Doing a “Good Thing”
“I am furious” exclaims the supervisor at the Recycling centre, “I was just about to report your for fly tipping” he continues, “I know you are doing a good thing, but …… “
He is right. We are doing a good thing but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. We have met many lovely and helpful people, but on the whole we have been met with, “fury”, anger, “shock”, suspicion and aggression.
This is strange as all we are trying to do is clean plastic from beaches. . . for free.
Ideas & Beginnings
It is June 2021 I have been trying unsuccessfully for a year to crowdfund (just giving) a beach cleaning project. In a stroke of luck a research student from Bristol University contacts me about a funded (Santander) internship, and I decide to task him in setting up a beach cleaning expedition to remote Scotland, to clean plastic from beaches.
Lying in a Tent
1 month later I am lying in a tent wide awake at 7am, listening to the waves lap at the rocky cove about 100m to the west of where we have been sleeping. We are camping on Morag’s farm, luckily for us she is letting us camp on her there while we clean up a very polluted bay to the north.
The volunteers typically get up around 9.30, much later than I am accustomed but they are working hard, when they do get up, and they are not getting paid …… I have been very glad to have their help, sure they have been dragging bags of plastic up and down the beach for 3 days, but not to diminish this physical assistance, their biggest role has been moral support. I have left my young family behind in Devon to come a clean beaches in Scotland, and whilst I expected hard physical work I didn’t expect it to be so hard emotionally. The camaraderie of the group has been key to the survival of the project.
Cairo the Intern has been cold calling farmers for around 1 month, he is asking for the following:
1- “permission to camp” we can do this anyway under Scottish Outdoor Access code, but we are just being polite.
2 – Can we clean your beach for free.
3 – Somewhere to fill up water containers.
After 1 month of calls it’s time to leave and we have no place to go that wants us. The kit and supplies are purchased, the transport is arranged, 4 volunteers have committed to the week. We leave any way, Cairo leads the way our arrival delayed 3 hours by breakdowns, and we drive down a track to a Bay on the western coast of Dumfries, Scotland. We have about 1 hour of light left and so we make camp, cook dinner (consisting mainly of baked beans), talk for a few hours and then turn in.
The next morning we make a leisurely start, but by lunch time we have collected around 3m3 of plastic in dumpy bags. The plastic is mixed; old shoes, bottle tops, plastic drums and fishing net off cuts.
By the end of the day we have collected 8m3. The view of our camp from the south is blocked by wall of beach plastic, we light a small fire of driftwood cook dinner and enjoy good conversation. Things, I think are going well.
The next morning we make our first run to the local tip the community recycling centre. When we get back the volunteers Eve and Cally tell us the farmer has been down to talk to them, and would like to talk to me. I ring the farmer Christopher and he states he was “surprised” to see what is going on, he is thankful for us cleaning the beach but the good will ends there. We are asked to leave.
We have 12m3 of plastic waste to transport to the tip. I ask for time the next day in order to complete this. I was expecting that as we were cleaning Christopher’s beach for free some extra time might be offered. But no. I feel extremely disheartened. They is a lot more accessible plastic in the beach and now we have to waste time looking for a new spot.
The next day we start running the bags of waste to the local tip, it does not open until 10am. We can take two bags a time in the boot of our two cars. We start making runs early as we have to be off the beach at lunch time. We leave the bags in a lay-by near the tip entrance where we can drag them in when it opens, we have booked, several slots (COVID) to enable us to do this, come 11am we make our final run to the tip, I have taken Kally with me in my car to help, we wait at the tip entrance to be admitted the tip manager walks over or us “is this lot yours” (referring to bags of waste) he asks / states “yes” I explain how we have been asked to leave the beach by lunch time “I’m furious” he says in a raised voice “I was about to report you”, his face is red, and he leans on the car window it was a uncomfortable few minutes for us, but I remain calm and he allows us to bring the beach plastic in to his tip, but even this is cause for concern, “look we are a small tip (recycle centre) and you are filling us up”. There is space everywhere, within a fenced perimeter, we push our waste up in the skips to keep space for others, we need our bags back to continue the work.
So we leave the angry tip manager behind, and head off looking for another beach to clean, we know of a bay that is mounded high with marine plastic debris and head there. Here we meet the angles of the trip Bill and Jenny, and there friends (visiting) Simon and Lisa. After the adversity and obstacles of the last few days we are grateful for their kind words and encouragement. They give us the contact details for the farm manager (we need to ask his permission to get down to the Bay) but he is in Northern Ireland for the weekend. Bill offers to let us know via text message if he returns to the farm.
So we journey on to look for another beach to clean, we have just 3 days left of our trip and need to cultivate options to keep working. This time we hit gold Morag says we can camp in her field, and we are glad of the hospitality. So we set up camp and head off to explore the adjacent cove. The access is tricky, swampy, steep and in jumping over a fence Kally sprains her ankle, and has to limp back to camp. After getting an ankle x-ray at Stanraer hospital we return to camp at around midnight.
The next morning we receive a text message from Friendly Bill, informing us that the Farm Manager (from whom we seek “permission”) is back. But before we drive back to Bay 2, we have to discuss what is happening with our injured team mate. Kally’s ankle is now quite swollen, and she cannot put any weight on it. We are a day’s travel from home. At this point the whole trip really rests on Kally’s answer to the question “do you want to go home”. Thankfully the answer is “no” she will tough it out.
This is worth a little consideration. We are working hard, on tough terrain, sleeping rough on thin roll matts. We have no showers or toilets. We have one chair between us. Diet is monotonous, and mobile data is very patchy, so no internet access to speak of. No netflix to kill the time. Despite, all of this Kally makes the decision to stay for the remaining 3 days. Pretty cool.
We travel back to Bill and Jenny’s house. And we seek out the farm manager. I spot him driving past on his tractor and run over to talk to him. After some “pleading” on our side, we are given permission to clean the beach.
We put Kally in a wheelbarrow (no really), Bill & Jenny have lent to us and the five of us walked the ½ mile (800m) down to the bay. It is a beautiful bay, with steeply sloping vegetated slope, set back 50m from the beach proper with a grassed / scrub hinterland. The sea is clear, and rocky headlands stretch out on either side of the bay framing the sea, in the mid-morning light. The tide line is a continuous strip of plastic debris that runs from north to south approximate 250m in length.
There are 100’s of 25 litre drums visible, a huge section of polymer gas pipe, too heavy for 4 people to lift, and on close inspection the pebbles of the beach are mingled with thousands of pieces of plastic. I bend down to pick up a piece of rope, and find that it is buried in the beach, and I cannot pick it up, looking along the beach I see many more coils of rope, and sections of fishing net that have become buried in the beach. We will not be able to remove those.
The track we have walked down is not suitable for our cars, and so we have to drag out the waste.
Kujo has obtained some crème cheese and cucumber and makes the group sandwiches. After eating some form of baked beans for the last three days, the sandwiches taste amazing. After lunch we begin to collect plastic. We cannot drag dumpy bags up the hill to the road head, it is too far they will wear through. So we start to fill fish crates with smaller debris, and drag them up the hill behind us. We can take about 25 kilos at a time, and it is uncomfortable, slow & hot work. But we stick at it. No one has been put off, Will seams to relish the hard work and makes a man-hual harness from rope, and sections of car radiator hose that looks quite comfy.
Eve ropes together around 20 plastic drums, and drags them up the hill. Eve is small is stature but more than makes up for it in determination. If you ever wanted to see an example of “true grit” it would be Eve dragging her own body weight in plastic up a ½ mile track, after 3 days of being demoralised by the various beach owners, and other grumpy swine.
We soon realise that we will not be able to completely clean the beach. There is just too much plastic. We estimated we could fill 3 roll-on-roll-off skips with plastic off of the beach. It is not just the visible plastic strewn on the pebbles themselves it is the thousands of drums, crates and bottles that are scattered across the coastal hinterland, tucked in bramble thickets, are partially buried in the soil.
We decide to prioritise larger items, we figure the bigger the weight of plastic we can remove, the more particles that save from entering the sea. That night we finally fold, the all bean diet is getting to some of us and so we go to the pub for dinner. Chips. Speechless at their deliciousness.
We spend the following two days hauling bundles of drums, crates, and bundles of rope up the hill. Bill has lent us his trailer, we can fit 6 dumpy bags in the trailer, over the following days we make three trips to the tip, removing around 18m3 of plastic debris to the local tip. The guy at this tip is a gem, and everything we ask for is “nae bother”. Thank goodness for that.
The heavy physical work, of dragging the plastic up the hill has taken it toll on us all, we are all very tired. We are about to pack it in, when I remember a 25 litre drum full of used engine oil, that I spotted the day before. Despite being whacked out, I can’t stand to leave it so I make one solitary trip down to the bay. You can barely tell we have been there, there is soooo much plastic still left to collect. I find the oil drum, place it in a fishing crate and drag it back to the cars, and waiting crew.
Cairo leaves with the last trailer load for the tip, and the rest of us head for the beach. We have a long drive the next day, so we get early dinner and then head back to camp for one last evening chat. Despite all the hard work, both physically and emotionally the trip has been, overall, enjoyable. This is entirely due to the crew, the laughter flowed like water whenever we conversed and I could not have wished to spend a week away from my family with any better people.
The next day at a non-district motorway services we say our farewells, too weary for eloquence! And head off to our respective homes, for sleep and fresh vegetables.
Time for Thought
Over the following weeks I dissect the trip. Particularly dwelling on the hostility (which with the exception of Morag and Bill was widespread) . Why did we experience such adversity?
Some of the more hostile characters encountered had very poor people skills, and short tempers. I would have fully expected them to become angry at the drop of a hat. On the face of it then these “angry” people were the easiest to understand.
Pride also played an issue, the couple in the fish and chip shop who terminated their conversation with us, when they learned of our trips purpose likely felt that their pride had been hurt. English people travelling to their Scottish patch, which they are rightly proud of, and finding fault. This is also understandable.
Perhaps the most baffling behaviour was from that of the first Farmer. He was a well-educated, intelligent emotionally balanced man. Yet, he did not want us to clean his beach. He knew about microplastics, how they contaminate the food chain, and being a farmer he surely must understand the importance of food chains.
Yet, on us retrospectively seeking permission (we had tried to arrange in advance) to carry on with our good work, we were denied. We were then fed misinformation (false leads to follow) and given barely enough time to tidy up our collected plastic. Before our hurried departure. The behaviour of this man, to me still remains a mystery, and the most upsetting episode of the trip. How can a (likely) wealthy, educated, farmer look a group of volunteer beach cleaners in the eye, and tell them he would rather leave the plastic there, than have them stay.