Whales Choking on Plastic Junk


Posted by in March's Magazine

Like many people I’ve been trying to cut back on my plastic footprint lately (is that a thing?). It can make even grabbing some lunch a bit of a dilemma, choosing from shelves of sandwiches, yoghurts and sausage rolls, each snuggly wrapped in their own wee plastic jackets. After scratching my head for a bit trying to figure out what is and isn’t recyclable, I usually just play it safe and scupper off with a loose pastry and a piece of unwrapped fruit.

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The problem of plastic packaging is not new, of course, but I’m amongst many looking through fresh eyes at the waste we are creating. Around 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste has been generated globally, with 79% ending up in landfill or the natural environment. Images speak louder than statistics though, and it’s those Blue Planet pictures of whales choking on our plastic junk that made millions of people think a little bit more about their own habits. This collectively starts to bring about change. 

Taking part in the Wardie Bay Beachwatch has brought the issue a lot closer to home for me. This is a bunch of local people getting together to clean up all the grisly stuff washing up from the Forth or dumped in the bay at Granton. It’s a smelly job at times (fishermen, please take your old bait away with you!) but a very satisfying one when you can reclaim the place for the community, and stop more wildlife getting tangled in our mess.

Like Leithers Don’t Litter, the Beachwatch is a fine example of neighbours getting together to make our local environment a bit less dirty, to look after our corner of the city a bit more. It’s also part of a bigger picture, with beach waste findings feeding in to the Marine Conservation Society’s survey of what’s happening all around the coastline. This information can help press the case for more urgent political action.

For we need industry and governments to act too, of course, to tackle this crisis of plastic waste. One simple but effective initiative from the Scottish Government is the development of a deposit return scheme. A whopping 2.5 billion single-use drinks containers are sold in Scotland every year, with only half recycled, compared with 95% recycling rates in countries that already have such a scheme. 

 We see supermarkets responding to public pressure on plastic too, announcing measures like removing plastic cotton buds form the shelves (one of the biggies in the beach cleans), cutting the amount of packaging used and looking at new materials to make it all recyclable, eventually.

 These are all good things, led by public opinion, but industry and governments need to do a whole lot more, and a lot more quickly, to tackle this properly.

 Reducing the resources we use and the waste we produce is critical for tackling climate change – something that has fallen down the political agenda amidst the gloom of Brexit but which has been brought back into sharp relief by a new UN report from climate scientists.

We are told that a rise of more than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures will make life more bleak for all, but is a red line for survival for many vulnerable communities, such as people living around the Pacific whose homelands are set to disappear below the sea. The frightening thing is we are on track to surpass this in just a couple of decades. The report says “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes” are needed to avoid catastrophe. 

This report has certainly made the FM Nicola Sturgeon sit up and take notice, with a commitment to seek fresh advice on Scotland’s climate change targets. Hopefully it will focus the minds of leaders across the developed world (that means you too, Mr Trump. Florida’s golf courses will be affected).

When we hear this sort of news it seems a bit remote from our everyday lives. Changing the world temperature is not exactly a day to day issue for people in Leith who are struggling to stay warm, stay out of debt and feed their families. But it is already part of life for poor communities around the world, people for whom the very land on which their home sits is under threat. We will face a refugee crisis beyond anything ever seen if we don’t act now.

The science of climate change may be complex but many of the solutions are simple ones, being led by individual and community actions. I’m sure future generations will be astonished at the throwaway culture of this generation, nodding in unison with the ghosts of our thrifty ancestors. There are small things we can all do to be part of the bigger picture and feel the better for it.

Twitter: @deidrebrock

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