If you go down to the beach today, along with the usual sand and sea shells, you might find a tide of plastic pollution waiting to greet you.
Considering the world’s addiction to throw-away plastic, that should come as no surprise. The material is cheap, long-lasting and versatile, and today plastic waste is found all over the world, on land and in the sea.
It’s visible in the form of plastic bottles and bags, fishing line, nets and dog poo bags. And it’s invisible as microplastics, the tiny particles into which plastic breaks down, which are now established in the food chain to the extent that every person on the planet is estimated to be eating 5gm of plastic, about the weight of a credit card, every week.
The scale of the issue is massive, so what can we do to stop plastic pollution? The simplest answer is to stop producing it in the first place, something that will require a sea change in attitudes in industry and retail. But until that happens there are dedicated individuals in the South West taking direct action to raise awareness and challenge the plastics monopoly.
Holidays are coming, and soon hordes of visitors will be joining the locals and heading for the beach. They’re hoping for sun, sea and sparkling sand, the typical British holiday. What they’re not hoping for, but are likely to encounter, are bits of fishing line with hooks attached, rope, used sanitary pads and tampons, drinks bottles, wet wipes, straws . . . in other words, all manner of man-made rubbish containing plastic.
Carol, from Manaccan on the Lizard peninsula, is one of many individuals doing her bit to battle the ever-growing mountain of plastic that washes down to the ocean and onto the beaches. She says:
“I moved to Cornwall at the beginning of 2017 from Hertfordshire, and as I walked on the beaches every day with my dogs I started noticing the rubbish, not just by the sea but on the footpaths and surrounding areas. Seeing what was washed up made me realise how much was out in the ocean too, so I started picking it up, and once you start you can’t stop.
“I used to put the rubbish in the plastic dog poo bags I carried until I realised they weren’t big enough. It also seemed ironic that I was picking up plastic and putting it in a plastic bag, so I decided to start my own organisation and make a reusable beach-clean bag.
“I came up with the name One Bag Beach Clean (OBBC) to encourage people to pick up a bag of rubbish if they’re out for a walk. The idea is to raise awareness and get everyone to realise that, if we all do it, just a few minutes litter-picking helps.
“I sourced OBBC bags through Friends of the Earth – so they’re ethically sourced with environmentally friendly dyes, washable and sustainable – and all the profits go to support Clean Ocean Sailing, one of the many local groups dedicated to helping solve the plastic problem, but on a bigger scale than I can manage.
“I then got involved with Plastic-Free Falmouth (PFF) as beach-clean co-ordinator. At the same time I was getting friends to join in group beach-clean events with OBBC along the Helford River, and I’ve now got a hub of about 24 volunteers I work with.
“I no longer do PFF because I’m busy with Plastic Free Helford River and OBBC, but I really believe in collaboration and spreading the word. I’m now working with a number of businesses and groups including The Meudon Hotel, the National Trust at Glendurgan, Helford Sailing Club, Wildlife Groundswell (a rewilding organisation on the Lizard), Helford Marine Conservation and Mawnan WI, to name but a few.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Carol explains:
“Litter picking is part of the answer, but the key really is to stop plastic at source, with businesses playing their role. After the pandemic a lot went back to square one, using plastic cups and plastic sachets to minimise contact, but that needs to change.”
One way of encouraging that change is through the Surfers Against Sewage Plastic Free Communities scheme.
“Our latest plastic free business champion,” says Carol, “is the Shipwrights Arms at Helford Village. They’ve brought in reusable cups, like those used at the Sea Shanty Festival in Falmouth – they charge £2 deposit in the hope that customers will return them, but if they don’t, hopefully they’re kept as souvenirs, then the deposit money can go to finance more. You can recycle as much as possible and pick up litter, but it’s very difficult to avoid plastic altogether so stopping it at source is vital.”
Carol adds: “I love working with others. The staff at the Meudon Hotel at Mawnan Smith are now on board, for example, and do regular beach-cleans, with the aim of getting hotel guests to join in. A vital part of each beach-clean event is spreading the word, engaging with beach users and involving the general public, plus trying to allow time for a coffee and a chat afterwards, as the social element is important.”
One of OBBC’s proudest moments to date has been its role in persuading housebuilder Barratt Homes to stop using helium balloons in its publicity. After finding a balloon in the sea off Falmouth’s Castle Beach, Carol contacted the firm to point out the danger such items pose to marine life. The result was that Barratt stopped using balloons throughout the South West region, and has now taken the no-plastics policy fully on board.
Another find was a crisp packet discovered floating in the seaweed at Bar Beach on the Helford river; nothing unusual in that, sadly, but this one was sent to Emily Stevenson at Beach Guardian who identified it as a Golden Wonder packet from around 1982.
“That brought home to us that plastic pollution isn’t just about today’s litter,” Carol points out. ”This pack had been around the coast for 40 years and, while the colours had faded, it was still intact and still a danger.”
What happens to all the rubbish, plastic and otherwise, that’s picked up? OBBC (in collaboration with other groups) ran 28 events last year, for example, which collected over 200kg of plastic.
“Everything we collect is weighed and sorted,” says Carol, “and all the data, along with that of other community groups in Cornwall, is sent to Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC). They collate it at the end of each year and report back to Cornwall Council.
“I recycle what I can via the council collection, and Clean Ocean Sailing takes the plastic, 83 per cent of which is recycled. The general rubbish goes to the incinerator which at least makes use of the heat produced, and the tiny fraction left over, mostly noxious gases, goes to a specialist company for disposal.”
Most of the hard plastic can now be made into other products – for example, Waterhaul in Newquay transforms waste into sunglasses and litter picking kit, while Odyssey Innovation collects marine plastic and recycles it into kayaks, litter bins and surfing planes.
Carol’s well aware that recycling isn’t the answer to the problem: when a truckload of plastic enters the oceans every minute then something more needs to be done.
What would she like to see happen?
“Where do I start?” she says. ‘We need to stop polluting the rivers and oceans in any shape or form, and make companies accountable for their plastic waste. They should be charged to dispose of the plastic they make or use. If they make more profit from dumping the stuff than they receive in fines, we need faster and more effective action.
“There are great positives from all the individuals joining together to do something about plastic pollution. I don’t think we’ll ever stop plastic completely but by raising awareness, educating people, recycling and reducing waste, we can make a difference.”