Are we right to demonise plastic?

cotton buds plastic

Herald reporter Richard Baynes visits Network member St Abbs & Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve (VMR), Network supporter Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and other stakeholders, to hear both sides of the story about plastic…

The tidal pool looks perfect. The rock is reddish-brown; plant life seems to glow in the sunshine through glass-clear water. Approaching it, tiny marine animals dart away, seeking cover beneath stones.

It’s a hot day and I wade in to cast my eye over the bottom of the pool. There. And there. Sharp blue; vermilion; unnaturally black: you can see them clearly when you get close up.

A centimetre or two across at most, they are scraps of plastic, small but unmistakeable among the pool’s inhabitants. I add them to my bag of rubbish scavenged from the pools here at Killiedraughts Bay, north of Eyemouth.

We’re on a beach clean organised by Sarah Russell, project officer for the St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve, dedicated to keeping these waters and coastline pollution-free.

We work our way in from the low-water line to the top of the beach, which is rocky below the sweep of sand.

There are two bike frames and the metal skeleton of a pushchair. The rest of the rubbish we find is plastic and neoprene. There are scraps such as those in the pool, bigger bits that seem to be car components, fishing line, diving goggles and old balloons. Then broken buckets, lengths of cord and twine and whole car tyres.

The biggest thing is a piece of polypropylene rope. Probably from a ship, several metres long and thick as a rugby forward’s thigh. It takes three of us to prise it from the sand and drag it up the beach to our stack.

It is satisfying to remove the big stuff. After a few hours in the hot August sun we pose with our haul, oddly pleased that we have found so much rubbish. The best outcome to a beach-clean, though, would be to find nothing.

The crux of the plastic problem

What’s worrying is those little shards. They are evidence of how plastic is broken down by the sea, small scraps ground smaller until almost invisible, then washed into the water. It’s inert matter that can be swallowed but not digested by fish, plankton or bacteria. The crux of the plastic problem.

“The rocky shore makes it especially bad,” Russell says. “Because of the exposure to the waves, plastics get broken up much quicker as they get thrashed around on the rocks.

“To actually clean a beach like Killiedraughts completely is nigh-on impossible. You can see all the big bottles and stuff, that’s obvious. But when you get down into it there are fragments of plastic everywhere.”

Like a lot of people I’m worried about plastic, and the beach clean doesn’t calm my fears.

Newspaper reports tell me the “global plastic binge” will surge over the next 10 years after investments in new US plastics plants, and that a Chinese ban on importing much plastic waste means a build-up of rubbish at UK recycling plants.

Prime Minister Theresa May pledges to eradicate all “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042, and David Attenborough’s acclaimed Blue Planet II series tells how micro-particles of plastic absorb industrial pollutants and put them into the food chain.

Ullapool declares itself a no-plastic-straw zone. The Herald quotes a Marine Conservation Society (MCS) report saying Scots beaches are “pollution hotspots for plastic cotton bud sticks” and the Scottish Government says it will ban their sale.

Plastic is the latest thing we love to hate: but are we right to demonise it?

Read the full article at The Herald Scotland.

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