Plastic has become a huge problem for our oceans, taking many decades to break down, and entering the food chain with often deadly results for the birds, fish and other creatures that end up ingesting it, writes Caroline O’Doherty
A walk along the rain-soaked beach reveals a treasure trove of modern archaeology.
Wind and waves have cut chunks out of the cliff, exposing a rich array of artefacts from domestic and commercial life.
This area near Bray, Co Wicklow, was once the town dump and now, sliced like layer cake by the elements, it is possible to trace the ingredients of the decades through the different bands of earth and rubbish, each with their own subtly distinctive composition and colour.
Pieces of rusted metal protrude — a bicycle frame, a mechanical disc and what looks to be the grille from the front of a car. Cups, plates and a teapot appear, surrounded by endless bottles warped by the heat of the fires that smouldered regularly in the rubbish.
Tin cans, aerosols, nylon stockings and asbestos roof tiles all jut out from the soil along with many unidentifiable objects, crushed, burned and degraded beyond recognition.
Volunteers from the environmental group, Coastwatch, found blue asbestos there too — one of the most dangerous types — despite years of insistence by officials that inspections had revealed no hazardous materials and that there was no risk to the environment.
It has since been removed, or at least what was visible of it, but asbestos roof tiles are embedded in the soil and lying on the sand below.
But what’s most striking among this monument to the throwaway lifestyle is the plastic. A perfectly intact carrier bag from the H Williams supermarket chain flaps in the breeze, its logo and slogan ‘High Standards, Low Prices’ crystal clear on the front. H Williams closed in 1987.
That was also the year that saw manufacturing cease at Albatros Fertilisers which supplied the mix of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium that once filled the plastic sack sticking out from a fresh fall of cliff face.
The sack tells us the contents were made for the Irish Sugar Company, a name that vanished from the corporate landscape 26 years ago.
A bag that once contained dried peas carries cooking instructions for boiling in a pot with imperial measurements of water. There is no mention of a microwave option and no sign of the metric measures that were introduced in the 1970s.
Similarly, a Parozone bottle is a pre-metric 12 fluid oz while a small tub that once held a long-life individual serving of Sunkist orange juice drunk harks back to a time before Tetra Pak, fridges and the notion of freshly squeezed.
Best — or worst — of all, there’s a black plastic bag of the sort small quantities of coal used to be sold in. It bears the information: ‘Manufactured in Ireland by CB Paper Sacks Ltd, Distributed by Irish Merchants Ltd’ and give a six-digit Dublin phone number.
Dublin has not had six-digit phone numbers since the 1980s, but the bag is older that that. According to the Companies Registration Office, CB Paper Sacks ceased using that name in 1956.
It is testament to the enduring power of plastic that these examples have survived in such good condition for so long.
And it is a sobering reminder that not only are we having to deal with the unwanted legacy of 50 years devotion to plastic, but we are currently, enthusiastically and to a greater scale than ever before, continuing to build on that legacy for the future.
Coastwatch founder, Karin Dubsky, looks around the scene just north of Bray and declares herself “driven scatty”. “Have we learned anything?” she wonders.
Twice a day at high tide, and more dramatically during stormy weather, the waves scrub away at the cliff face, undermining the soil and stones encasing the rubbish so that eventually they crumble and the various objects fall to the sand below.
Swept out to sea, some of the plastic items may trap small creatures or get swallowed by larger ones who will either choke on them or die of starvation as their stomachs clog up.
But most will get shredded by rocks and abrasive sands so that tiny fragments will begin to break off and microplastic is born.
Of all the threats the seas have faced — untreated sewage, oil spills, chemical run-off from farmland, leachate from dumps, cargo loss from container ships, radioactive leaks — plastic is proving the most challenging.
The sheer amount of it, Its ubiquity and durability make it almost impossible to contain what’s already in the water, never mind the fresh supplies that are adding to it every day.
The problem is most graphically illustrated by what has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous collection of rubbish floating in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre where currents from Asia meet currents from America and the water swirls slowly round and round, endlessly stirring a plastic soup.
It was discovered, or at least first chronicled, by Charles Moore, a US marine scientist sailing home from Hawaii to California from a yacht race 20 years ago.
The gyre wasn’t a commonly used route for sailors because of the lack of reliable winds but Moore was in no hurry and a pristine oceanscape beckoned. Or so he thought.
His description of sailing for days through the soup, and his subsequent work on testing the pollution levels and damage to aquatic life, stayed largely within the realm of scientists for years.
But his discovery has now earned its place in the public consciousness as a symbol of environmental destruction as iconic as the stranded polar bear on the rapidly melting glacier. Just how big it is has not been conclusively determined although there is some consensus that twice the size of Texas is probably on the conservative side of accurate.
And it’s not the only one — there are growing garbage patches in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and in the North Sea.
Tests on the North Pacific site revealed that the mass of floating rubbish is 80% plastic. Some of it is identifiable as plastic bottles, bottle lids, bags and other containers and wrapping, but much of it is indeterminable.
That’s the microplastic — a vast floating carpet woven from innumerable minuscule fragments of plastic broken or torn up over years at sea and degraded by the sun but still plastic in content and toxicity.
In fact, they are even more toxic than when in their original form because they absorb other pollutants and are often colonised by bacteria so they carry nasties in far great concentrations. Poisoned pellets are how some environmentalists have described them.
Fish eat them and seabirds and sea mammals eat the fish. Dead specimens are often found to have stomachs full of little else but tiny plastic pieces.
But humans eat the fish too and the effect here is harder to quantify. It’s not yet clear if the accidental consumption of microscopic pieces of plastic causes much harm in itself or if only the toxins and bacteria pose a danger.
Environmental groups have been using some provocative questions to raise awareness. ‘Are you eating your own fleece?’ is one — a reference to the discovery that fleeces, generally made from recycled plastic, shred large amounts of microfibres in the washing machine, much of which goes into the water system.
Even if it was to be proven that there was little likely harm to health, the idea that you could be ingesting bits of your clothing is unsettling to say the least.
Karin Dubsky believes the risks are far greater than that. As she scours the items shed from the old Bray dump, she says she fears the particular dangers of older plastics.
“What’s interesting is the period when this was put down and that is the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s. That is the time when PVC was still in wide use in everyday items,” she says.
PVC has since been banned for use in children’s toys in Europe and various additives previously used it its production are no longer allowed, but even the newer, greener version of PVC is under scrutiny and environmentalists remain unconvinced that it is any better than the original.
"Carcinogenic, very bad news,” says Dubsky, gathering samples for testing. “We do not know how much PVC, or dioxin from burning it is in this landfill. We don’t want that in the sea."
The old Bray dump is not typical of the way plastic gets into the sea in this country but it is a stark example of why sticking plastic — and heads —in the ground doesn’t make it go away.
Seeing how well-preserved the newly unearthed plastic bags are after 30 or 40 years, it is not hard to accept the scientific consensus that they will survive for 500 years before decomposing. It is believed that plastic bottles and containers will take even longer.
The dump is also an illustration of how unnecessarily complicated the response to an environmental hazard can be.
Wicklow local authorities owned it and operated the dump until it closed — officially in the late 1960s but unofficial dumping is known to have continued for at least another decade — but it was then sold to the adjacent Woodbrook Golf Club and meanwhile a boundary change means it is now within the now within the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council area.
For more than 10 years all involved have known about the problems at the site and the latest of several reports commissioned into it was published earlier this year with still no agreement on what to do about it. All the mitigation and remediation options on offer cost money and no one seems willing to find it in their budget.
At Government level, it is the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government that has responsibility for the foreshore and littering, but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible for fisheries while the National Parks and Wildlife Service — which is answerable to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs — looks after marine animals.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a role too — but it comes under the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment.
Karine Dubsky wishes the structures could be simplified.
“We have nine and half times more sea than land. I was hoping that in the Cabinet reshuffle they might create a Department of the Marine again so that you don’t have to knock on so many doors to get action.”
But she says it’s not all down to Government failures. Recycling rates may have improved dramatically over the past 10 years but the amount of plastic packaging used has also risen, and is continuing to do so — at a rate of 4% a year in Western European, according to Repak.
“We need to stop making more plastic because we are just making more problems. Society, consumers, all of us, have created this situation. We have no business donating this to the sea.”
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