Last weekend I did the beach clean-up thing again, and again I went along with my son, my mum (Sandra), and about 40 other people. There’s always something new to say about the problem of litter and plastic pollution: once again, I thought I’d pen some random musings on the experience, and on the problem of litter and pollution in general.
There’s every reason to be depressed about the fact that, thanks to our species, many environments and ecosystems are royally screwed, but there’s hope in the fact that more and more people are at least aware of the situation, and more and more are acting on it. Being complacent and saying that it’s all too late for change is, I think, the worst opinion to have. But, yes, prepare to be depressed, again.
Last time round (October 2008), I said that – on the next clean-up – I’d make an effort to tackle the northern half of the beach (‘the beach’ is Chessel Bay Nature Reserve, Southampton). This is indeed what I did. What a mistake. While the southern end (the woodland end) was starting to look good (in terms of macro-litter), the more urban northern end is rather different, as you can see from the photo above. In four hours of work, I filled four bin-bags, which is ok but not good enough. The constraint is how much time it takes to get down on your hands and knees and collect all the micro-litter: the fragments of polystyrene, bits of sweet wrappers, and the tiny objects like small bottle tops and so on [image below shows the weekend's haul, Sandra Naish for scale].
As I’ve said before, the really depressing thing is that there are literally millions of bits of micro-litter in the beach sediment: nurdles and other fragments that simply cannot be removed unless you spend hours sieving. And note that research continues to show that plastic pollution is far from simply cosmetic. We know that the chemicals contained within plastic waste, such as DDE and PCB, are accumulating within the bodies of marine animals and killing them (e.g., Rios et al. 2007). And because plastic fragments strongly resemble plankton, diverse marine animals now routinely ingest plankton and die as a result. In areas such as the North Pacific, plankton-mimicking plastic fragments now outnumber plankton as much as six to one (Moore et al. 2001), yet the effects of plastic ingestion remain mostly unstudied in many marine animals (it’s well documented in birds, because their juveniles and dead corpses are easy to examine).
The Modbury Effect continues to attract interest. If you don’t know, this is the movement, initiated by former wildlife film-maker Rebecca Hosking, to ban plastic bags. Hosking tackled her home town of Modbury, Devon, winning success in 2007, and since then there has been a lot of suggestion that other places should follow suit. As of March 2009, more than 70 towns and communities in the UK have agreed to go plastic-bag free. Elsewhere, I believe that places such as San Francisco and Oakland have bans in place. South Africa announced a ban in 2003 and China did too in 2008. In Morocco last year I saw a truly disgusting amount of plastic litter. In places, black plastic bags covered the landscape as far as the eye could see, and vegetation at the sides of the rivers was festooned with thick masses made up of torn plastic carriers. This sort of thing makes it clear that we have a long, long way to go, as few developing nations are anywhere close to worrying about their own waste and pollution problems. Because the bags clog drainage systems, bags were banned in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2002. Again, they are NOT simply a cosmetic problem, given that they are the origin for many billions of tiny plastic particles now gathered on beaches, in oceans and in the bellies of animals.
While, of course, I commend any effort to remove litter from the environment – and, let’s face it, it makes you feel good because at least you’re doing something – I did come away from the latest effort thinking that we had hardly made a dent in the quantity of rubbish. There is just too much for 40-odd people, visiting and tidying the site twice a year, to deal with. You would need hundreds of hours of work, involving hundreds of people, and working on a regular basis throughout the year, to make a proper difference.
Here is a representative sample of beach waste, collected within less than five minutes from the same square metre or two of the beach. Among the commonest items are polystyrene, plastic bottle tops, plastic tampon-applicators, sanitary towels, plastic bottles, confectionary wrappers, plastic bags, disposable lighters, drinking straws and hundreds and hundreds of plastic lolly sticks and cotton-bud sticks (the glove is for scale). The numbers of cotton-bud sticks has to be seen to be believed. In fact, this month the Marine Conservation Society reported that 50% of the sewage-associated waste they found in beach surveys was made up of these things. The fact that they’re part of sewage waste shows that people are routinely throwing them down the toilet. I find this a pretty dumb and bizarre thing to do and have never thought of doing it myself. Evidently a lot of people do do it however. If you do: stop, now.
I found three syringes, all with their needles still attached. The red plastic bands that now litter every single street in, it seems, every single village, town and city of the UK are also now ubiquitous in beach waste. I’ve never seen them on the beach previously, but this time I picked up a lot. I’m not kidding about these things being ubiquitous: I live in Southampton, where there are loads of them, but I’ve also recently picked them up at Marwell Zoo (!), in Portsmouth, Fareham, Winchester, Plymouth, Bridport, London and Bristol (all locations in the south of England). We know that the bands are dropped by postal delivery workers. I’ve been picking them up since I first noticed them in October 2008, and here is my current collection. Not sure what to do about it, but if anyone works for the British postal service, or knows anyone who has influence in that organisation, please see if you can do something about it.
Let’s end this, again, by seeing what we individuals can do. Stop using disposable plastic bags. This is simply lazy and there’s no need for it anymore: use re-useable bags of some sort. Stop buying products that use excessive packaging, and stop buying cotton-buds that have plastic sticks. We should also somehow get a penalty system imposed for companies that dump, accidentally or otherwise, nurdles and other such pollutants.
Whingeing about rubber bands and little plastic sticks might seem trite and petty, but it’s part of the same problem as dying albatrosses, choking turtles and oceans swamped in plastic crap. We’re doing a very good job of ridding the oceans of seabirds and other fauna: I want to say that I at least tried to do something about it.
For previous thoughts on litter collecting, plastic pollution, and beach waste see…
Refs – -
Moore, C., Moore, S. L., Leecaster, M. K. & Weisberg, S. B. 2001. A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42, 1297-1300.
Rios, L. M., Moore, C. & Jones, P. R. 2007. Persistent organic pollutants carried by synthetic polymers in the ocean environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin 54, 1230-1237.