Ilona Amos: plastic is not fantastic when it ends up in the sea and in marine creatures

Greenpeace scientists are spending the next two months sampling seas, beaches and important wildlife sites around Scotland to assess levels of plastic pollution affecting our marine environment.

Greenpeace scientists found high levels of plastic pollution at the seabird colony on Bass Rock during the first dsay of a two-month scientific research cruise around Scotland.

Picture: Kajsa Sjölander/Greenpeace
Greenpeace scientists found high levels of plastic pollution at the seabird colony on Bass Rock during the first dsay of a two-month scientific research cruise around Scotland. Picture: Kajsa Sjölander/Greenpeace

Early results are not encouraging. Surveys at Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, the first stop on the expedition and home to the world’s largest colony of northern gannets, have revealed a horrifying amount of debris strewn across the landmark island and contamination of surrounding waters. Field workers found nests laced with bits of plastic and even saw birds with carrier bags in their beaks. It’s heart-breaking.

Scottish seas are wonderfully rich in life, supporting creatures of all sizes – from tiny plankton and myriad fish up to giant basking sharks, whales and dolphins. Our islands and shorelines are also internationally important as breeding sites for seabirds, hosting an estimated five million birds – a third of the entire EU population.

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The health of the marine environment is crucial to Scottish society for a number of reasons, not least for fish and aquaculture, but also for tourism and leisure. So plastic pollution has potentially huge social and economic, as well as environmental, implications.

The massive floating garbage islands we read about may not be present around Scotland but our seas are no less a soup of plastic pollution. It’s not just the stuff you can see. Huge amounts of contaminants, often microscopic, are swooshing about beneath the surface.

Seabird numbers are declining worldwide, dropping by around 70 per cent over the past six decades. Plastic pollution is partly to blame, killing more than a million globally every year – plus 100,000 marine mammals.

Scottish studies indicate that as many as nine out of ten fulmars found dead in the North Sea had eaten plastic, while nearly as many prawns sampled in the Clyde had plastic in their guts.

It comes from various sources. Bottles and caps are among the most common marine litter worldwide. Around 16 million plastic bottles are chucked out every day in the UK alone.

And there are a whole range of industrial sources: from materials used in manufacturing, known as ‘nurdles’, to shipping waste, fishing nets and fish farm trash. Litter discarded on land also makes its way into the sea.

Luckily steps are being taken to combat the problem. A Dutch environmental group is working on a device that will funnel debris into a giant cone so it can be collected. Here at home, the 5p carrier bag charge has cut usage by 85 per cent and reduced the quantities found littering beaches, while a ban on microbeads in cosmetics comes into force later this year.

But we need to do much more. Urgently. We should bring in a deposit-return system for plastic bottles and a statutory charge for disposable coffee cups – Brits bin around seven million daily, with fewer than one in every 400 getting recycled. These figures are shocking.

If you need any more convincing about the scale of the problem, a new exhibition in Ullapool hammers the message home through a series of arresting artworks. Julia Barton’s installation Neo Terra features plastiglomerates, which form when rubbish is burned on a beach and the molten plastic solidifies, incorporating sand, shells, seaweed and anything else it comes into contact with.

If you can’t make it there, you can join the Marine Conservation Society campaign to give up single-use plastic for the whole of next month – and ideally permanently. It’s World Oceans Day on 8 June – let’s keep that in mind as we queue for a skinny decaf mochaccino.