Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock. 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 man-made material on marine life.
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, 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.
Philip Strange is Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Reading. He writes about science and about nature with a particular focus on how science fits in to society. His work may be read at http://philipstrange.wordpress.com/