Calum Duncan: What Scots flush down toilet is adding to planetary crisis

Plastic can be found in our seas everywhere, from Antarctica to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on earth. United Nations oceans chief Lisa Svensson summed it up when she described this as a 'planetary crisis' that is 'ruining the ecosystem of the ocean'.

A whale made of plastic lies stranded on Musselburgh beach (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
A whale made of plastic lies stranded on Musselburgh beach (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

Plastics take hundreds of years to decompose and can have devastating effects on sea life, causing injuries, suffocation, starvation and often death. Even once broken down into microscopic fragments, they accumulate in worms and shellfish at the base of the ocean foodweb and are then ingested by larger predators – including humans. A range of other man-made waste is also impacting our seas.

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The Marine Conservation Society, co-ordinating squads of volunteers, has been collecting and monitoring litter on shorelines across the UK for almost 25 years through our Beachwatch and Great British Beach Clean projects. The findings are alarming, showing a steady increase in rubbish. An average of nearly 500 pieces of litter were found on every 100m stretch of the Scottish beaches surveyed in 2017. Although the density of marine litter in Scotland is lower than elsewhere in the UK, the latest stats show a six per cent increase in just 12 months. A major proportion – 17 per cent – was made up of what we call “on the go” rubbish such as plastic bottles and food packaging. However, this general rise in litter is overshadowed by a staggering jump in sewage-related debris (SRD) in Scotland – stuff people flush down the loo that should be binned. SRD sky-rocketed by 40 per cent in 2017 compared to 2016, with the quantity of wet wipes more than doubling. Analysis shows 21 per cent of all Scotland’s beach litter comes from bathrooms. This compares to eight per cent for the rest of the UK.

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Some progress has been made with the support of our ‘citizen science’ data. A Marine Litter Strategy for Scotland was introduced in summer 2014, and recently re-energised. A 5p charge for carrier bags – plastic and paper alike – was successfully introduced and has already led to a reduction on our beaches. As a founding partner in the Have You Got the Bottle? campaign, the MCS and our beach litter data also helped secure Holyrood’s commitment to introducing a deposit-return system for drinks containers. Scotland’s draft regulations on banning microbeads from cosmetic products are now out for comment until 11 January, and we hope to see tighter controls on items such as the plastic pellets known as nurdles, used in manufacturing, and products like cotton buds.

To tackle the deluge of toilet detritus, sewer overflows need to be fixed and monitored, and sustainable urban drainage systems installed in future. We need a system that ensures manufacturers are fully responsible for the recovery, recycling and disposal of their products, including costs incurred through clean-ups.

We welcome the progressive direction of travel shown by the Scottish Government, but there is more to do. Following the success of carrier bag charges, the next crucial targeted step is to introduce levies on plastic straws, cups, lids, stirrers and cutlery – throwaway items handed over in their millions every day that can end up in seas. Readers can sign our petition online. We are treating the outdoors as a dustbin. This must stop now for the sake of our seas and for future generations. Our oceans cannot absorb and dilute our refuse. So let’s make a resolution for 2018: stop this rising tide of plastic.

Calum Duncan is head of conservation Scotland for the Marine Conservation Society