Mounting evidence on how plastic wastes are contaminating beaches, polluting the oceans and harming wildlife is putting pressure on Scotland’s plastics industry at Grangemouth.
The growing problems of plastic pollution were highlighted by BBC Television’s hugely popular Blue Planet 2 series on 10 December. Whales, turtles, seabirds and a host of other marine wildlife are said to be at risk.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 90 per cent of seabirds now have plastics in their stomachs. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, if current pollution rates persist there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.
In December the UN’s ocean chief Lisa Svensson labelled plastic pollution as a “planetary crisis”. At a summit in Kenya, more than 200 countries agreed a raft of measures aimed at ending plastic contamination of the seas.
In Scotland beaches have been polluted by hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic “nurdles”. As small as lentils, these multi-coloured balls are the building blocks of plastic products – and they are made by the petrochemical giant, Ineos, at its Grangemouth complex.
The Firth of Forth around Grangemouth has been identified as a “hotspot” for nurdle pollution. In October volunteers found over half a million nurdles on Bo’ness beach, and more than 50,000 are being collected from Limekilns beach in Fife to present to MSPs at Holyrood.
Around the Forth scientists have found nurdles inside puffins, terns, fulmars and gulls, which may mistake them for fish eggs. Trapped in their stomachs, the plastic pellets inhibit the birds from eating, and weaken them.
The “great nurdle hunt” organised by the North Berwick based charity, Fidra, has found nurdles on about two thirds of the beaches in Scotland it has searched, including around Shetland, the Clyde and the Galloway coast. It says that up to 53 billion nurdles escape to the environment annually in the UK from every part of the industry manufacturing, distributing and using plastics.
Campaigners point out that Ineos is the UK’s largest producer of plastic, and that the firm is increasing its production of nurdles at Grangemouth using fracked gas imported from Pennsylvania in the US. In 2016 Ineos is said to have made 10 million tonnes of plastic worldwide.
“The human and environmental cost of this harmful supply chain from fracking to packing is monumental,” said Mary Church, head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“Ineos’s planned expansion of its plastics manufacturing plants at a time when we are just beginning to understand the reach and gravity of the plastic pollution crisis shows that the company is prepared to trash the planet for a quick buck.”
Environmental groups are demanding curbs on the production of plastic. They say a levy should be imposed on single-use plastic products, similar to that on plastic bags – and the Scottish Government has promised to look at the idea.
Some argue that certain single-use plastic items should be banned, such as disposable cups, plates and cutlery. “The Scottish Government needs to get a grip on Ineos and force the company to adapt its business model to one that respects planetary limits,” insisted Church.
Andy Gheorghiu, policy advisor for the campaign group Food & Water Europe, called for the “absurdity” of increasing plastic production to end. “We don’t need more plastics, petrochemicals or fracked hydrocarbons,” he said. “What we do need is fresh air, clear drinking water and an intact environment.”
Calum Duncan, from the Marine Conservation Society in Scotland, described plastics as a “wonder material” that had helped shape the modern world. “But at a time when we aspire to a zero carbon future, fossil fuels should not be squandered on single-use throwaway items,” he said.
Ineos pointed out that it was one of several nurdle manufacturers in Europe, and that Grangemouth was vital to the Scottish economy. “We take our responsibility very seriously and the utmost of care at our manufacturing facilities and distribution centres,” said a company spokesperson.
“We are signatories of Operation Clean Sweep applying best practice prevention and clean-up measures across our facilities. We have invested in our facilities, our processes and procedures to achieve our goal of zero pellet loss – and we encourage the supply chain companies to do the same.”
Operation Clean Sweep is run by the industry body, British Plastics Federation, in order to prevent nurdle leakage. “Nobody wants to see plastic in the sea or on our beaches and the plastics industry takes this issue very seriously,” said the federation’s Stephen Hunt.
“Plastic pellets that appear on beaches may have travelled great distances or leaked out of a shipping container spilt decades ago, so more needs to be done to understand the origin of these nurdles.”
Wildlife under threat from plastic pollution
The sperm whale is hungry, and has found something blue floating in the water. He keeps trying to eat it, and it becomes lodged in his mouth.
Unfortunately it is not food, but a torn bucket, one of the billions of fragments of plastic waste discarded in the world’s oceans. It is not going to do the whale any good.
The distressing scene was watched by many millions on 10 December when it was broadcast as the final programme of the BBC’s much-acclaimed Blue Planet 2 series. Viewers also saw the multiple plastic bags and bits regurgitated by albatrosses, and the remains of an albatross chick killed by a plastic toothpick piercing its stomach.
The programme’s presenter, David Attenborough, walked along a beach, picked up a plastic bottle and pointed out how plastics were polluting the sea. “Industrial pollution and the discarding of plastic waste must be tackled for the sake of all life in the ocean,” he said.
A study in 2015 estimated that nearly 200 coastal countries generated over 275 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2010. Up to 12 million tonnes of this ended up floating in the oceans, adding to the great Pacific garbage patch, a massive soup of waste plastics concentrated by ocean currents.
According to the international Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the pollution harms more than 800 marine species of wildlife. Seabirds called fulmars studied around the UK have been found to have an average of 39 pieces of plastic debris in their stomachs.
EIA oceans campaigner Sarah Baulch called for global leadership and urgent action to tackle the problem. “Our marine wildlife is choking on an ever-growing tidal wave of plastics manufactured to be used once and almost instantly discarded, leaving a polluted legacy for our environment and future generations,” she said.
In December more than 200 countries agreed moves at a United Nations (UN) summit in Kenya to tackle plastic pollution of the seas. They want to prevent waste, increase recycling and reuse, and avoid the unnecessary use of plastics.
The UN is setting up a new expert group to examine how best to reduce marine plastic litter. Many hope that this will lead to legally-binding mechanisms to curb waste.
“This is a powerful watershed moment in the history of our relationship with the oceans,” said Calum Duncan, from the Marine Conservation Society in Scotland.
“It is fitting that the announcement has been made in a part of the world that has been hit hardest by the environmental impacts of ocean plastic and we welcome the positive vision set out.”
Photos thanks to the BBC. A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 10 December 2017.