I wrote here a few weeks ago about photographer and activist Tim Nunn and his campaign to draw attention to the mountains of plastic detritus washing up on distant shores around the world. A true East Anglian hero.
Since then, plastic has hit the headlines for a few different reasons. None of them good.
Perhaps most notably, and most immediately horrifying for humans, the plastic foam insulation in the building’s cladding has been implicated in making a towering inferno of Grenfell Tower.
Equally shocking in its way was the tale of the whale that died on the Isle of Skye.
The Cuvier’s beaked whale was killed by the 4kg of carrier-bags, bin-liners and freezer bags which had filled its stomach, got twisted in its intestine and blocked its digestive system.
Dr Andrew Brownlow of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme carried out the autopsy that revealed this sorry cause of death. And he said: “If you assume that what this whale has done is sample a small section of ocean, then this is astonishing. This was an animal that went to places that are very difficult for us to go and sample and sadly paid pretty much the ultimate price for that.”
It is estimated that between eight million and 12m tonnes of plastic are dumped in the sea every year. The gap between those figures reveals a gap in our knowledge of something we really should know – and care – a lot more about.
But whatever the true total, it’s an awful lot of sea-borne plastic. And for all the global tide of flotsam so graphically recorded by Tim Nunn, most of it sinks below the surface.
Out of sight of humanity, but straight into the food chain of the whales and countless other marine creatures.
Ultimately, a fair amount will end up in our own food chain. With consequences to our own health which scientists are still a long way from determining for sure. It’s unlikely to prove beneficial.
Meanwhile, the Greenpeace ship Beluga II has just finished a two-month scientific expedition around the coast of Scotland.
Working with various volunteer organisations, including local primary schools, the crew have taken more than 40 seawater samples and conducted 30 beach surveys and clean-ups. The samples are undergoing analysis at Exeter University, but every one appears to contain a great many tiny pieces of plastic.
You can find film taken by the Beluga crew on the Greenpeace UK Facebook page here. It includes footage of awe-inspiring coastal scenery and glorious wildlife – seals, basking sharks, dolphins, puffins, gannets – but also grotesque quantities of plastic.
Even on the remotest isles, the team cleared plastic bottles, bags and packaging from every beach they surveyed. One shot shows a puffin whose already brightly coloured beak is awkwardly augmented with a garish piece of bright green cord.
On spectacular Bass Rock, home to 150,000 gannets – the world’s largest colony of those majestic birds – nesting sites are strewn with discarded plastic of all sorts.
Other researchers report that one in three of the world’s turtles – and an astonishing 90 per cent of all seabirds – have eaten bits of plastic, sometimes with gruesome consequences.
The Beluga team visited the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood last week to present their early findings and hand in a 25,000-name petition calling for a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans. (Remember when it was normal to take empty bottles back rather than chucking them away? Readers of a certain age will.)
And here’s one small piece of good news against the depressing tide. Scotland’s environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham promptly announced a consultation and feasibility study on a national bottle deposit scheme.
It may not be much when the problem’s so huge, but it’s a step in the right direction. We could all take a few steps ourselves to reduce our plastic habit.