Alison Johnstone: Rising tide of plastic a threat to our beaches

This September, I once again took part in the Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean, with thousands of volunteers taking to their local beaches and cleaning up the coastline.

Tuesday, 8th October 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 9th October 2019, 1:50 am
Volunteers take part in Great British Beach Cleans. Picture: Toby Williams

Last year, almost 15,000 people – twice as many as the previous year – cleaned 494 beaches around the UK. This level of engagement and enthusiasm is fantastic and illustrates that awareness of environmental issues is ever-rising. A total of 319 tonnes of litter have been picked up at Great British Beach Cleans over the past 25 years. While this is horrifying, it is testament to the hard work of volunteers.

Scotland is home to some truly breathtaking coastlines. This year, 61 beaches achieved Scottish Beach Award status in recognition of, among other things, their cleanliness. The natural beauty of our shorelines is a point of pride for many people in Scotland, I’m sure, but for the last 25 years litter levels have been steadily rising. There is more litter in our seas than ever before and waste plastic is devastating marine life. We’ve all seen the pictures of fish with their bellies bursting with plastic or birds caught in fishing nets and six packs.

In 2017, Greenpeace undertook a scientific expedition around Scotland’s coastlines, sampling seawater for microplastics and documenting the impact of ocean plastic on marine life. It found plastic bottles, bags, packaging and plastic fragments strewn on more than 30 beaches in remote areas, such as the Hebrides. There is no corner of Scotland unspoiled by our plastic problem. This is not surprising when you consider that every piece of plastic each one of us has ever used is still in existence somewhere: every toothbrush, every shampoo bottle, every sandwich wrapper and every plastic bag. They may be strewn on a shoreline, lying in landfill or have degraded into microplastics and are poisoning our rivers, seas and wildlife.

We all need to take personal responsibility for keeping our beaches clean by reducing plastic waste and littering, but the onus cannot be on the public alone. Shipping accounted for 3.2 per cent of the rubbish found on beaches and 12.1 per cent from fishing. It was recently reported that palm oil “bergs”, suspected to have been dumped by cruise and cargo ships, were washing up in Leith and on Portobello Beach. Where is the responsibility? The accountability? Our oceans are being poisoned with abandon by ships that are allowed to dump oil straight into the water.

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Manufacturers must also take responsibility. Wet wipes are a main cause of the monstrous fatbergs that have been found lurking in our drains and are responsible for up to 80 per cent of sewer blockages. The marketing of these wipes as “flushable” is misleading and extremely costly to the taxpayer. At the very least, manufacturers should be responsible for the cost of their disposal.

In 2007, I was elected to the City of Edinburgh Council and one of the first motions I suggested was for Edinburgh to become the first plastic bag-free city in the UK. Twelve years on, I’m pleased that awareness is being raised and alternatives to single-use plastics are becoming widely available. Education and individual behaviour is important, but until those profiting from the production of plastic assume responsibility for its devastating impact, we will be fighting against a rising tide.

Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian.