Designing new ways to make use of ocean plastic

Read the full story in The Conversation.

Beachcombing has long been a part of life for island communities. On the southwestern edge of Scarp, a small, treeless island off the coast of Harris in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, the Mol Mòr (“big beach”) was where locals went to collect driftwood for repairing buildings and making furniture and coffins. Today there is still much driftwood, but as much or more plastic.

Scarp was abandoned in 1972. The island is now used only in summer by owners of a small number of holiday homes. But across Harris and the Hebrides, people continue to make practical and decorative use of beachcombed plastic items. Many homes will have a few buoys and trawler floats hanging on fences and gateposts. Black plastic PVC pipe, in plentiful supply from fish farms wrecked by storms, is often used for footpath drainage or filled with concrete and used as fence posts. Larger pipe can be split lengthways to make feeder troughs for the famously hardy highland cattle.

Rope and netting are used as windbreaks or to prevent ground erosion. Many islanders use fish boxes – large plastic crates washed ashore – for storage. And there is a small craft industry that repurposes found objects as tourist souvenirs, turning plastic tat into anything from bird feeders to buttons.

But this beachcombing, recycling and re-use of larger plastic items does not even scratch the surface of the problem. The smaller fragments of plastic that are harder to collect are more likely to enter the food chain, or be drawn back into the sea. Storms cutting away at riverbanks often reveal an alarming plastic geology, with layers of plastic fragments in the soil several feet below the surface.

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