Revealed: 'depressing' levels of plastic on beaches around Edinburgh

The negative effects of single-use plastic are being keenly felt on the beaches surrounding Edinburgh

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 20th February 2018, 12:23 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th February 2018, 12:57 pm
Over fifty residents took to Fisherrow Beach to partake in a beach clean this weekend

Last month Edinburgh had an unexpected - but welcome - visitor.

On January 21, a 30 tonne humpback whale playfully breached the waters of the Firth of Forth several times.

Bird watcher Adrian Plumb caught once-in-a-lifetime snaps of the friendly giant backdropped by the unmistakable silhouette of Edinburgh Castle.

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A playful humpback whale visited the Firth of Forth last month (Photo: Adrian Plumb)

It was an image that delighted Edinburgh residents - it's rare after all that the city plays host to such a majestic creature.

The picture will no doubt have resonated strongly due to its appearance in the wake of docu-series Blue Planet II, which highlighted the extraordinary behaviour of sea creatures, including the fabled humpback. Sadly, however, it became apparent this week that the city is also playing host to the chief-villain of Blue Planet II - single-use plastic.

This weekend - a month after the whale's fleeting visit - over fifty residents of Musselburgh and Edinburgh took to Fisherrow beach equipped with bin bags and grabbers provided by the local council.

Plastic hiding in plain sight

Babywipes are a common site on Fisherrow Beach

The clean-ups, run by Fisherrow Waterfront Group, occur four or five times a year and are typically attended by a range of demographics, with pensioners, schoolkids and university students all taking part in the operation.

The beach itself is a pleasant stretch of sand offering great views over the Firth of Forth and Fife to the north, and Arthur's Seat to the west.

It's by no means the beach of choice for Edinburgh day-trippers, who might opt for Portobello, or Gullane and Yellowcraig farther afield. Indeed the sands are typically occupied by local dog walkers and families. That being said Fisherrow has a good reputation - residents seem more than happy to surrender day-trip destination status to Portobello and the beach appears clean.

Looks can be deceptive, however.

The plastic remnants of cotton buds are scattered across Fisherrow Beach

Within minutes of enthusiastic litter-picking, volunteers are unearthing countless items of single-use plastic hidden in plain sight.

Facewipes, cotton buds, straws, disposable cutlery and more quickly fill up the bright pink bin bags provided by East Lothian Council.

Lynn-Marie Thom, a volunteer from Edinburgh taking part in her first beach clean, exclaims that she picked up "over 100 disposed cotton buds".

"I'm a bit depressed," she admits. "It's the small stuff that's scary."

Countless pieces of plastic cutlery could also be found during the clean up of Fisherrow Beach

While larger items, including three tires, a suitcase and a crate are salvaged during the clean up operation, it's the picking up of tiny blue cotton bud sticks and minuscule pieces of polystyrene, that occupy the volunteers most. It's also these minute items that are most likely to have a negative impact on marine health.

Approximately 5.25 trillion pieces of micro and macro plastic currently occupy the ocean, weighing 269,000 tonnes - roughly the same weight as 9000 humpback whales. Around 100,000 sea creatures and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually.

Wet wipes the main offender

After one-and-a-half hours of enthusiastic litter picking, roughly twenty five bags of mainly plastic rubbish line the Honest Toun's promenade.

Tasked with disposing of the waste are Fisherrow Waterfront Group members Pauline Crerar and Gaynor Allen - the duo have been helping run cleans of Musselburgh's waterfront since 2011.

Allen claims that the clean-up operations have become more urgent in recent years.

A playful humpback whale visited the Firth of Forth last month (Photo: Adrian Plumb)

"It’s getting worse the amount of plastic on the beach over the years. We have a huge problem with wet wipes being washed up into the corner of the beach where it hits the harbour. Things like the number of cotton bud sticks and straws as well, there’s been a definite increase over the years."

Awareness of the origins of beach litter needs to be heightened according to the Musselburgh resident.

"When people think of litter on the beach they’ll imagine kids doing it, but it’s really not. It’s something that we all need to be aware of. "

The origin of much of the waste which blights Fisherrow is local, coming from the pumping station in Joppa, as well as Brunstane and Figgate Burns, according to Allen. When overwhelmed with waste, a sanitary sewer overflow may occur at a pumping station resulting in the over spill of waste - including non-degradable baby wipes and cotton buds - into marine habitats. Scottish Water have been contacted to confirm, but have not responded at the time of publication .

While the local council have helped the Fisherrow Waterfront Group when possible, Allen claims that - despite the recent banning of plastic straws and the introduction of a plastic bottle tax - more needs to be done by the Scottish and Westminster government's to bring about real change.

"What the government is doing with plastic bottle taxes, cotton bud sticks, I think it’s fantastic - but they also need to put pressure on the supermarkets to stop using as much packaging. They need to do more."

'Blue Planet II has made beach cleaning cool'

Blue Planet II has acted as a catalyst for action against single-use plastic - during a speech on the introduction of a single use plastic tax Prime Minister Theresa May claimed "nobody who watched Blue Planet will doubt the need for us to do something."

Crerar says that the Sir David Attenborough narrated documentary has made recycling and beach cleaning "cool", and reveals that the beach cleans have noticed a rise in participation since the docu-series' airing.

Allen concurs, claiming: "it’s made a massive difference, it’s made people really aware of what is out there and what is washing up on all of our beaches, it’s massive and I think people are now wanting to do something about it."

Edinburgh and East Lothian residents looking to "do something about" the plastic problem blighting the city's beaches and waters should start by opting for plastic free packaging where possible.

There other piece of advice is a dose of common sense.

"Stop flushing wet wipes and cotton buds down the toilet!"

A clean welcome

In its most distressing scene, Blue Planet II exhibited the extraordinary behaviour of a mourning pilot whale.

The mother whale was filmed carrying the pale carcass of her calf. The death of the newborn whale was caused by the consumption of milk contaminated by toxic chemicals and plastic.

"Unless the flow of plastic and industrial pollution into the world's oceans is reduced, marine life will be poisoned by them for many centuries to come," urged Sir David Attenborough during the heartrending segment.

If you're interested in reducing the negative effects of plastic on Edinburgh's beaches and are keen to provide a cleaner welcome to the Firth of Forth's big visitors sign up to one of the country's beach cleans at

Babywipes are a common site on Fisherrow Beach
The plastic remnants of cotton buds are scattered across Fisherrow Beach
Countless pieces of plastic cutlery could also be found during the clean up of Fisherrow Beach