If we love our beaches and our seas, we have to talk about plastic

Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock in west Dorset.   It’s a beautiful, natural spot, a rich concoction of sea, sky and shingle where wildlife prospers despite the sometimes harsh conditions.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the scatter of plastic pollution on the beach and the potential effects of this manmade material on marine life.

Cogden Beach looking towards Golden Cap
Looking west along Cogden Beach towards Golden Cap, showing the clumps of sea kale and yellow horned-poppy

 

It felt unseasonably warm as I walked downhill from the car park, more like a late summer’s day, although the blood-red rose hips and smoky-black sloes decorating the leafless scrub spoke of a different season. The vast shingle bank of Chesil Beach dominated the long view, a yellowish-brown convexity edged with white waves sweeping eastwards towards a mistily mysterious Isle of Portland.  The sea was calm and a steely grey except where the low sun’s rays highlighted individual wavelets whose reflections merged in to a broad, silvery band of light.

When I reached the shingle bank I found traces of the special beach plants that grow so profusely here in spring and summer.  Well weathered, blue-green and brownish-grey leaves were all that remained of the sea kale that dominates in May whereas, beneath the brown remnants of this season’s vegetation, fresh glaucous leaves were showing from the yellow horned-poppies.  Small flocks of starlings skittered about puddles at the back of the beach like children in a school playground and, in a low sandy cliff, I was surprised to find bees busily filling nests.  These were ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last of our solitary bees to emerge, the females collecting chrome-yellow pollen from nearby clumps of flowering ivy.  To the west, there were spectacular views of Burton Bradstock’s yellow cliffs and the distinctive flat top of Golden Cap.

It seemed like the perfect natural spot.  But was it?  Almost all the clumps of beach plants contained plastic waste including pieces of plastic wrap, colourful plastic rope or plastic fishing line.  On the shingle between the clumps, I saw the occasional plastic drink bottle, some were intact, some in pieces.   The prominent strandline about half way up the beach contained dark, dry seaweed and small pieces of wood mixed liberally with shards of plastic as though objects had shattered in their continual buffeting by the sea.  Plastic drink bottles or their fragments also appeared at regular intervals along the strandline.  This beach is no longer a completely natural, wild place, it has been contaminated by our throwaway plastic culture.   Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tension was a chunk of expanded polystyrene covered with pale grey goose barnacles.

Plastic is, of course, both versatile and cheap.  It has transformed our lives but its very ubiquity and ease of use means that we don’t value it enough.  Think how much you throw away each week: plastic wrap or bags from supermarket produce, drink containers and lids, plastic trays, pots and so on.  We have embraced a “disposable” lifestyle where about half of the plastic we produce is used once and thrown away.   Some countries manage to recycle or energy-recover a large proportion of their plastic waste but the UK is not one of them.  In this country, more than 60% of plastic waste ends up in landfill where it does not break down and is effectively lost.  We are squandering resources and energy on a massive scale, an appalling indictment of our way of life.

But what about the plastic waste I found on Cogden Beach, how does it get there?  It comes from the sea and is left behind by the retreating tide.  We have turned our oceans into a “plastic soup” composed of plastic bottles and bags, plastic fragments formed by breakdown of these larger items, also microplastics (5 mm or less in size) such as industrial pellets, small fragments and very small fibres from clothing or from car tyres.  This is a huge global problem and shows no sign of abating.  A staggering 12 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. All countries contribute but a large proportion comes from several in the Far East with poor waste management systems.

The consequences for marine wildlife are alarming.  Consider, for example, the Northern Fulmar, a bird that forages exclusively at sea.  A study in the North Atlantic showed that 91% of dead Fulmars found on beaches had plastic in their gut, having mistaken the plastic for food, reducing their ability to feed and sometimes damaging their digestive tract.  At the other end of the food chain, zooplankton have been shown to ingest tiny microplastic fragments that may end up in fish and perhaps in humans.  Plastic fragments also attract toxic chemicals that may affect the creatures consuming them.  Our throwaway lifestyle is disturbing the entire global marine ecosystem. The problem is just as serious as climate change.

What can be done?  First, we must reduce the amount of plastic in circulation by moving away from single-use items such as plastic bottles, takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic wrap and plastic packaging.  The introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% reduction in use, so a levy on single-use takeaway cups and plastic cutlery may also be effective.    Second, we need to encourage a “circular economy” where as much plastic as possible is recovered and recycled and none goes to landfill.  A deposit return scheme for plastic drink bottles would increase recovery but greater recycling of other plastic containers must also be achieved.   It is encouraging that some government ministers are now talking about the problems of plastic waste, but their words must be translated into actions.

Individual decisions can also bring about change.  We can refuse to use plastic cutlery.  We can choose to drink only from reusable cups.  We can use and reuse our own shopping bag.  We can recycle all plastic bottles and containers. We can pressurise local businesses to reduce plastic waste.  We can participate in beach cleans.  If we love our beaches and our seas we must do this.

 

Plastic Bottle and Sea Kale, Cogden Beach
Plastic bottle and sea kale on Cogden Beach

 

Well travelled bottle fragment on Cogden Beach
A well-travelled plastic bottle remnant on Cogden Beach

 

Bottle and Yellow Horned-Poppy, Cogden Beach
New growth on yellow horned-poppy, with plastic bottle

 

Plastic on Cogden Beach
Plastic waste on Cogden Beach

 

Goose Barnacles on expanded polystyrene, Cogden Beach
Goose barnacles on expanded polystyrene

 

low cliff at Cogden
Low cliffs at Cogden Beach with ivy bee nests

 

Ivy Bee at Cogden Beach 2
Female Ivy bee (Colletes hederae) returning to her sandy burrow with pollen, at Cogden Beach

 

This article appeared in the January 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

18 thoughts on “If we love our beaches and our seas, we have to talk about plastic”

    1. Thanks Amelia, I agree we need to make the plastic problem a high priority.
      The ivy bees were a complete surprise to me, I had no idea they were there and noticed them only when I put my rucksack down on the low cliff above their nests.

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  1. I feel awful because I end up with so much plastic at the end of every week. A lot of the thin plastic covering things like meat can’t be recycled so ends up being thrown. I feel like there must be ways to cut down further. Perhaps buying less ready-prepared food is the answer. For example Tommy has little yoghurts – perhaps I would be better off buying one big yoghurt pot and putting small portions into a bowl for him.

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    1. Emily, I feel the same, it really troubles me when I see all this plastic film going to landfill but we cant recycle it yet. There are ways to cut down as you suggest but I think Cornwall collects small yoghurt pots for recycling doesnt it?
      We were in Exeter last week and wanted a sandwich at lunchtime. We went into a very busy Pret a Manger and were quite distressed by all the single use plastic. They havent got the message yet but really the only way is to patronise cafes that use real plates and cutlery etc. If enough of us do it, things will change.

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      1. I do recycle the little pots but not the lids. My thinking is that one big pot and lid would be less plastic to recycle/throw away than lots of little ones. Something that really upsets me in cafes is when I drink in but get given a disposable cup anyway. Happens sometimes in big chains if they run out of cups. I’m not sure what Pret could do about the single use plastic as they have a lot of customers wanting to takeaway – maybe switch to wooden cutlery although that’s probably more expensive.

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      2. I am sorry Emily, I misunderstood what you meant about the small yoghurts and I would think you are right about a large pot being less plastic etc.
        I know what you mean about getting a disposable cup even when you drink in. Pret were offering tap water from a water fountain but only providing disposable cups and these had a plastic liner which meant, I think, that they could not be recycled. Following on from your point about Pret and many of their customers wanting takeaways, when we were there it wasnt a working day and most people were eating in but using the takeaway food and so masses of packaging etc was being stripped off and immediately thrown out. It’s a difficult situation to control.

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  2. Just saw your excellent article in Marshwood Vale Magazine. Living locally and walking along many of the beaches we do find that there seems to be more plastic rubbish on Cogden than other beaches particularly if you walk in the more deserted parts. Bridport’s Green Fortnight in April will be focusing on this issue too, we will also be producing a local directory giving plastic free alternatives, Sarah

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    1. Thanks Sarah. How interesting that Cogden is worse than other local beaches, I wonder why? When I was there I saw plastics all the way along to Hive Beach where there was quite a bit driven up to the back of the beach.
      Glad to hear about Bridport’s Green Fortnight focussing on this, do you have an outline programme yet?

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      1. I think Cogden is more remote, larger items on the beaches in West Bay are quickly picked up. Beach clearing needs to happen after storms otherwise some of the plastics just end back out to sea.
        We are still working on the programme for Green Fortnight , we have another meeting next week.
        Sarah x

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  3. This is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately – no kicking it down the road. We are doing a little bit ourselves in Exmouth – find “Clean Street Exmouth” on Facebook.

    It seems to me that if plastic waste ends up in landfill, it is at least not ending up in the sea or on the beach or streets. Recycling is preferable. But a reduction in use would be the best outcome.

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  4. Thanks Grant, I agree completely, the problem is very urgent. I saw your Exmouth initiative, that’s very good.
    Reducing usage has to be the ultimate goal because dumping plastic in landfill is such a profligate use of fossil fuel.

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  5. I 100% concur Philip 🙂 But it’s not just beaches – the same issue exists in any local nature environment scheme like Hampstead Heath 😦 How do we train the ‘well off but vaguely nature aware’ that leaving their water bottle there is polluting? They probably brought it for the good of their health and didn’t understand the need to effectively dispose. Councils can provide drop-off points for these items but tuition is the best policy.

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    1. Have a look at this review (http://www.eunomia.co.uk/reports-tools/plastics-in-the-marine-environment/), there is an infographic which gives a breakdown of the sources. Fishing, shipping etc contributes about 15% to the overall plastic load in the seas. About 80 % comes from land-based sources which covers all sorts so things and can be described loosely as poor waste management but will include some littering. I got the impression from the state of the plastic waste at the beach I visited that most of it came from the sea but I would guess if you visited a popular tourist beach in high summer then the proportion on the beach from littering would be much higher.

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  6. Nice piece Phillip. I think it is easy to feel helpless so it is good that you mention actions we can all take to improve things.

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