Tiny Scottish island community turns tide on beach plastics

For hundreds of years, an island community has made good the wares that have washed up on its shores. Today it’s not pieces of shipwreck that get a new purpose, but the plastics that now blight its long coastline.

Islanders on North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Isles, which has a population of around 65 people, has sought its own solution to a very modern problem by building a Beach Plastics Recycling Centre to turn the rubbish into something useful again.

The centre comes after years of beach litter picks revealed the extent of the plastics problem. The island has over 13 miles of coastline with new deposits of marine litter, such as buoys, ropes and creels, regularly washing in, along with toothbrushes, the odd shoe and single-use water bottles. A plastic unicorn has been one of the star finds.

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Fishing ropes have been turned into handwoven doormats with tuition given to islanders from Mark Cook of Stromness-based Afrayedknot. PIC: Transitions North Ronaldsay.

A crowdfunder and backing from Calor’s community fund raised £9,000 for the recycling centre, with islanders now taking delivery of a plastics shredder, which turns the material into pellets, and an extruder that melts it into a “toothpaste-type” substance. That substance is then moulded into items such as bowls, tiles and perhaps even furniture and fenceposts, all of which will be sold to raise money for the ongoing recycling operation.

Alexandra Wright, director of Transition North Ronaldsay, the community-owned company behind the recycling centre, said: "Hundreds of years ago there used to be a lot of wood washed up from shipwrecks and it was always considered really important to islanders. You see the wood in the roofs of barns here. It’s gorgeous.

"In the last century, there was timber washing up. It would be transported on open deck and would sometimes get washed off .

"All these things were important for the island and that is what we are trying to do with the plastics – make it useful again.”

Wildlife has been affected by the flow of beach plastics onto the shoreline with one of the island's famous seaweed-eating sheep spotted trying to eat a piece of plastic packaging. Seals are known to have become tangled with nets and rope. PIC: Lis Burke/Transitions North Ronaldsay.

One of the island’s famous seaweed-eating sheep was spotted trying to eat a piece of plastic packaging while seals have been tangled in ropes and nets, Ms Wright said.

It is hoped, in time, the island will be able to raise enough money from the sale of its recycled wares to employ a plastics ranger.

"We would really like to provide someone with a little job,” said Ms Wright, who works at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, as well as keeping a croft with her partner. The couple moved to the island four years ago from Yorkshire.

"We all work on little jobs on the island,” she said. “It fits in well with crofting.”

Most of the rubbish found on the shoreline is made up of marine litter, such as old creels, ropes and netting. PIC: Transitions North Ronaldsay.

Doormats are being hand-woven from the fishing ropes following tuition from Stromness craftsman Mark Cook and are now being sent to those who supported the crowdfunder.

Ms Wright said: "The mats are lovely, and they still smell of the sea. That is actually the kind of recycling that we really like, as it doesn’t use any further energy.”

She added: "We are also looking for similar ways to recycle nets, perhaps hammocks or hay feeders for our animals.”

Bowls and tiles will be the first products to be made at the recycling centre, with hopes sheets of recycled plastic can also be made.

North Ronaldsay residents have set up a Beach Plastics Recycling Centre given the extent of rubbish collected during beach clean ups on the island. PIC: Transitions North Ronaldsay.

Ms Wright said: "We would like to make little pieces of furniture and hopefully plastic fencing posts, which won’t rot like the wooden ones.”

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