From two miles off shore the narrow strip of golden sandy beach that runs the length of the east coast of the Tanger Peninsula glistens in the sunshine. It beckon to me, inviting me to walk its length, dip my feet into its azure waters. We drop the sails and motor into Marina Smir. While Julian takes our documents to the marina authorities, Lily, Katie and I walk to the wall separating the marina from the beach and look south along the endless sand. From here the beauty of the golden sand is littered with the detritus of human consumption. Plastic drinks bottles are the most obvious. But there is other plastic waste too – lengths of nylon fishing net, plastic bags, bits of rope. There is a beach hut, that in high season sells soft drinks and snacks and hires out sun loungers and jet skis. The man working there is raking sections of beach, creating mounds of rubbish here and there that I presume will be removed later on.
Two days later, the girls and I go to the beach for the afternoon. I am further appalled by the rubbish. I think of the article I have recently read, and briefly mentioned in an earlier blog, about the amount of plastic in the Mediterranean. According to research carried out by Andres Cozar and colleagues, there are around one thousand tonnes of plastic floating on the Mediterranean. 80% of this is micro-plastic, pieces of plastic 5mm or less.
The impact of these plastics is varied. The obvious impacts are the slow and painful deaths caused to birds, fish, turtles and cetaceans from eating plastics that they mistake for food. Stomachs get filled with plastic, making it impossible to eat, and animals die slowly from starvation. See Chris Jordan’s plastics photos here.The less obvious impact is from the consumption of micro-plastics which can pass through the digestive system, and which deposit toxins in the lining of the gut, leading to cancers and other diseases. These toxins get passed on from prey to predator through the food chain, and may well end up in our own bodies, as we dine on seemingly healthy seafood. Such plastics have been found in oysters and mussels growing in northern Europe.
I take some photos of the plastics on the beach and notice that drinking yogurt, Coke and mineral water bottles are by far the biggest offenders on this beach. This litter troubles me. It is one thing to teach my children not to litter and to be careful in their use of plastics. It is quite another to sit on a beach, relaxing and reading my book, while not doing anything about the litter all around me.
The next day the girls and I go back to the beach again, this time on a clean up mission. It is an impossible task, so I set us a goal. We will try to pick up as much litter as we can in the small stretch of beach along the tidal zone between the point where we enter from the marina and the point where we sat and played yesterday. It’s an area about 200 metres in length and 5 metres in width. I figure that the plastics in the tidal zone are the ones that are of the most immediate threat to sea life. Maybe I’m wrong. I have a couple of heavy duty plastic bin liners. I advise the girls not to pick up anything sharp, made of glass, or that feels like it might cut or harm them.
Among the plastic rubbish we find are razors, pens, plastic forks, tampon applicators, nappies, condoms, sanitary towels, fishing line, dolls’ limbs, chocolate wrappers, drink cartons, motor oil cans, bucket lids, shoes, sandals, flip-flops, beach balls, plastic bags, plastic flowers, plastic grass, sun lounger arm rests, sun glasses and of course the ubiquitous plastic bottles. In less than half an hour we have filled four bin bags with plastic.
Noticing an abundance of plastic bottle caps, I set the girls a challenge to see how many they can find in one minute. I set my watch. They bring me 65 bottle caps. The great irony is that most of these are blue – bottle caps from mineral water bottles, the commercial bottling of water being one of the most unnecessary of neoliberal capitalism’s many successful marketing ploys.
What most disturbs me and stays with me when I get my head down to sand level are the tiny particles of plastic that blend in with the sand. These micro-plastics are too small to pick up, and I can only imagine the mass removal of the top layer of sand could get rid of these. Looking at the sand from the eye level of a turtle or a crab, I see tiny specks of blue, green, red, yellow – plastics that will be in circulation around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years to come.
It would be all too easy to blame Moroccan holiday-makers for their poor attitude to littering, but a map of sea circulation in this western end of the Mediterranean tells a more complex story. The local currents here are circular, running clockwise along the western Costa del Sol in Spain, across the Mediterranean to this east coast of the Tanger Peninsula and back up to the Costa del Sol again. Much of the rubbish on the beach clearly is Moroccan, but given the currents, there is sure to be as much rubbish from the Costa del Sol here as there is Moroccan rubbish in the Costa del Sol. And all that unnecessary throw-away plastic, circulating around this fragile sea, is detrimental to the health of all life – non-human and human, here on the Mediterranean.
It would also be all too easy to put the blame solely on the shoulders of consumers. For this stuff to be consumed, it has to be produced and marketed and distributed to people far from the site of production. The yogurt cartons, soft drinks bottles and motor oil cans of multinational companies nominally from Denmark, the US and the UK carry within them stories of global capitalism and of the marketing of products that are often unnecessary, unhealthy, and hugely damaging to the environment.
And the Mediterranean isn’t the only place. The eastern Pacific gyre is a well-documented plastic patch twice the size of Texas floating in the waters between Hawai’i and California where, for every square mile of ocean there are 46,000 bits of plastic. All over the world there accumulation zones are growing in size. And as these floating plastic islands grow, birds, fish, turtles and cetaceans die slow and painful deaths from starvation or disease.
My children know not to litter. But not littering is not enough. We all need to clean up our act and clean up our oceans, for the sake of everyone – humans and animals.