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David Attenborough has shocked politicians into talking tough about plastic. But can we beat the plague that is poisoning our planet?

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14.01.2018

I DO love a new Scrabble word. I acquired a good one a year ago when I joined 100 or so volunteers clearing rubbish from Edinburgh's Cramond foreshore: nurdle, the name for the tiny pellets used as a raw material in the manufacturing of plastic products. But as the Great Nurdle Hunt wore on over the course of a sunny Saturday morning, the novelty of the word soon wore off.

Don't get me wrong, I was proud when I found my first one. But when you start spotting them you can't stop. And by the time you have a handful and everyone else on the beach has a handful and you've pooled those handfuls into larger bags and those same bags also contains coffee cups, sanitary pads, disposable nappies, condoms, cotton buds and plastic bottles – so many plastic bottles! – you realise that even your one short stretch of littoral is literally choked with rubbish. And so you start to curse the nurdle and everything it represents.

In Penzance, at the opposite corner of the UK, they call nurdles “mermaid's tears”. On any given day you can fill around 30 bin bags with them and other plastic detritus on the town's beach. Residents regularly do, and were so appalled by what they found that last year, they decided to do something about it: they lobbied the town council and local chambers of commerce, spoke to schools and businesses and drew commitments from those bodies to reduce their use of plastic. Eventually around 30 businesses pledged to remove single-use plastics from their premises and in December the Cornish town became the first in the UK to be awarded Plastic Free status under a scheme run by the environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage.

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Those are two small stories about plastic on beaches and local people trying to do something about it. Now some big facts: in 1950, we produced an annual 1.5 million tonnes of plastic waste globally. In 2016, that figure had risen to 320 million tonnes annually and much of the 88 per cent of it that isn't recycled is washing into our oceans at the rate of around eight million pieces a day. The effect is devastating, as you'll know if you watched David Attenborough's Blue Planet II. (UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove did. He has said he was “haunted” by it.)

Others have had similarly unsettling experiences but at first hand. Fifteen miles off the coast of Honduras there's an “island” of plastic and styrofoam which has been documented by underwater photographer and environmental campaigner Caroline Power.

“Everywhere we looked, plastic bags of all shapes and sizes,” she told The Daily Telegraph. “Chip bags, ziplocks, grocery, trash, snack bags, other packaging. Some were whole and the rest were just pieces. Sadly, many turtles, fish, whales, and seabirds will mistake those bits of plastic for food.” Many will die as a result.

The “island” is almost five miles long and at its widest – a distance of two miles – Power saw “trash lines that stretched from horizon to horizon”. No wonder the United Nations has called the issue of marine plastic “a planetary crisis”.

The seas around the UK fare little better. More........

© Herald Scotland