My husband, daughter and I went to the Water of Leith for a litter pick in May, to make our daily walk a little more interesting.
It had rained heavily a few weeks ago and the sewers had overflowed into the water. We found tons of rotting fabric, in addition to the normal cans and bottles, endless wrappers of candy and other unspeakable objects. It finally dawned on us what they were: wet polyester wipes.
We found between 30 and 40 of them in half an hour, disgusting and caked with mud. Maybe they came from that one flood. Who knows how many hundreds more there were, under layers of dirt, deep in the riverbank. They released microplastics into the river ecosystem as they gradually decayed, judging by their state.
Any part of the natural world has been invaded by plastic. We saw further along the river how blue plastic ropes and stringy plastic bags, interwoven with the root network of rushes, were part of the fabric of the riverbank. We had the surreal experience of dragging a submerged plastic walker from the muddy waters as we pulled on a stretch of rope.
A rattling, bobbing monument to our absolute stupidity as a species is the rising tide of plastic – eight million tons reached the world’s oceans in 2010 – Creative, audacious, wildly inventive, yes, but goddamn silly. We have created a product that is strong, lightweight, flexible, and durable, only to make millions of disposable products with it, when the one thing that can never be plastic is disposable. But our plastic footprint is indelible, a permanent physical biography of each and every one of us. We’re all trying to minimize our carbon footprint. Our old tubes of toothpaste? They’re already there. Those bios that we throw away? Still over there. On June 25, 1997, the polyester skirt that the lady wore on the bus across the street? Through its molecular structure, immortality is written.
Stuff doesn’t vanish over time, it just breaks down into smaller bits. Most of it can not be recycled or was disposed of until there was recycling, although some of it was burned in toxic fumes clouds. Plastic necklaces, nylon drainpipes, telephones from Bakelite: we made them last, and they did.
The true shame of all this is how long it has taken us to behave. How do we not see what was previously happening? Trees waving plastic bags around as if the backdrop of my youth in the 70s and 80s was to get our attention. There had been campaigns back then about tossing crispy bags into the garbage, but not about the crispy bags themselves. Sure, I recall a vague uneasiness when I saw pictures of seagulls circling landfills – gosh, does all that trash really go into the ground? —but this is the way that it was.
As for the ocean, the dumping ground was just a convenient one. The ocean is massive, and we probably figured it could accommodate a few bags of plastic. In the event that we don’t like what we find, let’s just stop searching below the surface.
This arc of idiocy has brought us to where we are now – waking up to a problem that has been staring us in the face for decades, only at the time huge damage has been done. And now, in 2020, the Scottish government is consulting on a ban on single-use plastic.
Good, wonderful, excellent. But when you look at it – a ban on plastic cutlery, plates, trays, straws, stirrers and balloon sticks, Styrofoam cups and containers, and oxo-degradable products implicated in microplastic pollution – you’re struck by the slowness of it all. Why on earth didn’t we ban them years ago?
These products were chosen because they wash up most often on Europe’s beaches. Fair enough. But my goodness, that’s not nearly enough.
There is way too much plastic in our lives. We wear it, we sleep in it, and we teach it by filling our children’s lives with it. Felt tip pens, foam stickers, sequins, plastic building blocks, action figures, glitter, glue sticks, you can’t escape it. It’s wonderful and terrible, a temporary pleasure that can become a constant threat.
Every time we wash our plastic clothes, we release tiny fragments of polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide into the water. Despite their size, the fibers can absorb toxic substances from seawater. A single machine wash can release 700,000 microfibers, much of which ends up in the ocean and food chain. The Marine Conservation Society reports that