In May, my husband, daughter and I went on a litter pick by the Water of Leith to make the daily walk a bit more interesting.

There had been heavy rains a few weeks earlier and the sewers had overflowed into the river. As well as the usual cans and bottles, the endless sweet wrappers and other unspeakable items, we found lots of disintegrating cloths. It eventually dawned on us what they were: polyester wet wipes.

We found somewhere between 30 and 40, manky and caked in mud, in half an hour. They probably came from that single flood. Who knows how many hundreds more there were, embedded in the riverbank under layers of silt. As they gradually decayed, judging by their condition, they were leaching microplastics into the river habitat.

Plastic has infiltrated every part of the natural world. Further along the river, we saw how blue plastic rope and stringy plastic bags was part of the fabric of the riverbank, enmeshed in the root network of rushes. Pulling at one piece of rope, we had the surreal experience of dragging from the muddy depths a submerged plastic baby walker.

The rising tide of plastic – eight million metric tonnes entered the world’s oceans in 2010 – is a clacking, bobbing monument to our sheer folly as a species. Creative, daring, wildly innovative, yes, but bloody foolish. We have created a product that is strong, light, versatile and durable only to use it for making millions of disposable products, when the one thing plastic can never be is disposed of. We are all trying to reduce our carbon footprints, but our plastic footprint is indelible, a permanent physical biography of each and every one of us. Our old toothpaste tubes? Still here. The biros we’ve chucked out? Still here. The polyester skirt the lady across the aisle on the bus was wearing on June 25, 1997? It has immortality written into its molecular structure.

Over time, this stuff doesn’t disappear, it just breaks down into smaller pieces. Much of it can’t be recycled or was dumped before recycling was available, though a proportion has been incinerated in clouds of toxic fumes. Plastic necklaces, Nylon drainpipes, Bakelite telephones: we made them to last and they certainly have.

The true shame of all this is how long it’s taken to act. How did we not see what was happening before? Trees waving plastic bags around, as if trying to catch our attention, were the backdrop to my childhood in the 70s and 80s. We had campaigns then about putting crisp bags in the bin but not about the crisp bags themselves. Sure, I remember some vague unease seeing pictures of landfill sites circled by gulls – gosh, does all that rubbish just go in the ground? – but it was just the way it was.

As for the sea, well that was just a convenient dumping ground. The ocean is huge, we must have thought, it can cope with a few plastic bags. Let’s just avoid looking beneath the surface in case we don’t like what we find.

This arc of idiocy has brought us to where we are now – wakening up to a problem that has been staring us in the face for decades, only at the point when vast damage has been done. And now, in 2020, the Scottish Government is consulting on banning single-use plastics.

Good, wonderful, excellent. But again, when you look at it – a ban on plastic cutlery, plates, trays, straws, stirrers and balloon sticks, polystyrene cups and containers, and oxo-degradable products implicated in microplastic pollution – what strikes you is the tardiness of it all. Why on earth didn’t we ban them years ago?

These items have been chosen because they are the ones most commonly found washed up on Europe’s beaches. Fine. But my goodness, it’s not nearly enough.

There is far too much plastic in all our lives. We wear it, we sleep in it and we teach it by filling our children’s lives with it. Felt tip pens, foam stickers, sequins, plastic bricks, action figures, glitter, glue sticks, you cannot escape it. It’s wonderful and terrible, a passing delight which can become a permanent menace.

Every time we wash our plastic clothes, we release tiny fragments of polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide into the water. In spite of their size, the fibres can absorb poisonous substances from seawater. A single machine wash can release 700,000 microfibres, much of which ends up in the ocean, and in the food chain. The Marine Conservation Society reports that 63 per cent of shrimp in the North Sea contain synthetic fibres. It recently launched a petition calling on the governments of the UK to make washing machine-makers fit microfibre filters to new machines by 2023.

There can be no excuse for them not to.

Unquestionably, we do need some plastic. You only have to look at how important PPE has been during the pandemic. Plastic-making will continue. But as Friends of the Earth says, we need to identify essential plastics and eradicate the rest. It is championing a bill, tabled at Westminster by Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, calling for targets to be set for reducing plastic pollution.

Yes that’s right: we don’t have any yet.

Let’s not kid ourselves that recycling can facilitate our gorging on plastic. Recycling plastic is better than discarding it, obviously, but it still ends up in the environment eventually. Many plastics can only be recycled a few times.

It’s better to stop producing the unnecessary stuff, reduce demand for new plastic by buying less of it, use what we have for longer, and do what we can to keep plastic out of the natural world.

Allowing it into the environment is like mining the habitat of other creatures. It’s not unusual to find plastic can-holders used to keep drinks cans together, leftover from al fresco drinking sessions, dumped by rivers. They are otter nooses. Once the animals have them round their necks they can’t get them off.

What a mess we’ve made. As the creative, daring and wildly innovative creatures that we are, we could be doing a hell of a lot more to get ourselves out of it.

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