Jane Bradley: Toxic plastic waste is returning from sea to poison us

Plastic-stemmed cotton buds were one of the most common items found on Cramond Beach (Picture: Catherine Gemmell/Marine Conservation Society)
Plastic-stemmed cotton buds were one of the most common items found on Cramond Beach (Picture: Catherine Gemmell/Marine Conservation Society)
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Wet wipes, straws and ‘mermaids’ tears’: Jane Bradley on the marine plastic epidemic that’s poisoning our food.

‘Ohhhh, it’s garbage,” said the fresh-faced American tourist, clearly relieved to realise that the giant bags we were lugging onto Cramond promenade did not actually contain dead bodies.

His expression changed and he looked us straight in the eye, in that sincere way that only Americans can. “I thank you,” he said.

It was a freezing Saturday morning and while most of you were probably happily tucked up your beds, I was out in my gardening gloves and a woolly hat, plucking revolting items of sewage from the beach. I can’t claim a great gesture of altriusm: my far more motivated friend had suggested we take part in a beach clean and with a new year’s resolution to say yes to as many things as possible, I had agreed.

I was glad I did. Walking along the seafront before the clean up, I’d thought the beach hadn’t looked too bad, from a distance. What I had expected to find was litter left by people who had enjoyed summer picnics on the sand a few months ago. A discarded drinks can, maybe, a couple of chocolate bar wrappers. Bright-coloured pieces of litter which would have been obvious to the naked eye, perhaps slightly faded by their time in the sun.

On closer inspection, however, while a few bits of dropped packaging were indeed lurking among the rockpools, it was sewage waste which was the major culprit, discharged – somehow – into the sea and washed straight up onto the beach. Cramond, in north-west Edinburgh, is particularly bad, apparently, an issue which Scottish Water is currently investigating to pinpoint why so much debris washes up on the beach there.

They have, according to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which coordinated the clean-up, checked sewage pipes in the area and have found no problem. Yet, there is no doubt that a problem exists, somewhere. The evidence is all over the beach.

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We picked up thousands of wet wipes. There were huge clumps of the things, snagged in among seaweed and peppered with plastic cotton bud sticks, the kind that the Scottish Government thankfully banned last week. When I heard the news of the ban, I have to say I was surprised that they had chosen to focus on cotton buds. I’ve never bought them in my life, I’m not sure I know anyone who has, so the fact that they were apparently littering our seas in their tiny, stick-y glory was news to me.

Yet they are. Blue ones, white ones, yellow ones. They wash up on the beach in Cramond with alarming regularity. An image from American wildlife photographer Justin Hofmann, part of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition which opened at the National Museum of Scotland yesterday, offers a chilling insight into the impact of these items. His photograph shows a tiny sea horse, its tail wrapped around a pink cotton bud stick as it swims through the ocean. Its title is ‘Sewage Surfer’.

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While the 88 volunteers at the clean-up were spread out to tackle a long stretch of beach, those who were working in a designated 100-metre section were asked to document everything they found, in a bid to get some kind of feel for the scope – and type – of rubbish which is on the beach. In that tiny section alone, 335 ear buds were found. Meanwhile, of all of the 8,585 items found in the 100m stretch, a massive 6,583 or 76.7 per cent were classed as “sanitary”, ie wet wipes and their possibly even more unpleasant cousins: nappies and sanitary towels. All of this came out of sewage pipes after someone put them into their toilet. Last year, the MCS launched its Wet Wipes Turn Nasty campaign, which, as well as trying to educate people about what should actually go down the loo – the “three Ps” of “poo, pee and paper”, apparently – also asked producers and retailers of wet wipes to ensure there packaging was clearly labelled with “Do Not Flush” messaging. The friendly American was not the only passerby to remark, positively, on our work.

There is no doubt that the public’s attitude towards attempts, however meagre, to clean up our oceans and beaches has, if you’ll pardon the pun, undergone something of a sea change in just the past few months. It is no longer the work of environmentalists and beach users. It has became a problem for all of us.

The BBC’s Blue Planet series, which aired last year, showcased the damage that our lifestyle is doing to the seas and the marine life which lives there. The MCS survey actually found that just 12 per cent of the rubbish was left on the beach by members of the public. We have woken up to the reality. Beach littering is no longer what we leave behind when we are visiting, it is what we put down our toilets and into our bins, which is ending up in the sea.

Plastic has been found in the stomachs of almost all marine species including fish, birds, whales, dolphins, seals and turtles, according to the MCS. On our beach clean, plastic accounted for 1,755 items of rubbish, 20 per cent of the waste found. While a few of these items – just nine plastic drinks bottles on the 100m stretch – were plastic bottles, there were 63 items such as single-use plastic straws, cutlery and trays and we also spotted tiny little plastic pellets known as “nurdles”, which are used as a raw material by industry to make new plastic products. The tiny pellets, which also go by the misleadingly attractive name of “mermaids’s tears”, soak up chemical pollutants from their surroundings and then release the toxins into the animals, such as birds and fish, that eat them.

If the idea that microplastics have been found in the stomachs of fish and shellfish is not enough to raise alarm, the MCS says it has been estimated that an average European seafood consumer ingests 11,000 plastic particles a year.

We are actually eating the plastic we are allowing to pollute our seas. Let’s take action now.