Is Scotland leading the way on tackling marine litter?

5 March 2019

Kate Chambers, Consultant at Resource Futures, shares her thoughts on why she feels proud of Scotland, and why the country is uniquely placed to challenge the issues of marine litter and climate change. Last week, attending Marine Scotland’s first International Marine Conference in Glasgow, there was a lot to feel proud of.

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon opened the conference with some exciting announcements: Scottish Government will consult on the development of two additional historic marine protected sites near Orkney; there will be proposals to bring in legislation around littering from fishing vessels to tackle the issue of ‘ghost gear’ in our waters; and the announcement of a £175,200 campaign in partnership with ZWS to promote the use of re-usable sanitary products in education.

Scotland – uniquely placed to challenge marine issues and climate change
I was proud to hear Lewis Pugh, UN Patron of the Oceans, endurance swimmer and awe-inspiring activist, tell the room that he believes Scotland is ‘uniquely placed’ to challenge marine degradation and climate change. He explained that over his years’ working with people in Scotland, he has found that it is their directness, their ability to ‘speak straight’, and focus on getting a job done, that gives him optimism that there will be real tangible action from this small nation.

Building vital marine evidence
We heard of the incredible academic and citizen science projects across Scotland, especially the beach cleans by huge teams of volunteers, that have gathered essential data on the state of our marine environments. It is with growing body of evidence that problems are identified, and action can be taken. This was a conference of expert speakers, presenting their findings on how Scotland’s vast marine reserves are being challenged, and also a conference of innovations and solutions.

Solutions to marine litter with a focus on plastic waste
The second day of the conference focused on the growing problem of marine litter. In the circular economy session, there were impressive initiatives already having an impact. John Ferguson, Director of EcoideaM Ltd, walked the audience through Project Beacon: a state-of-the-art recycling infrastructure solution, aimed at changing the way the plastics, recycling and reprocessing supply-chains operate in Scotland. Tatiana Lujan, environmental lawyer from ClientEarth, explained that plastic pollution poses a real material business risk and that it is no longer acceptable for businesses across the world to avoid this issue, especially as litigation and public backlash against polluters becomes more prevalent. Iain Ferguson of the Coop spoke to the plastics issue from a retailer perspective and explained the power that supermarkets and others have to demand changes within the industry. Iain also emphasised the importance of terminology, highlighting the vagueness of the term ‘single-use’ and mentioning CIWM’s use-phase report, delivered in partnership with Resource Futures, as a helpful guide in rethinking how we phrase the problem.

Industry has a role to play
In the following session on pre-production plastic pellets, there was an engaging discussion around industry-led solutions to the immense issue of nurdles on beaches across the world. Dr Maddy Berg, from environmental charity Fidra, outlined the scale of the problem whilst also highlighting best practice solutions that could be implemented within the supply chain, such as duty of care, use of filters in production sites, and increased staff training. There were interesting solutions, such as extension of ‘Operation Clean Sweep’ to incorporate a certification scheme, improved data gathering across the supply chain and potential links to environmental management standards. Although a challenging and frustrating environmental issue, everyone in the room was engaged with the issue and eager to find workable solutions.

The need for bold, ambitious thinking
It is easy to be proud when you spend two days with engaging people, listening to how Scotland is leading the way on marine protection and conservation. Yet, the reality is that our marine environments are interconnected and at the mercy of increasing pressures across the globe, of which the most urgent is our rising emissions and the impacts of our changing climate. Many of the speakers across the conference urged attendees to think big, as a crisis of such epic proportions requires equally ambitious, innovative solutions. There was also a recurring emphasis on global, joined up answers to the problem of marine litter. In the closing panel session, Richard Cronin, Chairman of the OSPAR Commission, considered the marine litter debate to be a ‘gateway to public consciousness’, offering a unique opportunity to engage on the wider climate change implications and encourage a deep societal shift. It does appear that recent marine issues have opened a space for meaningful conversation, especially in Scotland where our marine environment is 6 times the size of our land mass.

Now, we must lead the way, making fundamental, considered change whilst we have the chance.

You may also be interested in:

ISWA Marine Litter Report

Marine Litter – The Plastics Paradox

Improving markets for recycled plastics