Time to stem the tide of plastic ruining our shores

12 May 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 12 May 2017

Scope talks to Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful about the rising tide of damage caused by discarded single use plastic bottles and asks what can be done to combat the scourge. 

Every year Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful surveys the coastline for litter. The results are shocking. Last year it found an average of 528 items for every 100 metres of beach, much of it plastic.

According to CEO Dr Ian Humphreys his organisation has picked up more than 600,000 pieces of litter from a single 10- 14km stretch of coastline over the past four years.

This is a growing global problem but especially noticeable here, surrounded as we are by a beautiful and readily accessible coast line.

To many the volume of waste is a complete mystery: where does it come from and, apart from being unsightly, does it do any damage?

80% of the litter on our shores comes from the land. Litter from towns and cities dropped in the street or from overflowing bins finds itself into water courses and gets carried down to the shore; it can be washed away from poorly managed land fill sites, dispersed by winds and flushed down our toilets. Then add in the mess dropped directly onto beaches and other coastal beauty spots.

Storms and high tides churn up the waste in the sea and deposit it back onto the land.

The damage is significant. Plastic breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, and gets ingested by marine life, toxins and all, which in turn endangers human health when we eat fish and shellfish.

There are enormous quantities of waste involved. More than two million tonnes of single-use plastic bottles are consumed every year in the UK alone – and today they are the most common type of plastic packaging found on the world’s shores.

So what can and should we do to combat this?

Dr Humphreys believes there are several potential solutions.

People most likely to litter are young men, so they are being specifically targeted by the organisation which has carried out attitudinal research. As part of the Live Here Love Here campaign the organisation has collaborated with comedian Colin Geddis to create a series of videos featuring Barry the Blender. They are hilarious and well worth a watch. Much of the inspiration comes from the extraordinarily successful Don’t Mess with Texas campaign which can be accessed here. It is having a significant impact on littering behaviour.

Some organisations want to see manufacturers switching to biodegradable bottles. Dr Humphreys prefers re-cycling. “The problem with increasing biodegradables is that they get mixed up with other bottles which could seriously impact the re-cycling process, “ he says.

Change is on the way in the form of European regulation which is due to put an onus on drinks manufacturers to be part of the solution to a problem their products generate. Whether that will survive Brexit or not is yet to be determined. However the approach is already in place in both the Netherlands and Belgium.

In the Netherlands the government intended to introduce deposits on single use bottles. However the industry objected because of the high cost of installing reverse vending machines in shops, and the consequent impact on retail store space.

Instead a compromise was reached whereby the industry, manufacturers and retailers, paid €25 million into a fund: €5 million to fund public information campaigns and the balance to fund local authority clean ups.

This is the sort of initiative that could be introduced here once we have an Executive operating again.

This could also be supplemented at low cost by reintroducing water fountains in towns and cities. One of the key drivers for the bottled water industry is the need people feel to have portable water with them when they are out and about.

Yet we know that there is no discernible benefit to drinking bottled water over tap water in Northern Ireland and at around 80p per 500ml bottle in many convenience stores the cost of bottled water is ludicrously high.

A survey published last week by Keep Britain Tidy, the sister organisation to Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, found that many people are unaware that they are legally entitled to ask for tap water in bars, cafes and restaurants and too embarrassed to ask for it.

Restoring public fountains might do much to combat this and reduce litter.

In the case of bottled water it is time more people realised that not only is there no health benefit to drinking it in preference to the free stuff that comes out of the tap, the waste the industry is producing is not just making a mess, it is polluting sea life and, ultimately, endangering our own health.




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