of which enters the environment through rivers, lochs and seas: up to 12.7 Million Tons annually, according to the EU. If you want to get an idea of what these numbers actually look like, take a glance at this article from the BBC.
Despite efforts by many countries to curb or even ban selected plastics, especially single-use items like cutlery and foam cups, it is of growing concern that petrochemical production is projected to increase its’ reliance on plastics production in the face of a downturn in demand for oils and fuels. Put simply, with the price of oil so low, companies are looking to make other things out of their product - like plastic wrappers.
Whilst politicians and environmental groups wrangle over the fine detail of wording on resolutions to reduce plastic, communities are left with little choice but to try and remove the immediate problem. Karen Pollock is just one of those who felt the need for a more pragmatic approach and began organising beach cleaning for the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).
“I was horrified at the amount of plastic that accumulates on the beach and surrounding areas”, she told me when describing what motivated her efforts to clean the local beaches.
“There was a gannet here for a while that was still managing to fly and dive, trailing something stuck to its leg. I wanted to raise people’s awareness and encourage people to take ownership and pride in their surroundings.”
Volunteers take on a Marine Conservation Society (MCS) beach clean and survey in Lochgoilhead in 2019
Image courtesy Karen Pollock
That place is Lochgoilhead, situated within the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park and, before the restrictions caused by Coronavirus, a tourist hotspot - one of the gateways to the so-called Arrochar Alps. Yet several of these loch ‘heads’ have also become hotspots of floating debris, including large amounts of plastic, that not only blight these beautiful areas, but cause damage to ecosystems in ways that we are only just beginning to understand.
The problem is partly due to geology. The Firth of Clyde and surrounding channels were cut when glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice-age, about 10,000 years ago. These huge movements of ice gouged their way through the landscape, leaving deep, narrow channels that inevitably filled with water. The shape of these channels, along with the direction of prevailing winds and even the spin of the earth, mean that a large proportion of floating debris finds its way to the heads of the lochs where communities like Arrochar and Lochgoilhead are situated.
But whereas the floating debris used to consist of a sea-weed (wrack) that was actually useful as a fertiliser, this has been increasingly replaced with trash. And it is these not-so-useful pieces of floating litter that Karen and her band of litter-pickers must deal with.
“I organise a beach clean/litter pick for a maximum of two hours”, says Karen.
“The loch is tidal which needs to be taken into account. We meet in the car park. Litter pickers, gloves and bags are provided. A short health and safety talk and off we go. I choose a different section of beach each time depending on which area needs the most attention. We chat, laugh and generally have fun.”
And it certainly pays to have a sense of humour, because the problem is not only huge, but also seems to be increasing.
Pupils from Lochgoilhead Primary school take part in an MCS beach clean.
Image courtesy Karen Pollock
They may be small in stature, but these pupils at Lochgoilhead Primary School, are big in ambition!
In last September's beach clean they collected 6Kg of litter that would otherwise have blighted our shores.
You can read more about their work in their newsletter HERE
Plastic waste borne by sea currents and the movement of huge bodies of water does not respect international boundaries, of course. It is not clearly known exactly how much of the 62,000 individual items that end up at the head of Loch Long each year originates within Scottish waters, although the Scottish Government has taken its own measures to reduce what gets washed up.
In 2019, it introduced a ban on plastic stemmed cotton buds in an effort to reduce at least smaller pieces of plastic from entering its’ seas, on the back of the 2014 Marine Litter Strategy document that had the vision of ‘A Scotland where marine and coastal litter is significantly reduced by 2020. The integrity and function of marine and coastal ecosystems are not compromised by litter and there is no significant risk to wildlife, communities and human health.’
Despite bans and other measures such as the 5p carrier bag charge that reduced their use by 80%, it seems that the plastic tide is rising, a view shared by respondents in a 2019 ‘Herald’ article about the Arrochar ‘Litter Sink’ as it has become known. Here, the problem accumulates about 11% of all marine litter entering the Clyde, resulting not only in potential damage to tourism but irretrievable damage to wildlife, including porpoises and fish.
Back in Lochgoilhead, the issue does not seem quite as dire – at least not at the present time. Yet Karen is far from complacent. A beach clean in September last year yielded 16 full bin bags of litter and similar events between January and March this year yielded another 100 bags. Clearly, the problem is not going away anytime soon.
Just some of the bags of plastic collected in Lochgoilhead
Image courtesy Karen Pollock
Major efforts have been undertaken by coastal communities to clean up, but lasting change can only come from political will
- and consensus.
Image by WIX
Beach litter is a problem affecting coastal communities worldwide and the UN Environment Program last year implemented resolutions to tackle the issue. However, the resolution was vague in terms of reducing plastic production, preferring instead to target increased plastic waste processes and recycling. Resolutions that Karen believes could have gone further.
“I don’t think the UN Environment program went anywhere near far enough and there is so much more that could have been done,’ she says.
“This is a global problem. I understand the difficulty in engaging and enforcing measures on other countries but many of these programs are influenced/ restricted by politics and the economy.”
Such political and economic decisions and policies are clearly an issue that affect or even reduce an effective global response to a global problem. A UN Environmental Assembly meeting resulted in what some believed was a significant watering down of the directive wording, from ‘Phasing out’ plastics to ‘Significantly reducing’ their use instead.
Karen’s own take on policy changes would perhaps be more effective. In her view, some of the most important areas are:
“Enforcing restrictions on industry, encouraging alternatives to single use plastic packaging and, particularly, unnecessary packaging, targeting the food industry and hospitality industries in particular. Research and investment into collecting waste from water- ways, preventing plastic reaching the oceans in the first place and Investment in recycling because so much waste ends up in landfill that could be recycled but local authorities do not have the facilities or the finances.”
Plastic beach trash - a local issue but an international problem.
Image by Dustan Woodhouse.
Therein lies just one of the problems associated with plastic waste – what to do with it? It is one thing to remove it and the harm it causes in the marine environment but if it is then going to be buried in landfill, is this not just moving the problem around, rather than tackling it head-on?
“Yes you could argue this,” concedes Karen.
“There are schemes such as TerraCycle who will recycle hard plastic from beach cleans but the majority collected is soft plastic and it ends up in landfill much the same as the soft plastic you put in the recycle bin in good faith. It is not ideal but I believe it does less harm to wildlife in landfill than it does in the ocean. There is the technology out there to deal with this waste but the finance and resources are not behind it yet.”
Yet there is increased funding available for recycling schemes, some of which are ambitious. One such is Project Beacon, an innovative plastics recycling development in Perthshire. Funded by both the Scottish Government’s ‘Zero Waste Scotland’ and the European regional Development Fund, the project is a synthesis of four high-tech recycling companies that aim to be able to re-use even the most hard-to-recycle plastics.
Such projects are obviously great news for plastic recycling, yet the legacy of ocean- bound plastic lives on and the only practical solution for the time being is to pick it up – literally one piece at a time. The process may be time-consuming in terms of human hours but is also provides for one of the most detailed surveys of what is ending up on our shores, which in turn provides important data for policy-makers.
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) a leading charity on ocean health, is at the forefront of national Beach Clean campaigns, with up to 15,000 volunteers giving up their time to remove litter from our beaches. These campaigns, such as the one Karen organised last September, are crucial in the fight against the hazards of marine litter. But no-one can tackle the problem unaided and she relies upon a small network of eager beach-cleaners such as pupils from her local school, Lochgoilhead Primary.
Just some of the pupils from Lochgoilhead Primary School carrying out a survey of beach litter during 2019. Such surveys are of crucial importance in increasing our knowledge about plastic waste sources.
Image courtesy Karen Pollock
“The local community are very supportive and we have a core group of litter pickers,” continues Karen.
“Lochgoilhead Primary School is an Eco School and the children take part in many beach cleans.”
Such support is essential and thankfully some participants are willing to travel some distance to be part of the solution.
“I posted the beach clean on the MCS site,” recalls Karen.
“31 people joined in with locals with others travelling up from Balloch and we even had a couple from Edinburgh who saw the beach clean on- line and came along to join in. I did a separate day for the school as it was important for them to be part of the event too.”
The importance of educating our youngsters about the enormity of the cleanup task cannot be overstated and fortunately children are quite enthusiastic about the whole thing, especially the more tedious surveys which are vital in building up a database of oceanic debris.
“I have found that the adults prefer to concentrate on litter picking opposed to filling in the survey whereas the children love doing it,” laughs Karen.
“The surveys are important as the data allows the MCS to put pressure on Government and industry and run campaigns. MCS are responsible for the carrier bag tariff, the banning of plastic Cotton bud sales and manufacturing in Scotland and the plastic drinking straw campaign.”
But it’s not just the usual suspects found during beach cleans. Although items like crisp packets and food wrappers proliferate, unusual things sometimes turn up.
“The most common trash consists of crisp packets and soft plastic,” Karen tells me. “The most unusual article of late was a Dyson hoover!”
And these efforts to remove litter, although dimmed by the pandemic restrictions, are not entirely on hold.
“I’m unable to organise a group beach clean,” says Karen of the Coronavirus outbreak, “but individuals are still collecting litter in line with the restrictions. A member of the community recently collected 10 bin bags of litter from the roadsides on the way into the village as he was fed up seeing all the litter lying in the verges when he was out walking."
“I never feel my efforts are in vain. Every single piece of rubbish I take from the beach means it will not be swallowed by or entangle Marine or other wildlife."
Local volunteers in Lochgoilhead and a typical haul of beach litter
Image courtesy Karen Pollock
And it is not just about cleaning up the mess; Karen hopes to show responsibility in her actions too:
“I have a plethora of advice,” she says.
“I challenged myself to stop using single use plastic in January 2019. It’s not easy but I’m about 80% there. I make my own soap and skin products but shampoo and conditioner bars, soap bars, recyclable toothbrush heads etc are readily available. I never buy bottled water but use refillable bottles. I save glass jars for storage. I try to buy products in glass jars. I never use plastic bags or carrier bags. There is lots of advice and ideas available. I very much support the reduce, reuse, recycle slogan - with recycling being the last choice.”
And what are her hopes for the future?
“I hope that people will be more aware and responsible in regards to their use of plastic and litter,” she tells me.
“I hope that governments and politicians will do more to support organisations like The Ocean Clean up, and (inventor) Boyan Slat."
The issue is more than just about making our beaches look prettier. As well as the the most obvious problems such as animal entanglement and marine creatures eating plastics, tiny particles are also finding their way into what people eat - with unknown long-term consequences. Finding solutions to, and reducing our reliance on, this material is vital to our health and the health of our planet.
But whilst organisations such as Greenpeace continue to press for change, individuals like Karen and her band of dedicated volunteers can, and do, make a difference.
"It is possible to combat climate change and look after our environment," says Karen, "but changes need to happen now.”
The message is clear: We all have an important part to play. You could say we are all part of the solution.
Karen's final thoughts?
"Collectively," she says, "we can make a difference.”
©Nick MacIneskar 2020
A completely plastic-free future may not be on the cards, but reducing the problem in our seas is possible
Image by WIX