Scientific microplastic survey of Scottish coastal waters confirms contamination
The results from Greenpeace’s 2017 ship tour of Scotland have been published at the beginning of March. The scientists on the Greenpeace ship the Beluga utilised a number of different methodologies to gather more data on plastic pollution in Scottish waters than any previously published survey. The most complicated procedure they undertook was a survey of microplastics on the sea surface from 49 samples taken at 27 different locations around the Scottish coast and islands.
Scientists on-board Greenpeace ship MV Beluga II collected samples with a focus on areas around the Hebrides known to be important feeding grounds for basking sharks and seabirds. Seawater samples were collected in key foraging areas and around internationally significant seabird colonies including Bass Rock and the Shiant Isles, which are the home to over 20 seabird species including gannets, puffins, razorbills and shearwaters. A total of 49 individual samples were then analysed by Greenpeace’s laboratory at the University of Exeter to determine the types of microplastics found, and any chemicals or contaminants carried on individual microplastic pieces. Despite the remoteness of Scottish coastal waters, and the low levels of coastal development of the areas surveyed, 31 of the 49 samples tested contained microplastics.
Tisha Brown, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said “Although microplastics were found in two out of three samples, this isn’t all bad news. The concentrations are lower than in many other regions of the world’s oceans, and hopefully Scottish marine life is at a proportionately lower risk than marine life in those areas. However, the results varied significantly in unpredictable ways, and so we would need longer-term testing to be confident of average concentrations. The key finding here is that microplastics are present in some of Scotland’s most remote and unspoilt waters. Threatened seabirds and other wildlife are already exposed to them, along with the fish stocks we eat, and there is currently no coherent process or even plan to stop this problem from getting worse.”
Tisha Brown told the Voice about the response to the report, “There was surprise and shock at the results of the research, especially as it was undertaken in areas considered to be pristine waters in Scotland”. Speakers at the launch of the report in Edinburgh included Conservative MSP Maurice Golden and SNP MSP Kate Forbes, who discussed the legislative measures being considered by both Westminster and Holyrood. They talked about the Deposit and Return Scheme for drinks packaging, which the Scottish government is planning to introduce, as well as the Final Straw campaign, which Kate Forbes has been leading and so far succeeded in the Parliament banning straws.
Tisha continued, “These ideas are important but there needs to be joined up thinking by governments about all the different initiatives and it needs to be done quickly. Another important way to reform the current recycling system is to extend the producer’s responsibility. The whole system needs to be reformed. At the moment it is more economical to send recycling away, out of the country, but the producers need to be accountable and take responsibility for also disposing safely much of the plastic that they make in the first place. Otherwise it is the local councils who end up having to pay and deal with the recycling which they currently are not equipped to do, and the system could be much better if it was up to the manufacturer’s to develop ways to recycle and get rid of plastics responsibly.”
The Voice asked what the implications of the research were and what Greenpeace plans next with regard to further research and campaigning. Tisha said it will keep its campaign focus on supermarkets, businesses and retailers. Iceland have said it aims to replace its own products currently packaged in plastic with recyclable and compostable packaging over the next five years, and Aldi said it plans to do so by 2022. Greepeace will also campaign for supermarkets to offer a more green-grocer style of shopping, including the provision of dispensers and other re-fill options.
Meanwhile Greenpeace currently has a ship in the Antarctic doing similar research, using the same methodology of testing sea samples as in the Scotland report. They are expecting the results to be released in 6-8 months. The research is being carried out alongside the campaign for an MPA to be established in the Antarctic.
To see the Scottish seas report, please go to the Greenpeace website.