Kirsty Andrews’ return to diving was marred by the presence of single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) that should have been safely binned.
One of my first post-lockdown dives was at Swanage Pier. A nice, safe choice: shallow enough to be unproblematic for someone not too dived-in that season, a shore dive but not too close to any tempting beaches that might draw real crowds (this latter a new consideration for 2020). I had a lovely time pootling about and reacquainting myself with the cast of characters I’d been missing, from busy, nest-building corkwing wrasse to feisty black-faced blennies and tompots to the flicker of passing shoals of sand eels in the dappled light under the pier legs. It was great to be back.
As I returned towards shore, my sense of serenity drained and was replaced by frustration and disgust. Watched quizzically by a spider crab, a blue plastic glove wafted offensively in the current. This too was a new sight for 2020, and not a welcome one.
You may have read my previous columns on the subject of plastic waste in the oceans. For a while it seemed that a momentum was building, awareness was increasing and people were taking action. Since Covid-19 arrived, I fear that not only has all progress stalled, but we have gone backwards.
Various initiatives worldwide to ban single-use plastics have been paused. Closer to home, many businesses are refusing reusable bags or cups and sealing everything in additional plastic as a sanitary precaution. I can’t blame them for trying to find ways to operate safely in a difficult situation, but I hope we can return to balance soon. In the meantime, we seem to be hell-bent on creating whole new sources of single use plastic.
In 2018, the UN Environment estimated that 13 million tonnes of plastic goes into the oceans each year - and that was before the avalanche of gloves, masks and hand sanitiser bottles. In July the BBC reported estimates that we were using 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves every month.
The French non-profit organisation Opération Mer Propre has reported increasing sightings of these items underwater as part of its Mediterranean Sea clean-ups; in Brighton, representatives of the Sea Life aquarium have reported birds with gullets full of latex gloves and crabs tangled in face masks.
I’m certainly not saying that we should throw precautions to the wind, but that we should try to protect ourselves in ways that don’t damage our environment as well. My poorly sewn but otherwise effective effort at a handmade reusable face mask is at least a start.
While I am on the subject, I will mention one more grievance. I can understand a preoccupation with preventing infection at the moment, of which single use plastics appear to be a regrettable but partially inevitable result, but what is completely unjustifiable is the carnage left behind on UK beaches after each sunny day. I cannot begin to understand how anyone can leave their rubbish behind them in the full knowledge that it will blow away in the air or into the sea or just remain there. Not just as a marine lover but as a human being, I cannot understand it.
Even organised beach cleans have had to be postponed these days due to concerns around group gatherings (not that it is acceptable to leave someone else to clear up the mess). I’m at a loss as to how to deal with this one for now. All we can do I suppose is try to set a good example.
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This column was originally published in SCUBA magazine, Issue 107 October 2020.
Images in this online version may have been substituted from the original images in SCUBA magazine due to usage rights.