As for many of you, 2021 was a roller-coaster at Plastic@Bay. We have tried to adapt to the shutdown of most activities and maintain a healthy company adapted to the Ocean plastic constant stream of pollution but also to our limitations as mere humans. Plastic pollution is a multi-faceted problem and we are trying to have a multi-pronged approach to solve it. Because we are a very small team this comes with a lot of frustrations as we cannot maintain equally all the critical operations needed to deal with the problem. However, we think that overall there was a lot of positive outcomes with first the survival of the company in the COVID times and also the establishment of longer term projects which should see us through next year. A lot has happened and here are the four main angles we approach the Ocean plastic pollution in NW Scotland and beyond: Remediation, research, recycling and outreach.
Thanks to the funding from the Highland and Island Environment Foundation, we hired and trained a new coastal ranger that stayed 6 months with us, Conor Drummond, collecting a grand total of 1.2t of plastic from Loch Eriboll, East of Durness, to Coigach peninsula in Wester Ross. If we look over the years, we are collecting more and more plastic. There was a serious gap during the lockdowns of 2020 in particular as we could not be active during the winter. We also only recently started monitoring other beaches than Balnakeil as we are getting better organised and equipped. We recorded and collected more than 4t of plastic thanks to 108 beach cleans in 2021.
We have been involved with a few collaborative cleans such as with the Pringles (a family of activists from Ullapool) or Crawford Paris (Turning the plastic tide) that came to some of our beach cleans.
As you may have read, we have had to stop the Coastal Ranger service. In its form and in the situation Plastic@Bay is in, it is not suitable either for us or a potential ranger. However, we are in discussions with national and international actors to make the coastal ranger service a bigger institution with new sources of funds and a wider target. There are probably millions of tons of plastic to be collected in the West and North of Scotland, it is time that we up the game. To achieve this objective, we need to associate with a lot of people so that a real impact could be felt in our coastal environment.
The basics of the plastic pollution in the Durness area
Observations of the coastline in winter and in summer vary drastically. We have observed that summer amount of plastic could be very reduced (<1kg/day giving the impression the bay is “clean”), and could be 2 orders of magnitudes larger during the winter (>100 kg/day). Weekly observations also show the speed of change in the sand elevation in relation to storms. The data shows that most of the time very little plastic is visible on the surface of the beach compared to the whole sediment content. We observed that storms lowered the beach profiles of 1 to 4 m and were associated with a sudden income of macroplastic visible on the high tide marks, the berms, notches in the dunes and coastal channels. After less than 4 days, the beach profile is rebuilt and the plastic is buried several metres under the surface. The plastic is then stored for years to decades.
Another process of storage is linked with the coastal configuration of the Kyle of Durness. An important volume of water goes in and out of the Kyle each day. The offshore concentration of floating macroplastics is moderate in the area. However, the concentrations of plastic are high within the narrow embayment. We make the hypothesis that part of the concentration is due to the quantity of water coming with the flow and concentrating plastic in a confined space. The intense winds are then able to push the plastic pass the high tide line, onto the berm and even within the coastal dune system. Once the plastic is in the backshore, it won’t be mobile anymore and will constitue an accumulation zone. Such accumulation zones have been observed in multiple backshore settings in the broader coastal area. Back of the envelope estimation suggest that the Cape Wrath area could store up to 2000 t of macroplastics.
Comparing with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch data
Conor has done an amazing work monitoring the plastics and categorizing it in nearly all of his cleans. It is a tremendous work. The main difference you can find with the method of the Ocean Clean-up we are testing is the non-neglible amount of MOD debris as a specific category and the absence of soft plastics. MOD debris accounting is not useful for the comparison with ocean data as it is a very local issue so most of the interesting stuff is on the right column (plastic only). We use this method as it seems that we find very similar data than the Ocean Cleanup did when they surveyed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This confirms that the source of our plastic is the open ocean at the difference with other sites monitored generally closer to urban centres. You may notice that there is no soft plastic, they simply don’t survive the harsh environment and are in negligible quantities. You may notice the difference of distribution within the categories if you use a count or if you do a weighting. We consider the weight the most important parameter as it gives a very good indication of the volume of plastic circulating and what is the currently the major pollutions. The graphs illustrate well how the use of counts distort the source of pollution from ropes and nets towards hard plastics. There will also be a bias in our measure as it is very hard to collect mesoplastics during beach cleans or to simply be able to see them. There is also a lot of weight variability linked with the moisture or potential sand attached to the plastics. Nevertheless, we remove as much sand as possible and try not to weight soaked material although it is very hard to avoid considering the quantities we are dealing with and the weather conditions. We can observe that the pollution is for a third local due to MOD activities nearby, and a third of hard plastics and a third Ropes and Nets. Ropes and Nets are particularly prominent in megaplastics whereas macroplastics are dominated by hard plastics. This could be the result of the differential fragmentation rates between fibre material and plain plastics but also from the original size of the discarded plastics.
Notice that the 79 cleans where made mostly during the fair weather season. The winter having now started, we find mega plastics that weight 100s of kg per units with notably a fish farm pipe of 83 kg and a rope estimated to be 300 kg. The rope might be re-estimated once we get the brand for a more precise estimation. These 2 objects represent nearly as much as what was collected during the 79 monitored cleans. Because plastic pollution is involved in the natural sedimentary processes, it is influenced by a very large number of parameters. The models to explain pollution needs to be able to cope with non-linear relations (like one debris accounting for half of the month pollution). There is a need to push our knowledge further than the statistical models we often see presented. Statistical models are often assuming linear relations and Gaussian distributions which are here erroneous. When the time will be available, we will try to illustrate the problem of the current monitoring of pollution and why, by using misleading methods, authorities fail to appreciate the poor situation and constant degradation of the environment in North and West Scotland due to intense industrial pollution by Ocean plastics.
Rope recovered est. 300 kg Fish farm feeder pipe est. 83 kg
Evolution of plastic pollution
Using the data portal, we can try to have a quick look at how the plastic pollution evolves. Many consider that the coastline is polluted because it is not taken care of, meaning nobody cleans it. We can safely say that a very large number of people are involved in a very regular basis into beach cleaning, sometimes daily. So, can we tell if we are picking up things accumulated into the beach? Or if there is a constant stream of industrial pollution from offshore activities?
The first thing is to try to put our database into a digestible form and also look at area with a lot of measures, meaning a lot of people cleaning it regularly. Thanks to The Caithness Beach Cleans whose continuous efforts allow to populate a large part of the database. Without a high rate of measures, it will not be possible to interpret it. We visualised the beaches that were cleaned more than 20 times in our database.
Looking at the 8 most monitored beaches from the data portal, it is clear that the pollution rate is either increasing or stable and that some pollution events are drastically increasing the pollution rates from a couple of kg/day to 10s of kg/day. The origin of these events can be debated as they are linked to some storms (not all). A combination of:
- increased run-off washing up plastic at sea from rivers,
- coastal erosion freeing plastic from the beach, and
- sea-bed suspension putting drowned plastic in motion have to be considered.
The most important message these measures highlight is that no efforts and not a single measure is taken to reduce the pollution in the area. To have constant rates, you need constant supply. Most of the plastic is coming from offshore industrial activities: fishing, aquaculture and shipping. So far, they are not hold accountable for the unimaginable volume of persistent pollution they produce. Most ropes and nets are to last for 100s to 1000s of years, that is if they are not being buried and protected for a period of time. It is very likely that plastic pollution will be visible in our environment for millions of years.
We have been involved in interesting projects involving the collaboration with a lot of groups. We also have won an award which allows us to develop a new type of machinery adapted to decentralised recycling of ocean plastics.
Collaborations in 2021
We have collaborated with a lot of groups to develop new products from plastics and in particular ocean plastics.
During the winter, we ran some tests for Waterhaul on plastics from face masks. It was a really strange material to work with but of a nice hue. They have made some litter pickers out of face masks that look pretty cool. In exchange they sent us some litter pickers made from nets.
Relic Plastic (formerly known as Precious Plastic Lancaster )
The guys of Relic Plastic have a nice Precious Plastic setup and have been buying a lot of ocean plastic from us. We have tried to find the best solutions for their workshop as it is not easy to manipulate fibres. They make beautiful stuff, check them out! We are hoping to find a better way than fibres for them. Guilty of not going as fast as expected on that front!
Tyrone from Ecotribo is very involved in discussions with us. In particular, they make plastic plant pots from our ocean plastics with low-tech machines. Check them out, some smart thinking and they really make awesome products!
The skipping rope project
We have had a long running project which should have been terminated in winter 2020 but has seen it achieved only in the fall of 2021 for a lot of reason. The skipping rope project was conceived by Julia Barton from (aka littoral sci:art project) to provide sport activities during lockdown and have a positive environmental impact. The project was funded by Scotland loves local, the Ullapool Feel Good Festival and NatureScot. Julia has been leading a set of beach cleans on the West coast where they specifically kept ropes. She washed and sorted the ropes so that we could recycle them. We designed the mould and had to have it made at PlasticHub in Spain as we could not afford nor find a competent fabricator near us. For the production, we also collaborated with our friends out at Green Hive Nairn that made most of the handles for the skipping rope challenges organised by Julia this fall.
The Woman in Innovation Award 2021
We won a Woman in innovation award in 2021 and that has been our main activity since April. It has mainly revolved into creating an affordable recycling solution for coastal communities to deal with ropes and nets. Ropes and nets are not recycled in Scotland and were traditionally sent to Plastix in Denmark. This involves a lot of shipping logistics and an ultra centralisation approach. Since decades fishing ropes and nets are being sent to landfill from professionals but also from beach cleaning groups. In most of the Scottish Highlands and islands, ropes and nets dominate the ocean plastic pollution. Our idea is to breakup this circle and offer affordable solutions to small communities so that pollution is dealt with on the spot and doesn’t involve, on top of the cleaning cost, a shipping expense. Basically empowering people to not be victim of the pollution but manage to extract something positive out of it. The project involves many different aspects:
- Develop a new recycling system that can produce enough to generate an income but that uses little energy and is easy to fix (low-tech approach). The system needs to be deployed in small facilities as a lot of polluted coastal environments are remote and lack an industrial backbone.
- Develop a business plan so that communities can sustainably run their own facilities and convincingly raise funding to have their own workshops.
- Has a visible impact onto our social and natural environment.
The project is quite extensive and complex but here is a quick summary of what we have done. We have decided to first make fence posts out of the plastic since this could be used locally. To achieve that you need to conceive a complex object called a die, allowing to produce the same profiles for unlimited lengths. The die development is the work of Guillaume Pic-Rivière during his final year internship as a mechanical engineer student from INSA-Rennes (France). We also redesigned an extruder based on the Precious Plastic extruder pro V4 concept. We have changed the transmission, the heating and cooling system. We also completely changed the control system so that automatisation is possible and thus rentability is at reach. In the process we have made the machine much more energy efficient and easier to fix, thus more low-tech. We think that our extruder will also be cheaper to build than the Precious Plastic one and all our plans and methods will be fully open-source. The extruder, the die and the control system are now being benchmarked and the first results are very promising. We are working very hard to make it happen by the end of February to fulfil the award. In the mean time, we have been in contact with a very large number of stakeholders in the recycling business, the harbour management, the fishing industry, the aquaculture and the coastal communities to develop solutions that will suit them.
Plastic@Bay new extruder Part of the die being aligned before assembly Remote dashboard for the extruder
Scotland is very diverse and we expect that our tailored approach will have a better impact than what is usually done: a single box-ticking exercise involving centralised recycling solutions that are not applicable to most Highland and Islands communities. For decades, the same approach has been used with investments made in very large plants, generating massive costs in waste management from remote communities and an overall frustration because recycling solution are refused to these communities as shipping is too expensive… In times where we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint, by creating small cheap solution in multiple hard-to-reach places, low-tech is probably the best way to escape this nefarious, urban-centred, logic. Also it tackles another issue which is depopulation by creating permanent jobs and opportunities in places where tourism brings income to some but reject a large part of people, and drive depopulation. We hope that we can convince local authorities and communities that this different way of managing waste could solve a lot of issues associated with ocean pollution in Scottish coastal rural communities.
Coastal Ranger Service
Some of the biggest outreach we have had was the work of Conor organising a coastal walk and cleanup each week during the summer. This allowed to get locals and tourists involved with our fascinating coastal environment.
Many don’t have the opportunity to visit some of our most interesting bits of coastline. Learning about this environment is a good way to connect and take care of it. What better think to do than finishing it up by cleaning up the area you have enjoyed visiting?
We participated in several conferences where we gave presentations. We participated in several climate conferences for the Thurso Development group, the Highland Council and Aviva. We participated in several panel discussions, including one for the Food Tank on seafood industry in Scotland. We also presented in collaboration with Tom Scanlon a poster to the Geological Society of London conference -Plastics in the Environment- on plastic accumulation zones in Scotland. We also gave a lightening talk on open-source of our numerical and hardware solutions at Plastic@Bay at the Transform 2021 conference.
Harper MacLeod award
In the summer, we won the Harper MacLeod award for Excellence in Natural Capital, Climate Change, and Sustainable Communities thanks to Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI). We were really amazed to obtain this award. A few discussions followed and we had the opportunity to present our work in more details in this video.
Visit of Latvia
We were invited by the French Institute in Latvia to give a talk at the LAMPA festival this summer. We discussed circularity and plastic pollution within a panel of speakers. Situated on the west coast of Latvia, the town of Liepaja hosts a number the local environmental organisations, the house of nature and researchers that we had the chance to meet. They organised a nice beach clean with students. We then had a round table with the students to understand how plastic was flowing in their environment. It was very interesting. We noticed that ropes seem to be also an important problem on that coastline. We finally gave a talk in Riga about Plastic@Bay actions in Scotland, followed by a debate with the public. Latvia seems to be very engaged in finding solutions to their plastic issues. Generally, the people met said they thought they were not up-to-date with other countries but it looked to us that they were actually doing more than, for example the UK, to preserve their environment from plastic.
In 2020, we successfully crowdfunded our new prototypes of continuous extrusion thanks to the Aviva Community Fund. For COP26, Aviva came back to us and asked Joan to give a talk on our approach to combat plastic and reduce the footprint of the recycling solutions. They sent us a video maker and a photograph to make some clip that were shown at COP26 on billboards. They offered a free training on media communication before Joan pitched for the Aviva COP26 event. At the end of the event, we were offered an extra £10000 to pursue our project. We decided to allocate this money to the fundraising activities to maintain Plastic@Bay afloat in the next years.
We collaborated with Fiona MacKenzie from the Aberdeen Science Center to setup a mini festival exploring the coastline at Balnakeil Beach. We had several families coming over during the fall school holidays. We had a treasure hunt, made some microscope observations of a lot of beasties. We learned to recognise a lot of different things from seaweed to shellfish. We also had a lot of fun doing games with the kids to learn about tides and currents.
2021 was really an intense year. We were a very dynamic team with a lot of things being achieved in remediation, recycling, research and outreach. We would have not been able to do any of this without our intern Guillaume and our ranger Conor. We are very grateful for their dedication. We also had great interactions with other activists interested in Ocean plastics, low-tech, recycling, community work and local authorities. We also are thankful to all our customers, supporters, funders and donators that make us able to do our work. There is still so much to do to control the pollution in our area but there are also so many people wanting things to change.
2022 will be leveraging stronger collaborations nationally and internationally, Plastic@Bay is hoping to achieve more by developing the coastal ranger service in a different way, at a scale able to do more for Scotland coastline. Our new machine will be ready and we are hoping to get more communities onboard to get started too. A lot could be achieved and we are in the right direction to make things better for the ocean. We only need the means to achieve our goals of protecting our spaceship, the Earth.