Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Talking Trash

The residents of a terrace of cottages in Llanystymdwy can boast a right that in bygone times would have made them the envy of the village: that they could access a nearby beach to collect seaweed.  The reason for this rather outdated entitlement would have been obvious to any gardener or smallholder around the Welsh coast a few generations ago.  That is the wonderfully beneficial properties of seaweed as a soil improver and fertilizer. 
Llanystymdwy's local beach, now owned by NT, was once a source of seaweed for the community
Indeed, I can vouch for these myself, as seaweed is one of nature’s bounties that I’m in the habit of foraging.  Ever since I unwittingly introduced some residual pesticide in a load of dodgy horse-manure that caused my tomato plants to writhe and whither, seaweed is the only ingredient that I import to our compost heaps at home.

So that is why I recently found myself being buffeted by wind and chilled by spits of freezing rain on a local beach, pitching forkfuls of bladderwrack into my trailer. 

But the reason why I’m recounting this experience is not to impress you with my organic credentials or adherence to coastal traditions.  I wish to share with you my heartfelt dismay at the proliferation of another man-made pollutant that threatens to corrupt every single beach and cove in our otherwise pristine coastline: plastic. 

Try picking the seaweed out of this...
Every forkful of seaweed I lifted off the beach was entwined with multi-coloured strands of filament and rope and dotted with assorted fragments.  In fact, despite our efforts to pick this ubiquitous waste out of our compost, our soil is now speckled with these unwelcome reminders of humanity’s profligacy.

Soon after this disheartening experience, I was reminded of the scale of the problem at a Coastal Futures conference I attended in London.  Throughout a session on marine waste we learnt a succession of disturbing facts, such as the fact that over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century, and it will triple again by 2025; that a million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually from plastic in our oceans and that 50 percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw away. 

But we also learnt that we shouldn’t blame plastic. It’s one of the mankind’s most useful inventions, having transformed our lives in countless ways, including our ability to insulate our houses and so reduce our carbon emissions. 

The problem lies with our waste management systems, or lack of them.  All over the world, organisations from the United Nations to local charities are coming together to tackle the problem.  We learnt about fishermen who have agreed to collect and recycle all the plastic that they collect in their trawl nets and about the excellent work of charities such as the Marine Conservation Society which organise events that enable us all to do our bit to clean our local beaches.

NT Visitor Services and Community Officer, Rhian Sula, with Michaela Strachan filming for Springwatch at Freshwater West
But we also learnt that we’ll never solve the problem just with beach cleans.  We must also tackle the problem at the other end: redirecting the flow of plastic waste into recycling schemes and blocking the ‘holes’ in our systems so that it doesn’t leak into the environment.

Mulling over what I’d learnt on my way back to Wales, my spirits lifted somewhat as I caught myself dreaming of a time when future generations enrich their gardens with seaweed unsullied by so much plastic, and of a time when the residents of that Llanystymdwy terrace will once again be envied by their neighbours for their right to access such a useful resource.

< To find out more about marine litter, and how to help, visit the Marine Conservation Society's excellent Beachwatch Results

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