Richard Baynes

The tidal pool looks perfect. The rock is reddish-brown; plant life seems to glow in the sunshine through glass-clear water. Approaching it, tiny marine animals dart away, seeking cover beneath stones.

It’s a hot day and I wade in to cast my eye over the bottom of the pool. There. And there. Sharp blue; vermilion; unnaturally black: you can see them clearly when you get close up.

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A centimetre or two across at most, they are scraps of plastic, small but unmistakeable among the soft forms and colours of the pool’s inhabitants. I add them to my bag of rubbish scavenged from the pools here at Killiedraughts Bay, on the north side of Eyemouth.

We’re on a beach clean organised by Sarah Russell, project officer for the St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve, dedicated to keeping these waters and coastline pollution-free.

We work our way in from the low-water line to the top of the beach, which is rocky below the sweep of sand surrounded by grassy cliffs that makes it such an attractive spot.

There are two bike frames and the metal skeleton of a pushchair, but the rest of the rubbish we find is plastic and neoprene, scraps such as those in the pool, bigger bits that seem to be car components, fishing line, diving goggles, old balloons, and then broken buckets, lengths of cord and twine and whole car tyres.

The biggest thing is a piece of polypropylene rope. Probably from a ship, several metres long and thick as a rugby forward’s thigh, it takes three of us to prise it from the sand and drag it up the beach to our stack of remnants.

It is satisfying to remove the big stuff. After a few hours in the hot August sun we pose with our haul, oddly pleased that we have found so much rubbish: though the best outcome to a beach-clean would be to find nothing.

But what’s worrying is those little shards. They are evidence of how plastic is broken down by the sea, small scraps ground smaller until almost invisible, then washed into the water. It’s inert matter that can be swallowed but not digested by fish, plankton or bacteria: the crux of the plastic problem.

“The rocky shore makes it especially bad,” Russell says. “Because of the exposure to the waves, plastics get broken up much quicker as they get thrashed around on the rocks.

“To actually clean a beach like Killiedraughts completely is nigh-on impossible. You can see all the big bottles and stuff, that’s obvious. But when you get down into it there are fragments of plastic everywhere.”

Like a lot of people I’m worried about plastic, and the beach clean doesn’t calm my fears.

Newspaper reports tell me the “global plastic binge” will surge over the next 10 years after investments in new US plastics plants, and that a Chinese ban on importing much plastic waste means a build-up of rubbish at UK recycling plants.

Prime Minister Theresa May pledges to eradicate all “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042, and David Attenborough’s acclaimed Blue Planet II series tells how micro-particles of plastic absorb industrial pollutants and put them into the food chain.

Ullapool declares itself a no-plastic-straw zone. The Herald quotes a Marine Conservation Society (MCS) report saying Scots beaches are “pollution hotspots for plastic cotton bud sticks” and the Scottish Government says it will ban their sale.

Plastic is the latest thing we love to hate: but are we right to demonise it?

For Catherine Gemmell, the answer has got to be yes. The Scotland conservation officer for the MCS pops up on radio, TV and especially social media with almost alarming regularity as one of the public faces of the campaign to stop plastic getting into the sea.

She’s a one-woman whirlwind of soundbites, humour, and action, promoting the idea that we can all help. A veteran of hundreds of beach cleans, she promotes Beach Watch, a “citizen science” project getting people to adopt 100 metres of beach, clean it and log the litter. The data helps MCS and others decide what campaigns to run.

I see her in action at a clean and survey at Cramond beach near Edinburgh, organising volunteers and weighing the dozens of sacks of refuse collected.

The group of six that I join finds more than 300 wetwipes buried in the tide-line. They are durable because they contain plastic fibres, and come from sewage overflows.

Gemmell explains that tidal currents sort the litter, with Cramond getting wipes, and plastic bottles gathering across the River Almond at Dalmeny. On the north shore of the Forth there are clusters of nurdles, tiny plastic pellets which are manufacturing’s raw material.

“Most of it comes from land and the majority from the public – it’s litter dropped at the beach or dropped inland, gone through waterways or drains, through toilets, and into the ocean,” Gemmell says. “It’s caused by people’s behaviour.”

Survey finds of wetwipes at Cramond have helped fuel a campaign against them. It’s how Gemmell and other environmental campaigners work, to focus on a particular issue, battering away at MPs and MSPs to get a small victory.

The Scottish plastic carrier-bag charge brought a 40 per cent cut in plastic bags on beaches, which also led to Scotland’s plans for a plastic bottle deposit-return system; pictures of bundles of cotton bud stalks found on beaches prompted the pledge to ban them. The latest Stop The Plastic Tide appeal is looking to get a levy imposed on single-use “on the go” plastic items.

Gemmell is adamant: plastic is a problem. “Unfortunately in our throwaway society plastic has been this convenient product but now we are using it for things we really don’t need it for. It has its uses but we don’t need single-use water bottles, plastic cotton bud sticks. We need to raise awareness that we don’t need so much plastic.”

Kevin Ross, on the other hand, believes passionately in plastic. He’s president of the Scottish Rubber and Plastics Association, representing professionals and businesses in the industry, and managing director of a company with a central place in it.

We’re inspecting a row of expensive machines on the ground floor of the industrial unit in Grangemouth where Impact Solutions is based. It’s an independent laboratory formed as a spinout from BP Chemicals at Grangemouth during the creation of Ineos.

Samples of leather and plastic for car fascias are tested in the machines to see if they will deteriorate in sunlight. Luxury car firms send him samples in colours customers request. Lime-green leather was a recent sample.

“You can’t buy taste,” Ross laughs.

The firm works for most major manufacturers, testing everything from detergent bottles to high-pressure pipes. Your house and car will contain materials IS has tested.

The firm has machines and equipment for squeezing plastic, stretching it, heating it, melting it, deforming it, battering it, shredding it, hacking it, moulding it, drilling it, bursting it ... Not all of it is high-tech, either: a big leather punchbag apparently does a good impersonation of a human behind bumping into a plastic shower screen.

Impact also helps develop products. One of these is the bricks made from recycled plastic stacked in the yard. They can be snapped together like giant Lego to provide instant shelter for refugees in disaster zones.

For a big man Ross moves quickly, explaining each machine and technique rapid-fire, pointing to pipes that have burst under extreme pressure, plastic chips that can be melted and reused, household names on products sent to be tested.

The reason we need plastics, he insists, is they are better for the job than the alternatives. Properly handled they are less harmful to the environment.

“Glass bottles for instance: they’ve got a higher carbon footprint, and using plastic protects the material better – it will bounce if you drop it – so it prevents food waste. The plastic film on a cucumber actually stops the cucumber going off and going to waste, and can be recycled.”

The key fact for Ross is that plastic can be used time and time again: “If you get a piece of polyethylene – the plastic used for milk bottles, which is by volume the most popular plastic, it can be almost infinitely recycled. It does degrade but not a lot, tiny amounts, but you can reuse it ten, 20, 30, 40 times. You just melt it down and remould it, exactly the same as steel.”

The driver for stopping plastic pollution as far as he is concerned should be the sheer value of the material being lost.

“You have spent a lot of time and money making something really valuable, getting it out of the ground. Why throw that in the ocean? There are better uses than that. We need to control our own waste and take responsibility for what we are doing. I believe deeply in recycling.”

Recycling plastic should be straightforward. The two most commonly used, polyethylene and polypropylene, float, and at different levels, so are easy to separate.

Impact Solutions has set up a waste recycling company and developed technology to separate plastics based on density: Ross hopes to develop it further so they can separate heavier plastics currently scavenged by hand.

What annoys Ross is that recycling as it stands is failing.

The difficulties start with getting the facts in the first place. He says local authority recycling figures only indicate what is collected in recycling bins, not what material actually gets used again.

Most important is the fact that we export most of our plastic rubbish, exposed by the story about the Chinese refusing to take any more. Packaging industry figures suggest two-thirds is sent abroad where labour is cheap. Ross believes the true figure for exports is even higher – and it often goes to poor countries that have low environmental standards.

Only two per cent of ocean plastic comes directly from Europe and the US, according to research for the Ellen McArthur Foundation and highlighted by industry group the British Plastics Federation (BPF).

Another study highlighted by the BPF shows around 90 per cent of plastic in the ocean comes from just 10 rivers. Five of the ten are China, the others are in Asia and Africa.

Ross is diplomatic. “I would be surprised if sites in these countries operate to the same standards as the UK.”

But the Chinese refusal to take our waste is a chance for us to do better, Ross believes. “That material has to find a home – and we have an opportunity to start recycling it in the UK. If you don’t deal with the problem and ship it somewhere else then it’s not right to say only a tiny percentage of the plastic in the ocean came from the UK, it’s not our problem: you have to ask where we ship the waste.”

Ross is keen that recycling systems should be carefully designed, and has support from the Scottish Government-backed campaign Zero Waste Scotland to set up a centre of excellence. But he says there is a danger of kneejerk answers, with the law of unintended consequences that devils so many green initiatives coming into play.

For instance, he fears the vaunted deposit return scheme for plastic bottles could cause problems. It will take some of the most valuable recyclables out of the mixed-waste supply chain.

“Then you have a lower-value material, a lower value bulk mass, and it might not be worth processing it, so by taking out the bottles you could potentially be left with less recycling than you have now if it’s not planned correctly.”

He adds: “There is so much negative publicity and so much incorrect information about plastic. Plastic is a fantastic product that can be reused time and time again and it’s frustrating that we can’t get a voice heard.”

The industry has a particular sore spot, he says, about a sequence in TV’s Blue Planet series where a pilot whale carries her dead baby. David Attenborough explains that in predators such as the whales industrial chemicals can build up to lethal levels

“Plastic could be part of the problem,” the presenter intoned in the show. “As it breaks down it combines with other pollutants that are consumed by vast numbers of marine creatures. It’s possible her calf may have been poisoned by her own contaminated milk.”

Could, possible and may. Ross shakes his head: “How did they ascertain it was plastic that killed it? It’s hard to compete with that. You’ve got plastic-free supermarket aisles and you just shake your head. Manufacturers use plastic for a reason. It works better.”

On a freezing January morning, six months after the Killiedraughts beach clean, Sarah Russell is at Linkim Shore, a mile further east. She hacks forcefully at the shingle with a shovel.

Kevin Ross is on his knees using his hands to scoop stones and sand from around a massive piece of yellow plastic, which the company have since removed. Alongside him is Catherine Gemmell.

The beach in low winter sun is a stunning place and this moulded half-cylinder, a metre in diameter and two metres long, is a blot on the landscape. Russell badly wants it dug out and put above the high water line for removal by boat.

Ross sees beach cleans like this as symbolic rather than an answer: “Solving the one per cent of plastic that the UK puts into the ocean is great for raising awareness: it’s not solving the problem,” he says. But he’s happy to help, and learn more about what fuels anti-plastic feeling.

After half an hour’s digging the plastic object still can’t be moved – its hollow compartments are filled with wet sand and gravel. We spot the name of a company on the side, and Gemmell goes into action, videoing herself next to it and tweeting an archly polite request to @TrelleborgGroup to remove their product.

The rest of the crop from Linkim is similar to that from Killiedraughts: fishing line, an old tyre, a fish box, sweet wrappers, unidentifiable shreds. On the way back we hunt nurdles at Coldingham beach and quickly learn to spot them in the sand, where they are alarmingly common.

We escape from the cold for coffee at a cafe, where Gemmell refuses jam for her scone because she doesn’t want a foil-topped plastic pot. Her butter comes in one instead.

Why, we ask Ross, does food have to come in plastic?

“It’s because it’s doing a job of protecting the food. Plastic is quite expensive, and manufacturers wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t cost-effective in reducing waste.”

But, we point out, the recycling that should make this viable isn’t working.

“That’s why we need to make it better,” he says.

He admits some plastic uses – such as cotton-bud sticks, or shrink-wrapped coconuts – are baffling, and says plastic manufacturers sometimes have to ask customers why they want to use plastic for a product. The answer, he believes, is ultimately that consumers want it.

“The manufacturers are there to make money and if that’s what the customer wants then they’ll make it. It is down to consumer choice.”

Gemmell and Ross agree to stay in touch, with a visit to Impact Solutions for the MCS campaigner to learn more about the science of plastic.

A few days after our visit, Trelleborg – “a world leader in engineered polymer solutions that seal, damp and protect critical applications in demanding environments” – contacts Gemmell with a promise to ensure the object at Linkim Shore is shifted.

It could be a sign that the industry is learning what Ross knows: if it wants to use plastic, it has to help solve the problems it causes.

And though they might differ on the details, Ross and Gemmell are not so far apart: both believe plastic pollution is a failure by governments and by individuals, and things have to change.

Conservation leaders

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has emerged as one of the leading campaigners against plastic pollution in the sea. Its Scottish office was established by Calum Duncan in 2000, and Duncan is now head of conservation in Scotland for the MCS. MCS in Scotland has promoted a string of “citizen science” projects to get the public involved in marine conservation, including Beachwatch and Basking Shark Watch, and led the pressure for a Scottish National Marine Plan and Marine Protected areas.

Including Duncan, and Catherine Gemmell, MCS in Scotland has seven full and part-time workers and is involved in projects with industry and volunteers.

The clean coast

The waters around the Berwickshire coast are valued by marine biologists for their wide variety of species. The water is unusually clear and attracts scuba divers, Eyemouth has a thriving creel fishing industry, and angling is popular. The St Abbs and Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve was set up in 1984 and relies on sea-users respecting its code of conduct. The marine reserve is in the Berwickshire and North Northumberland European Marine Site (EMS) designated under EU rules, which protects reefs, sea caves and cliffs for breeding sea birds. Next to the reserve lies the St Abbs Head National Nature Reserve, one of the largest onshore breeding colonies for seabirds.