Dolphin made from beach-found plastics at Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary.
We are in a climate crisis, and it seems that everywhere we look, we are reminded of this grim reality. It can feel overwhelming, but there are things we can all do on a small, local level to abate this. This morning, before breakfast, I consumed two climate change articles and signed a petition calling for our council to declare a ‘climate crisis’.
Shetland is often at the raw end of climate change, and this is something that I’ve wanted to touch on for a while but have never felt equipped to do so. Where do you start? Where does it end? Which facts can I pick out as truths, and which ones are just scaremongering and political propaganda? These are all questions that have haunted my thoughts when I start to consider writing about this topic. It’s a huge subject. It’s greater than you or I, and it’s snowballing, faster and faster towards … towards what? Another question I can’t answer.
What I can do though is talk from my experience about what I see and how I try to make tiny-ickle changes for the better – ones that you too can make.
We live on an island; a rough, exposed group of over 100 islands in the centre of the North Atlantic. The sea surrounds us, and that’s where I see the problem manifest itself the greatest in the form of plastic pollution.
I’m a baby of the 1980s. I grew up with plastic. I am the plastic generation. And although my mum was a bit of a hippy who wore long floaty dresses, made our clothes and swore by cloth nappies and breastfeeding I still played with plastic toys, bagged up shopping with single-use bags and as I grew older, bought plastic bottles from the shop almost daily.
Yet, when I remember my childhood, I recall playing with old pots and pans (from a nearby dump), scooping up pony manure for mud pies and broths and hunting in the burn (stream) for frogs. I don’t remember the ‘1991 toy of the year’ which was probably plastic and was more than likely tossed aside after a few moments. I do remember the Kinder Surprise Tapsi Turtles – they were amazing, weren’t they? And now, 25-years later, I despair at the trash that comes from those eggs that my bairns insist on buying and almost instantly discard, they’re no longer collected and played with. It’s getting worse, not better.
With almost 1,700 miles of coastline, Shetland is known for its outstanding natural beauty, secluded beaches and wildlife. However, this often harbours a much uglier side and one that anyone living here will know all too well: plastic pollution.
Whenever I go to the beach, I endeavour to ‘pick up 5’. Quite simply, I pick up five pieces of plastic pollution or do a quick two-minute beach clean. I do this with visitors too, and it’s usually met in one of three ways: Some question what I’m doing, some lament at the ‘fuss’ made about plastic these days but most will stop and try to meet their target five items too.
The greatest offenders of our roadsides and beaches in Shetland. Waste from the fishing & aquaculture industries and plastic, single-use bottles.
Of the second group, those who don’t understand the ‘fuss’, I try to thoughtfully educate them and help them see the problem from our local perspective. Earlier this year I had a couple from America, they lived in a land-locked state, in a city where garbage is uplifted by trucks and carted away somewhere out of sight for disposal. They were shocked when I showed them images of entangled animals and took them to Hillswick to speak to Jan Bevington, who runs a wildlife rehabilitation centre. By the end of the day, they too were picking up small pieces of twine, rope and bottle caps for disposal, and that made me feel proud and happy. If we can change attitudes and educate, even on a small, local level, we will ultimately all make a huge difference. We have also to accept that some people will never share this opinion, and that’s fine too, all we can do is try to educate and enlighten and hope that people will listen.
Hillswick Wildlife Centre in Shetland North Mainland.
Another stark reminder from the natural world are found in the impressive gannet colonies across Shetland. Beauty hot spots like Noss and Hermaness feel like you have been transported right into an Attenborough documentary, however, if you look at the nests through binoculars, the sight is shocking: nests constructed from plastic and rope; blue curling where there should be seaweed and straw. The photo below from Brydon Thomason clearly shows the problem of plastic in our breeding seabird colonies.
Gannets nests strewn with rope and plastic at Muckle Flugga, Unst. Photo courtesy of Brydon Thomason, Shetland Nature.
Another example from another beauty spot is the beach at Rerwick in Shetland’s South Mainland where visitors can expect to see dozens of seals on the beach. A closer look with binoculars reveals that several seals are entangled in plastic strapping. Ultimately these animals are on death row, awaiting a long and painful death.
Seals on Rerwick Beach in Shetland's South Mainland. What this photo doesn't show is that several of the seals here have rope around them, which is slowly killing them.
As the climate changes and sea temperatures rise, we also have wetter, windier winters. This has a direct effect on fishermen and farmers who depend on the land and sea. Nature is always the first to adapt in response to these subtle, gradual changes. Seabirds may fail to breed successfully, fish stocks may move into different waters, and land becomes waterlogged and degraded.
What can we do
Plastic is a relatively new phenomenon, and it has some essential uses, in some cases, it is entirely necessary. What we need to do is stop and think a little. Ask our grandmothers how they stored cheese before cling-film. And maybe you could sew that button back on, rather than discarding the shirt?
Climate action doesn’t have to be overwhelming, start small, and here are a few examples:
Some of the things we can do to make a difference: shop with consideration; pick up litter; make or buy wax wraps to store food.
I know that this might seem a bit doom-and-gloom compared to the usual posts I produce, but it’s important to highlight, and I hope that you have read this far and haven’t felt that I am just adding another layer to all the noise out there regarding climate change.
I still have a long way to go personally. Our family still produce too much waste. I still pull plastic wipes from a plastic pack to wipe snotty noses, but I have replaced my disposable face wipes with reusable cotton alternatives, and I buy my loo roll from Who Gives a Crap. I still buy Comfort fabric conditioner because I like the smell, but I have swapped out my washing liquid and shower gels for environmentally friendly alternatives.
We don’t have to turn our lives upside down to make a positive impact, but we can stop and think: Do I need it? Is it reusable? Is there a more environmentally alternative? And most importantly, how can I take care of my own little patch of the world for the future.
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