Last weekend I and about 40 other people worked together in another effort to rid the shore at Chessel Bay Nature Reserve, Southampton (UK), of rubbish. We didn’t succeed of course – if only that were possible – but, as always, picking up humanity’s discarded crap gives you plenty to think about. Here are various random impressions. For a more data-heavy look at the menace of plastic waste and its substantial effect on environments, wildlife and human health please see the article I wrote on the same subject back in March.
Actually, this time round the rubbish – though still present in great enough quantity – wasn’t as bad as last time and after a couple of hours my mum and I (my mum = Sandra Naish) even managed to produce a small area that at least looked rubbish-free. Well, ‘macro-rubbish’ free: you could spend a week collecting ‘micro-rubbish’ from a square metre of beach and still not make any difference to that square metre. Plastic nurdles and other fragments continue to make up the bulk of the substrate in large patches of the beach, so much so that you can dig up a spade full of substrate [see image below] and not be concerned about removing organic detritus or sediment. Polystyrene fragments are everywhere.
Anyway, overall, I thought that things had improved and that, maybe, just maybe, our efforts really had started to turn the tide. After only several hours of tidying, we had filled up two vehicles with rubbish bags [see pic below]. But we were on the southern half of the beach, the part that is adjacent to woodland. Out of curiosity, I decided to go look at the northern half (adjacent to a residential area). Ah. Tons and tons of rubbish. So much, in fact, that I was able to fill up a whole bin-bag within less than ten minutes. And another. And another.
Much of the beach macro-litter was ‘street litter': crisp packets, carrier bags, chocolate bar wrappers, drink bottles, tin cans. The sort of stuff that people throw down in the street. Disposable lighters should be banned, but I suppose they might become less of a problem as more people quit smoking. I gave up counting plastic tampon applicators after picking up the 200th. Given that they are so abundant in beach waste (next time I do a beach litter-pick I’m going to photograph my haul), and given that people aren’t about to stop using them (and, please, I’m not criticising the fact that people choose to use them), I wonder if manufacturers have considered – err, hell-o-o – making them from, you know, biodegradable plastic. Actually, I did a bit of research, and I see that patents have been filed for biodegradable applicators, though I have no idea whether they’re being manufactured. And, much as I’d like to wander round the local shops examining feminine hygiene products, my research on the subject stoped there (does anyone know better? About the biodegradable applicators, not about whether my research on this subject should stop).
Plastic bags and the Modbury effect
A while ago I read a claim that the plastic carrier bag had become the poor scapegoat of the global anti-litter movement, and that it really wasn’t Public Enemy Number 1 as argued. I have some experience at picking up rubbish, and let me tell you that this claim is what’s technically known as bullshit. Sorry, but plastic bags are ubiquitous in waste, and a bloody nuisance. In a day’s worth of litter-collecting on the beach you can pick up hundreds.
I am pleased to see that people are increasingly aware of Modbury in Devon, a town which – as of May 1st 2007 – became completely plastic bag free, and all thanks to the efforts of a single woman, Rebecca Hosking. After witnessing the plight of Hawaii’s beaches and seabirds in her work as a wildlife film-maker, she became determined to make a difference [see her article here]. Other towns in the UK are, apparently, now seriously thinking of going bag-free too. Southampton, where I live, is a large city of over 228,000 people, and it’s probably not practical or possible for us to even try to organise any city-wide bag-free policy, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t thought about it (I’m on the committee of the city’s natural history society, and while we’re not large I know that we can make a difference, sometimes). The supermarket chain Sainsbury’s no longer has carrier bags available on the checkout, but they’re still available should you want them, and I still see no end of people taking home ten disposable carrier bags every time they go shopping (again, hopefully things will change with time).
This time round I only picked up one plastic yellow duck (last time I found two). Drinking straws are common, as were small straw-like objects made of hard plastic. Not sure what they were: we thought they might be catheters, but catheters are flexible. I found a few condoms (one of which was still in its wrapper) and about four syringes. I also removed three trainers and collected several kilos of broken glass. What interested me about the glass was that all of it was old: very thick, heavily dulled by years of abrasion, and of the sort not used in bottle manufacture anymore (I worked in the drinks industry for a while during 2007 so know a bit about bottle manufacture and glass types). If new glass wasn’t present, does this mean that glass recycling is actually making a difference? By ‘making a difference’ I mean: is it stopping the glass from making its way into the environment?
So what can we do?
As usual, the question that arises at the end is: so what can we do? Beach rubbish seems to originate from several sources. A lot of it is, as mentioned, ‘street rubbish': the sort of stuff that, on any day, you can see being chucked down onto the street by people who clearly don’t care. I think we should do more to stop people littering by shaming or prosecuting them. I mean, come on, do you really think this sort of behaviour is ok? I kind of think that we’ve covered enough of the planet with our shit already. When I was in Dublin recently I quite liked the anti-litter posters: they said that ‘Litter is disgusting: so are those responsible’. Why aren’t local councils more proactive about this sort of thing? They certainly aren’t here in England. Has anyone considered running ad campaigns showing cute little baby animals that have been strangled or choked to death by plastic waste, or perhaps one somehow highlighting the fact that deformities in babies have been linked to plastic pollution?
Moving on, targeting individuals quite probably won’t get us to the root of the problem, as the impression I get from a lot of the waste is that it comes from another source: I think that much of it ‘escapes’ from rubbish barges and dumps. This would explain why polystyrene, drinking straws, trainers and plastic ducks are so common. This sort of stuff might fall off barges or boats during transport, or it might get blown by the wind from rubbish dumps. This is upsetting, as it means that even waste that you dispose of properly may still end up on a beach or strangling a baby seabird.
We all therefore need to do what we can to minimise the amount of waste we produce. We should not be producing as much waste as possible in the hope that it’ll work as an effective carbon-sink (as a colleague of mine insists), not – at least – if we want to minimise the amount of litter that ends up in the environment. And if it seems that litter is only ‘cosmetic’ and doesn’t really matter as goes ecology, trophic webs and the lives of animals (including humans), I would remind you of the abundant data showing that diverse animals are now routinely eating plastic and dying as a result. Worse still is that the pollutants contained within plastics (benzene, vinyl chloride, and so on) leach out and have been linked to cancer and reduced fertility in laboratory animals, genital deformity in human babies, stuff like that.
We have a long way to go. There are big problems, and effecting small ones is hard enough. Postal delivery workers here in Southampton have taken to dropping red elastic bands all over the street. Here (in a plastic bag) are the bands I picked up over the past week, just while walking around.