The problem of plastic pollution on our beaches is in danger of making an oil spill look relatively manageable.
Without wanting to deflect from how serious a spillage can be, there is always a possibility that the sea will break up leaked oil and prevent it doing what could be catastrophic damage to the environment. With plastic pollution, there is no such hope. Once plastic is released into a marine environment, it will only disappear if collected from the shore by committed conservationists. But when that plastic is in the form of a tiny nurdle, the lentil-sized pellet which is the raw material of plastic products, it is virtually impossible to eradicate.
It is estimated there could be billions of nurdles on the UK shoreline already, and it would require a sieve to identify and remove them, virtually one by one.
Clearly, that isn’t going to happen. We’re stuck with the nurdles, which have mainly ended up in the environment after being spilled during the production process. And once they get into the food chain, they kill marine life.
There is a suggestion from environmental campaigners that we could reach a point where there are more nurdles than sand on our beaches. It is difficult to imagine this will ever happen, but it is perhaps worthwhile raising such a level of alarm, because awareness of the problem remains low. By the time the general public becomes fully aware of what a nurdle is, and the damage it poses, it will be too late to do anything about the huge numbers that are finding their way into the environment right now.
And whether we consider ourselves to be eco-warriors or not, we should all be aware of the threat posed by plastic pollution. Anyone who has been to a beach clean-up – sadly, that’s a tiny minority of us – will know that the amount of plastic collected from a small stretch of shoreline can often be too vast to be removed by volunteers, and requires a truck to take it to a recycling centre.
Sadly, the very act of helping to remove plastic can be enough to make volunteers believe that their efforts are futile. But we must not give up.
Nor should we dismiss concern over nurdles because it is a “global problem” that Scotland can have no impact upon. As well as this being an irresponsible attitude, it is also illogical. It might be possible to trace back pollution around the UK to sources in other countries, but the vast majority of offending material will have come from this island.
We cannot believe that the environment can absorb the plastic problem and that it will disappear or be carried out to sea. It is up to manufacturers to stop the spill of nurdles into the environment, but we all, as individuals, have a role to play in the wider issue of plastic pollution. We might have no way of putting it right, but we have the power to prevent it.