Main menu

Our war on plastics – Entanglement and ingestion

We haven’t bought a new washing-up brush for 4 years, though we do actually wash up. A washable brush with replaceable washable heads, means no plastic washing-up brushes have been thrown away for years.

Along with many other small changes at home, made over the last few years, this is one less plastic item be thrown away. We have washable washing up sponges, wax wraps for sandwiches and have given up clingfilm. We love having milk delivered in glass bottles, which are reused (13 times !😊) by the milk delivery company. It’s not always the cheapest option, but other savings can balance this, so make the switch if you possibly can. We refill a washing up liquid bottle and the latest discovery is cleaning pods. A revelation! We haven’t solved all the problems of household plastic use, but we make plastic reducing choices as much as possible.

Why go to all this hassle? It’s because I just can’t stand knowing that our everyday life causes such problems in the incredible natural world that I love and want the next generation to be able to enjoy. This is the first of 3 blogs where I will explore the problems of plastic use and what we can do to tackle it. A few weeks ago I was full of empathy for the Oliver family from Berwick and their personal battle to reduce plastic in their life, in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani’s brilliant, War On Plastic, the other week.

The Olivers took on the huge challenge of changing their everyday lifestyle because they don’t want their beautiful Berwick beaches to be full of plastic waste. Heroes!! They love their part of the natural world, so they worked hard to change their plastic use at home, struggling against the tide of plastic waste in our domestic lives. The Olivers realised that our everyday actions can have a direct and shockingly negative effect on our nearby surroundings and the wider environment. Plastic is everywhere in our domestic world and we now know, everywhere in the natural world. Plastic and microscopic plastic is present throughout our oceans, our rivers and our soils. There is ten times more microplastic in the Atlantic than previously thought and microplastics have also been found in one of the most pristine areas of our planet, Antarctica.

This is not because the penguins are using shower gel. Microscopic pieces of plastic such as those found in Antarctica, are swilling around the world and they are a real concern. Their impact is complex, and potentially very significant for our environment. It’s a fascinating and hugely complex topic which I will address in my next blog.

For now, let’s start with the obvious.

We can see that the large messy pieces of plastic waste entangle, choke and maim our beloved native mammals, seabirds and even livestock.

In the marine environment, the impacts can be severe. It is estimated 40,000 seals are killed every year in the Bering Sea (between Alaska and Russia) by plastic entanglement, 40,000! This is an issue all over the world, including right here in East Anglia. In Norfolk, our local seals become entangled, by a range of plastic waste including throwing rings with horrific results.

Where it is widespread this can cause ecological impacts i.e it can start to affect the numbers of species living in an environment and have knock-on effects. Another key risk from the larger pieces of plastic (macroplastic) is ingestion: when wild animals eat the plastic.

This can cause death or injury in several ways. Firstly, it may reduce the amount of real food they eat because they feel full, (IUCN 2014) impacting their health. Sharp pieces can cause internal injury. A shocking 90% of seabirds have ingested plastic according to the WWF. In some of our closest marine waters, the North Sea, Fulmars are monitored to give an indication of the proportion of seabirds ingesting eating plastic. The monitoring level looks for less than 10% of the Fulmars to have eaten plastic (sadly measured by the numbers of dead Fulmars with more than 0.1g in their stomachs). In 2003-2006, 45-60% of the studied Fulmars had more than 0.1g of plastic in their stomachs.

This is all reason enough to act. Many of us carefully dispose of our waste but there are still issues with the amount of plastic reaching the environment. Added to this lately, is the extra concern of extensive litter left in public places, on beaches and in beauty spots as lockdown was released. This has been disturbing to see, but I truly believe that if we promote positive messages about caring for the local spots we love and as well as the wider world, we can start to make change.

I truly believe that if we promote positive messages about caring for the local spots we love and as well as the wider world, we can start to make change.

So, we will continue to make changes at home. Here at The Rivers Trust, we are concerned about the immediate and longer-term impacts of plastic in our water environment. For this reason, we have joined the Preventing Plastic Pollution project to study and reduce plastic across 7 pilot river catchments in England and Northern France. Over the next 3 years, we will contribute to extensive data collection on plastic in the environment. We will work to reduce plastic reaching rivers using every tool we can, from community pickups to new technology. We will work with businesses, schools and communities to reduce plastic use.  We are launching soon in the Great Ouse catchment here in East Anglia.  if you live or work anywhere from Bedford to the Wash, and you are would like to get involved on any of these topics, please contact us.