Arran’s Plastic Free Mission

With the Sunnyside’s school #NaeStrawAtAw Campaign gathering pace, and their Ocean Defenders visiting Arran early on last month, February was a month of action concerning Arran’s plastic free status and the campaigns around it. After the Sunnyside school visit, there was an evening at COAST hosted by Sue Weaver and Deborah Maw, both crew on last year’s sailing eXXpedition round the British coast testing the water for the presence of microplastics. At the COAST event there was a showing of the film made of this research trip, A Plastic Voyage, and a panel discussion afterwards, ending with the launch of a steering group to help make Arran A Plastic Free Island.

Here are some of the issues discussed at the evening, starting with some facts about micro plastics…
Microplastics are particles less than five millimeters in size that deteriorate from larger plastic pieces that have entered the oceans. Research on microplastics in the ocean is still in its relative infancy and some sources suggest that currently, scientists can only account for 1% of the plastic they think is in the ocean. The figure of 8 million tons of plastic waste entering the ocean each year from land based sources is an often quoted number. This figure originally came from the research of Jenna Jambeck (see the journal Science 13 Feb 2015 for their full report). However with growing populations, increasing plastic consumption and increased waste generation, by 2025 the number may be nearer 17.5 million tons (Jambeck Research Group). With more investigating and sampling taking place on research sailing vessels, like the eXXpedition, the scale of the problem is becoming increasingly apparent. Plastics and microplastics are also being found in remote and previously untested areas, such as Arctic ice flows and the South Indian ocean.

The National Geographic recently reported, “One of the issues with microplastics which has recently come to light is the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products such as exfoliating shower gel, toothpaste, and makeup, which all wash down the drain. These plastic ingredients can comprise up to 90% of such products, and according to a 2012 survey, 4,360 tons of microbeads were used throughout all European Union countries in that year alone. In light of growing apprehension regarding ocean pollution, and considering the broad range of products from which this pollution originates, it is no shock that tiny plastic particles can accumulate to such quantities as 93-236 thousand tons floating in the oceans as predicted by a recent study in Environmental Research Letters”.

As Deborah Maw of eXXpedition explained, “They come from several different sources: larger pieces of plastic never biodegrade, merely fragment into ever smaller particles, forming in the end a kind of plastic soup. Or they may be plastic beads used in cosmetics or cleaning products. Some of these are now banned, but not all. We found huge numbers, visible to the naked eye, in eXXpedition Round Britain’s samples of water in the Thames last summer.

They could also be nurdles, preproduction plastic pellets used in industry, about the size of lentils. Thousands of these have been found on Arran’s beaches in the Great Nurdle Hunt. Or they could be microfibres, tiny plastic fibres which are shed by all synthetic materials, especially fleeces and especially when washed. These are invisible to the naked eye but entering the seas – and the food chain – in ever increasing numbers. We included sampling sediments around sewage outlets in eXXpedition’s research in order to begin to understand the size of the problem. Results are still pending.

The problems being stored up in the oceans because of all these micro plastics are numerous; one key issue is that they absorb toxics from water, so concentrating a vast number of different toxic chemicals. Another is their invisibility to us but not to tiny biota, through whom they enter the food chain. For example eXXpedition’s mussel samples all contained micro plastics.It’s as if we’re conducting a vast experiment across the seas, but one which we had no idea we were starting, and have enormous difficulty in ending.”

After the film showing and discussion, a Steering Group was formed to take plans forward for reducing Arran’s plastic footprint. Sue Weaver says “we have now formed a Steering Group to take forward the Surfers Against Sewage Plastic Free Coastlines campaign for Arran. This group includes Ellen McMaster, NAC Councillor, Mark Harwood from the Co-op, Hayley Woodroffe for COAST, Helen How of Carraigmhor B&B and sustainability expert, Michael Gettins for Eco Savvy and myself of eXXpedition. We expect to liaise closely with these organisations as well as the Arran Sustainability Forum, the Arran Economic Forum and Visit Arran, all of whom have been most supportive of the launch. The aim of the whole project is to get rid of single use plastic and make suitable alternatives readily available across Arran. This will not only help protect our natural environment from plastic pollution, both large and microscopic, but add to Arran’s reputation as an island of great natural and unspoiled beauty.”

If anyone would like to get more involved, please get in touch with Sue Weaver. Otherwise there are key actions we can all take. Avoid single use plastics as far as possible – most will not/cannot be recycled; choose natural fibres for clothing; and while we wait for washing machines to be equipped with filters for micro fibres, wash synthetic clothing in a Guppy Friend bag, available shortly from the revamped Eco Savvy hub in Whiting Bay.