Behind the beauty

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Posted on September 4, 2016

We utter words like heavenly and magical, drawing on past myth-makers for our superlatives; and here we are, and we say to one another that this has to be the best beach in the world.


We are the only ones here. The water is cool under late afternoon sunshine, the waves are even and their lapping is as soothing as a mother's heartbeat. The sinking sun is making the headland shine and its gold, green and bronze hulk is mirrored on flat wet sand, in double celebration of its own beauty. Wet from swimming, I walk barefoot on sand, on flat stones, and feel shingle between my toes. Patches of seaweed, lying like wet leather straps, feel gooey and slippery and the sun on my shoulders is warming my skin to salty dryness. It's as near to perfect as you can get on a beach.


I pick up a washed-up water bottle, swollen with air, its lid still on. It’s the kind sold for lunches and quick drinks – about 250ml. I see that among the millions of perfectly smoothed stones and shells there are strands and scraps of blue and orange and white: plastic pieces broken, multiplied and spread wide by the moving sea and the drawing of water on sand and stone. I know there is plastic everywhere, even where I can't see.


I have picked up one bottle but can't pick up all of the plastic I can see and later with the new tide yet more will be pushed onto the beach from the ocean, and more will be tugged out from the land, and more will be dumped into the sea again by humans.

How to deal with the plastic mess is one of the unanswerable questions of this time. But like all questions that seem unanswerable this question must still be asked, again and again, as repetitively as the waves lapping the shore. What shall we do about what we have done? And what shall we do about the fact that we are still doing it? And how can we stop?

Here on this stunning beach, one that can only be accessed if you’re willing to walk and descend the steep path on the Pembrokeshire coast, plastic debris is regularly collected by people who care. Hand written notices with smiley faces come from those who are friends with this beach. On another beach a couple of bays down the coast, on another day when the tide was high, the volume of plastic, wound into so many shells, pieces of wood, and strips of seaweed, was overwhelming.


There are some who say that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans (*); already there are plastic microbeads on every beach on this planet, and these microbeads have entered the guts of the tiniest of ocean animals and are indelibly a part of the food chain. We’ve written before about the amount of plastic that seabirds eat, and the way that adult albatrosses feed their young the ‘food’ they harvest from the ocean: pen lids, lighters, bottle tops.

The problem seems so huge and irrevocable that at times it seems the only option is to turn a blind eye and hope for the best. But doing nothing is no way to go. For our part we know that one way to begin is to reduce our use – and our throwing away – of plastic as much as possible. Others are doing a lot more. A team of three visionary inventors from Sussex, England, are currently testing the protoype of their sun- and wind-powered ‘Seavax’ which is capable of sucking up plastic from the sea. Optimistic estimates by the team are that over a year, on average, ‘one SeaVax ship should generate enough energy to treat 89.9 million liters of seawater, which @ 25% in a rich soup could equal = 22,400,000 kg of plastic.’


On the website about the SeaVax, the architects of the machine say that a great deal of plastic on beaches is transferred from one beach to another, so manually picking this up could make a huge difference. At a frightening estimate that there can be as much as 2000kg of plastic per square kilometer, it makes you realise that picking up as much as you can each time you visit a beach really will help. We’ll add that to our list of the small things we can do when we are on the coast.

On the subject of Ocean Plastic, if you haven’t seen the video Plastic Oceans, take a look (and find out more from the website).

This article from in South Africa is brilliant as well. It explores plastics as an environmental disaster and gives you plenty to ponder on. The team at iDiveBlue got in touch with us in 2020, and this article brings some of the statistics in this blog up to date. 

And here’s an article written by David Shukman for the BBC in 2015, shortly before a charge for plastic bags was introduced for (most) businesses in the UK, summing up the extent of plastic in the oceans.

We were pleased to hear that the UK government has now made a pledge to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetic beauty products (Guardian article on the banning of microbeads here) - it's a good start although the ban could, and should, extend to other products.


It’s funny how things work in synchrony. Just after I had written this blog I came across this poem by Julian Dobson, who is one of the '52 Poets'. Perfect timing – it came to the surface of my awareness as if the sea had washed it up for me. Thanks Julian for letting us share it.

Swimming lesson by Julian Dobson

We’re floundering, learning properties of water:
the way plastic swims into the food chain,
bulky in albatross bellies, broken in guts
of small birds: battered by waves,
seasalt, by the sun’s bleaching.

Bottle tops, Barbie shoes, lighters, toy soldiers:
the gyre gulps them all, swills and gargles them
smaller and smaller. Suspended solutions
of Lego, piled up in the organs of fish.
Once the colour has gone no-one sees.

We’re counting the grains. Five trillion pieces
of plastic bags, jerry cans, spring water bottles
float in the oceans. We’re filling our faces
with containers of bleach, washing up liquid,
hair products, makeup remover. We want to die clean.

First published in Issue 62 of Interpreter’s House.



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