HANGING from the wall in the half-light of a shed at the back of Tommy Dale’s house in East Lothian are two dead guillemots.

At first glance, the birds almost seem like a still-life from the 17th century, wretched trophies of a game shoot but then I notice the entanglements they hang from. One guillemot’s wings are caught in a pandemic face mask; the other’s beak is trapped in a knot of blue fishing net. They are not game but the casualties of waste.

Dale, whose family have been farming in the area of Seacliff beach for generations and runs various composting and waste businesses, recalls how he first found the mask-entangled bird lying on the beach while on a walk below Tantallon castle.

“It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen,” he recalls. “This guillemot had been swimming in the Firth of Forth, dragging this facemask behind it like a parachute. It couldn’t catch any food and eventually it died and came ashore.”

His response to this find was to put up a post on the Facebook page of his composting business, Caledonian Horticulture. It was coming up to World Ocean Day and already he had been a driving force behind the Big Beach Clean, a series of cleans along the east coast from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Edinburgh. He held the two guillemots, the one found recently, the other a year previously, and made a speech to camera.

“Nature is suffering terribly,” he said. “These two poor guillemots suffered awful deaths… both had been entangled up in marine litter. This is not acceptable to me and so today I pledge my commitment to clean up our coasts over the days, weeks and years ahead, and ask that you join me in the Scottish coastal clean up.”

He recalls that video was viewed 10,000 times in 24 hours. “I pledged to lead a movement to remove 70 percent of the detritus from the Scottish coastline in the next five years. But I didn’t realise that Scotland had the longest coastline in Europe when I said that – which apparently it does. But that’s fine.”

One of Dale’s ideas for his Scotland-wide clean-up is to use boats to get to the more difficult to access bits of coastline. Plastic and other pollution can gather in what’s called traps, in the most remote and unexpected places.

He recalls a recent holiday to Mull of Kintyre, where he had stayed on a house by a beach which he describes as looking like a landfill. “I remember picking up a milk bottle and it just broke up in my hands because it was so sun-bleached from being there for so long. That’s horrendous. So much easier to pick up a bottle and recycle it when it’s fresh than it is when it’s split up into thousands of bits after it’s been smashed on the rocks.”

Here, Dale is touching on a growing environmental worry – the increase in microplastics in our waters, many of them from the breakdown of bigger plastics, which are still more difficult to remove. Plastic is being found everywhere.

It’s there in oysters, the filter-feeders who clean our waters. It’s there in zooplankton, in, for instance, dinoflagellates, single-celled marine predators, and has been found to limit their growth and consequently their overall abundance. It’s there in in the bellies of dead birds.

It’s also there in our own bodies – nanoplastics have been found even in the placentas of unborn children. Babies have been found to have ten times the amount of plastic in their poo, as adults.

We drink microplastics in water, we breathe them in. It has been estimated that even if all plastic production stopped today, about five billion tonnes of it still in landfill will continue to break down, flooding the environment with microplastics, in what Albert Koelmans, a scientist who has studied human lifetime microplastic exposure, has called a “plastic time bomb”.

HeraldScotland: East Lothian businessman Tommy Dale with some of the beach finds at Seacliff near North Berwick.  STY Allan/Mag..Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..16/9/21.

We don’t yet know the impact it will have on lifeforms and ecosystem. Research is still in its early days, but it seems wise, knowing of the immense quantity and spread of micro and nano plastics, to take a precautionary approach.

Instead, the quantity of plastic arriving in our waters keeps increasing – research predicts it could more than double, reaching 380 million tonnes by 2040.

Dale’s shed is not only home to these two decaying birds, but also boxes full of other detritus collected from the beaches and sorted, the spoils of the Big Beach Clean coordinated by colleague Kate Miller, earlier this year. It’s a tour of our waste that is deeply sobering.

Piles of masks, shotgun canisters, a box full of one of his “pet hates” – helium balloons, stacks and stacks of disposable barbecues, fishing gear waste, tennis balls presumably thrown for dogs, a nest of cable ties. He picks up a plastic barrel full of oil. “One of the worst things you can find,” he says. “Fishing boats changing the oil and thinking it’s okay to chuck it, in a barrel, overboard. Unbelievable.”

Dog poo bags, he observes, are a most common find.

HeraldScotland: East Lothian businessman Tommy Dale with some of the beach finds at Seacliff near North Berwick.  STY Allan/Mag..Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..16/9/21.

But in spite of the grimness of this museum to coastal waste, Dale comes across as relentlessly positive. Doesn’t he get overwhelmed at times? “It’s been said I’m chronically optimistic.”

He has a nerdish enthusiasm for talk about waste. His business runs an electric van.He recalls that at one point he bought fleeces for his staff made out of recycled plastic bottles but he now wouldn’t touch them.

“It’s like turning a plastic bottle into something that will spread. You would be better burning it or putting it into landfill. Every time a fleece is washed all those hundreds of thousands of microfibres go down and into the sea.”

Dale is not alone in being a regular comber of the coastline for plastic, a sorter and an analyser of what is washed up there. The pandemic period has brought more and more down to the water.

Over the past two weeks countless groups and individuals across the UK have been involved in the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean, collecting not just waste but data to be used for lobbying. But there are also many people I know who take a bag and gloves whenever they visit the beach or initiated their own beach waste projects.

Among them is Lil Vischer, a beachcomber and friend of mine who I got to know through wild swimming. She shares Dale’s obsession with what we are putting in the sea and is talking at an event on beach cleaning at the Scottish Seabird Centre on October 5. I help Vischer carry a haul of plastic-filled paper bags from her garage to her studio. It’s a collection of around 26,513 bits of plastic, sorted into categories, part of a project which began when she picked up a bag of waste from the beach at Gullane.

Initially she took the bag of litter home thinking she would try to recycle it, but because she found it difficult to work out whether much of it was recyclable, it stayed there in the corner of her studio, showing off its contents.

 

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“The more I looked at this bag, the more I started to feel that I wanted people to see what I had found because I found it so shocking. I thought, I wonder if there’s a way that I could collect a bit more and lay it out in a way that is visually striking? I didn’t want it to be artwork. It’s not art that I’m doing. I would say it’s visual data.”

What she then decided to do, “in a moment of complete madness”, was to commit herself to going down 100 times to the same stretch of beach, a 400m square of shoreline at Longniddry Bents 3, and pick a single bag each time.

“Each collection,” she says, “was washed, laid out on a one-metre-square white cloth, photographed, counted, documented and categorised...” There are five main sources, she believes of what she is picking up. “Careless or accidental coastal rubbish; fly-tipping; waste from the fishing industry and anglers; historic landfill that has been tipped into the ocean or arrived there by erosion or other routes; sewage related debris and overflow from street drains.”

HeraldScotland:

 

One of Vischer's picks laid out and photographed

Like Dale she has bags of cable ties, fishing industry waste and cottonbuds, but she also has firework fragments, plastic cutlery; toys including bits of dolls, Lego, dog balls, plastic flowers; hair ties, combs, slender plastic pins.

She picks up one of the pins. “I found quite a few of these,” she says, “and I recognised them and then I realised that I can remember my mum putting her curlers in back in the 1970s.”

A not insignificant amount of what she found was what she calls “vintage plastic”. “You’re talking plastic from the seventies, eighties, nineties, bits of cassette tape, 35 mm camera film, an old video cassette recorder.” This, she observes, is our history.

The whole process, she says, has made her think about plastic in a different way. It has made her change aspects of her behaviour. She shows me a bag full of plastic tape.

“I’ve been trying not to use tape when I’m wrapping things. I know you can get really good paper tape these days.” Another full of plastic firework tubes. “Fireworks are difficult aren’t they? You don’t want to be a party pooper, but....”

Another bag tips out onto a black display board. Cotton bud sticks, syringes, toothbrushes, adhesive for nail polish, cigarette butts, personal care, fake nails, blister packs, suppository packs.

They seem more biological, like extensions of people’s bodies, discarded or lost. Looking down on them, I feel a faint pang of grief – perhaps because of the way they speak of transience. These objects are evidence of our lives, bits of selves shedded, the prosthetics of human existence.

All that activity, all that stuff we think matters, and it ends up here in the sea. Our plastic footprint, left to linger like a fossil long after we are gone.

But there are elements missing from Vischer’s collection, the biohazards, the sanitary towels, tampons, wipes and other waste that is carried out through our sewage system to the sea, which she has already thrown away.

Notable finds, she says, included, “A stoma bag, condoms, all sorts of delights just lying around. A lot of it is stuff people are flushing down the toilets.”

There’s another kind of plastic waste that also doesn’t feature significantly in either Dale’s or Vischer’s collection, and that’s the tiny and ubiquitous plastic pellets that are often called nurdles.

I meet Megan Kirton, project officer for the East-Lothian-based environmental charity Fidra on a beach in North Queensferry, known as a “hotspot” to go hunting for nurdles.

The tiny, coloured beads of plastic are unmissable, there right up at the edge, the high tideline, mingled in sand by the grass and scattered through dried-out seaweed.

They form a colourful patch of beach, pixillated with blues and yellows. “Nurdles are basically small plastic pellets,” says Kirton, “around 2.5 mm in diameter. They are the building blocks to all plastic materials. So every single plastic product that is made starts out as nurdles.”

HeraldScotland: Megan Kurtin of the Fidra Project with nurdles on the beach at North Queensferry. STY..Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..2/9/21.

This is the raw material of our plastic lives, itself a pollutant. Such pellets are manufactured further up the estuary at Grangemouth, but the actual source of these particular nurdles is unknown. The mapping of such nurdle pollution has been one of the focuses of Fidra’s work since they began a Great Nurdle Hunt which later became The Great Global Nurdle Hunt. This year’s project runs throughout October, and it’s possible to join and do your own hunt – instructions for which are on the charity’s website.

“Our nurdle map,” says Kirton, “shows that nurdles have been shown on the coastline of every European country, in some cases in quite high amounts.”

According to Fidra’s estimates a shocking 230,000 tonnes of nurdles are escaping into the environment each year. “We’ve worked out,” says Kirton, “that’s the equivalent of fifteen billion plastic bottles.”

I pick up a few small nurdles in my hand. Some are pale and pearl-like, others are bright blue or sunflower yellow, and seem like tiny decorative beads or sweets.

Kirton warns me that I should use gloves to handle them and hands me a dollop of anti-bacterial gel. Nurdles and other plastics, she explains, have also been found to adsorb and carry toxic pollutants.

“In some areas of the world, nurdles have been found to have chemicals on their surface at 1 million times background levels. They’re actually used to measure other pollutants in the area.”

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Such nurdles leak out into the environment either through big spillages or small leakages at various points on a supply chain that starts at their point of manufacturer. “Because they are so small,” Kirton says, “and very lightweight at every single point of handling throughout the very complex supply chain there’s a chance they are lost to the environment. And they are.”

HeraldScotland: Megan Kurtin of the Fidra Project with nurdles on the beach at North Queensferry. STY..Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..2/9/21.

One of the biggest spills occurred from a ship which went on fire near Sri Lanka earlier this year, leaking 72 tonnes of pellets, out into the sea. But, as Kirton points out, research has shown that the nurdles that escape into the environment from accidental spills is much more than what is lost from these huge spill events.

The debate around pellets illustrates how attitudes to such plastic waste are changing. Among the ideas being advocated by some campaigners is that plastic should be seen not as a resource that is being wasted, but as a contaminant or biohazard. Why would these tiny pearls of plastic be such a hazard?

One of the perils they present, says Kirton, is to birds and other animals who might swallow them. “Puffins, fulmars and herring gulls have been found to ingest nurdles. And obviously the ingestion of that type of plastic alongside other plastic can lead to starvation because they think they’re full and don’t take in any of the nutrients. Their smallness makes them easily consumable, she explains. “It’s also easy for an animal like a bird to just scoop that up when they’re feeding in the water because nurdles float so they tend to stay near the surface. They are also often quite small, round and opaque, clear or white and that looks a lot like fish eggs. New research has shown that microplastics even start to smell like food to other animals.”

The scientific investigation of the impact of plastic on human and environmental health is a small but rapidly growing field. Later this month, in the Netherlands, The Plastic Health Summit, created by Maria Westerbos, founder and director of the Plastic Soup Foundation, will bring together researchers. Westerbos sees plastic pollution as an issue as big as climate change, linked to it through the fact that both are products of fossil fuels, and a form of ecocide.

From the moment she started her organisation, she said, “we will only follow science” and since has been advocate for research. She recalls that in 2016, she told her team that she thought that there was “only one narrative that could change the over-production of plastic, and that is when it is a threat for human health”.

What she wants is the WHO to declare plastic a global emergency. She also a wants a global treaty on plastic and calls for “a real tax on plastic, paid for by the polluters”, as well as investment in rapid innovation of green plastic replacements. “We did it with the ozone layer,” she says. “We did it with asbestos. And we must do it again.”

One thing that’s clear as I pick through the rubbish of these Scottish beaches is how mportant data and research is in creating change. Organisations like Fidra – and also the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage – are part of collecting that.

They show that it’s possible to change the world using information collected at beach cleans. Fidra, for instance created a successful campaign to stop plastic cotton bud use which ultimately led to the Scottish government ban. The charity have also campaigned, using their data for industry change around nurdles. Already they have been part of the drive that resulted in the Scottish Government creating a steering group which has now created a pellet handling standard. They advocate a “supply chain approach” which ensures zero pellet loss throughout the whole chain. The first stage of this has been the creation of an industry standard, but there are others to come: getting a certification scheme in place, and also legislation.

Beach-cleaning can seem a pointless, Sisyphean pursuit. You pick up a few bottles, some more come in on the next tide. But its impact can move beyond that. A beach clean is just a start of a series of questions.

As Vischer puts it, “We have to be curious enough about these things to want to find out how we can do things differently. To ask questions like, what’s going to happen if I do flush that down the toilet?”

Lil Vischer and Megan Kirton will be speaking at the Scottish Seabird Centre's Beach Clean Forum on Tuesday October 5 from 6pm to 8pm

https://www.seabird.org/events/29

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