Many of Scotland’s most idyllic and remote beaches are, say the people who clean them, littered with plastic waste, some of which has been there for decades. After a recent series of beach cleans across Skye, ten tonnes were removed from sites littered with waste.

Kate Miller, organiser of the Scottish Coastal Clean Up and one of the coordinators of the Skye waste removal, recalled the shock of what she saw on Heaste Beach.

“The only way what we found could have been any worse was if it were an actual landfill - and frankly it wasn’t far off that. You literally couldn’t see sand. When you dug down there was about two-feet depth of rubbish.”

Ms Miller described what is visible in photos of Heaste as just the tip of the iceberg. “What you can see is what was on the actual beach, but there were huge piles behind that of just rigid plastics that people who lived there had gathered over time - over years maybe - and not been able to remove.”

Though the team removed huge amounts from Skye, still more remains, which they plan on clearing later this year.

Scottish Coastal Clean Up is also planning further island cleans this year, including one in the Slate Isles and another in the tiny island  Ulva, where, in a 2022 pick, they cleared six tonnes from its beaches - with still more left to remove.

Currently, the charity is fund-raising for a rigid landing craft that will allow them to pull up onto the shore and remove waste from sites that are otherwise too hard to reach.

With so much historic waste still present on beaches, it is, said Kerrie Flockhart, a coordinator of the Skye beach clean, often hard to know how much new rubbish is still washing up.

She observed: “On Heaste there was a lot of historic waste. Some of it had probably been there for years and years - and even with a 24-hour beach clean, we’re not going to clear everything that’s on that beach. It would be interesting to learn what is washing up now but it’s really hard to know when you’ve got so much there already.”

The Herald: Waste from Heaste

Waste from Heaste

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Ahead of World Ocean Day, Scottish Coastal Clean Up is also calling on groups across Scotland to join their annual Big Beach Clean from June 8-11 - not just of remote beaches, but any shores up and down the country.

Last year the organisation's Big Beach Clean stretched from Berwick to Aberdeen and this year they are expanding and encouraging groups from Berwick to Inverness and from Gretna to Glasgow to sign up to organise their own pick.

“It's a way,” said Ms Miller, “of connecting groups, because there are lots of really proactive groups in these areas. It is about highlighting that there are all these amazing groups along the coast.”

Two of these cleans will take place in Ayrshire, on sections of coast, at Chapeldonan and Heads of Ayr,  that remain not yet cleaned after the gargantuan yearly beach clean of miles of the coastline by the Ayr Rotary Club.

This annual Ayrshire clean first took place in 2007 when many miles of accumulated debris were cleared ahead of the opening of the Ayrshire Coastal Path. This year, according to coordinator Ron Ireland, 250 volunteers filled 400 council bags of debris, most of it plastic.

Mr Ireland said: “Since the big beach clean’s first year in 2007 we have amassed a total of nearly 1000 tonnes of rubbish! In the early days, it was mostly bits of discarded farm machinery, fishing boxes, and other gear, oil drums, and old tyres. Now, however, it is 90% plastic litter which is collected and mostly from the non-holiday beaches which are not generally attended to by council and communities as the more popular sandy beaches are.”

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Whilst some of the most popular beaches across Scotland are cleaned by councils, many idyllic spots have seen waste washed up on their shores over the years, not removed. The challenge at most of these sites is access and transport.

Catherine Gemmell, Scotland Conservation Officer for the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which organises regular beach surveys and collects data, said: “Our volunteers have been surveying litter for nearly 30 years across Scotland, collecting vital evidence to call for action from government and industry. However, there are some beaches in Scotland where carrying out our 100-metre litter survey is challenging because of beach access and removal of rubbish due to its size and quantity.

“It’s fantastic to see the efforts of the Scottish Coastal Clean Up shining a light on this. We’ve been working closely with the Scottish Islands Federation to begin gathering data to give a snapshot of the litter types found across Scotland's islands.

"The Scottish Islands Federation winter beach clean series showed that the top items were tangled nets, cords, and rope, compared to the 2022 mainland Scotland dataset, where plastic pieces were most common - showing how different the type of litter found on Scottish Islands is. The more evidence we have, the stronger the case is for action from the Scottish Government to reduce this type of litter polluting our beautiful island beaches.”

Among those who have been involved in such data-collecting is Camille Dressler, chair of the Scottish Islands Federation. She offered an insight into what has been discovered on such beach cleans.

“Over 60%," she said, "of marine litter that comes from the fishing industry: ropes, nets, net cuttings, buoys, stuff from aquaculture and creel fishing, engine oil containers, plastic strap bands. The rest is mostly plastic bottles including water, milk and cleaning fluid with huge amounts of bottle tops and gun cartridges, including the plastic release mechanisms inside.”

There are also, she observed, nurdles, the tiny pellets of plastic from which larger items are made, which end up on island beaches in “huge quantities and are almost impossible to remove.”

On a recent count at Laig, her local beach on the isle of Eigg, she found over 3000 bits of 2,5 cm plastic pieces for a 100 metre stretch.

“The problem," she said, "is that the smaller the plastic fragments, the more pollutant they attract and carry to our pristine Hebridean environment. It's an insidious pollution that is invisible that no one takes any notice of. ”

She added: “Our island marine litter beach clean groups are extremely active in removing what they can when they can, but they can't access all the coastline that is affected by this plastic scourge. They need help from organisations like Kate Miller's organisation that provide landing crafts that can reach isolated creeks and remove what land-based groups can't."

There is also, once the waste is removed, the issue of disposing of it - and currently much of it goes to landfill.

However, the Scottish Islands Federation are working on a pilot to collect ropes and netting for Ocean Plastic Pots, a pioneering company which then turns the waste into colourful plant pots.

“We also," said Ms Dressler, "want to establish harbour collection points where recyclable marine litter can be collected by plastic recyclers, as there is a potential for marine litter to become an important feedstock for the industry. It's crazy that we are sending it all to landfill."

The Herald: Waste gathered from the island  beach cleans at Mallaig - featuring Ally Mitchell ( Ocean PlasticAlly Mitchell of Ocean Plastic Pots, Jacqueline McDonell of Mallaig harbour) and Neil Hembrow of Keep Britain Tidy at Mallaig with bags of beach waste. Image: Ally Mitchell

Ally Mitchell, founder of Ocean Plastic Pots, took part the Skye beach clean and shocked at what was discovered at Heaste.

“We’ve been working," he said, "with the Scottish Coastal Clean Up initiative to tackle rope and fishing net pollution on the west coast of Scotland, particularly in remote places that require boat access. We knew it was going to be bad but the beaches that we actually found were horrific. I don’t think anybody expected that level of pollution - particularly in Heaste on Skye where the levels of pollution will require mechanical diggers just to remove it, and to be taken out by boat. The levels of pollution are truly shocking and far beyond what anyone in the cities probably anticipates.”

Also present at some of the picks across Skye, and a key figure in the volunteer community, was Emily Johns of Skye Beach Cleans.

What inspired her to start beach cleaning was a walk she did to Camasunary not long after she moved to Skye.

“I had never," she recalled," lived by the coast until moving to Skye and didn't even realise there could be a problem on this scale. Walking along the beach absolutely horrified me that the tide line was in equal proportions the bright blue and green of plastic as it was the green and brown of seaweed. So I decided I had to do something."

She has kept a rough log of the hours taken to clean beaches and has calculated that since the start of 2023, there have been a total of 750 hours of beach cleaning, which has cleared 10 tonnes.  What she has seen on the island's shorelines, she said, is “that the majority of waste is from the fishing and aquaculture industry.”

But she and her fellow volunteers are well aware that ridding our shores of plastic waste is not just about cleaning them - it is about changing our relationship to this material long viewed as throwaway and disposable

“We need," she said, "to work to change people's attitudes to waste and what materials we rely on. We have to fundamentally change the way we see plastic and use it as a valuable commodity that cannot just be thrown away to end up on our beaches. This goes for every interaction with plastic we have - whether that is people using reusable coffee cups, fishers being careful to pick up net and rope cuttings, or making conscious choices about whether our children really need that next plastic toy."