Remote Pollution: The Outer Hebrides

It’s August 2018 and I’m tagging along on my boyfriend’s family holiday to the Outer Hebrides – a set of rugged islands located off the northwest coast of Scotland. Having been told by countless family friends that ‘it is like Barbados, but just with British weather’, I am excited to see a landscape entirely different from the rest of the UK. The website adds to the excitement further, describing the islands to be ‘one of Europe’s last untouched natural habitats’; complete with undulating hills, rocky coves, and crystal-clear water. I am imagining an untapped paradise, tucked away from the rest of the world’s concerns of plastic pollution and global warming.

We leave on a drizzly summer’s day from Oban, a nondescript Scottish town, that hasn’t much to offer other than its ferry terminal and whisky distillery. It seems most come only to leave a few hours later, and we too are the same. The ferry to Barra – the most southerly inhabited island – takes a few hours, but it nonetheless goes quickly as the weather brightens allowing us to sit at the front deck watching out for dolphins and quickly sketch the constantly changing landscape.

When we arrive at Barra’s Castlebay, the scenery truly doesn’t disappoint. The hills are a beautiful shade of emerald green, littered with colourful bursts of highland flowers, and the sea is just a truly captivating shade of turquoise.

Our campsite is located right along the top of a rocky bay, and after we put up our tent in the cool sea breeze, we head down for a refreshing dip. When leaving the water, we notice a whole ton of tiny translucent jellyfish that have washed up all along the shoreline amongst other paraphernalia such as bottle caps and broken-down crisp packets; something I didn’t expect in my untapped paradise.

A few days later we decide to go hiking along one of the white sandy beaches to watch the planes take off and land on the beach. Once the planes have gone, you are free to walk along the natural runway. About a mile around the bay, we notice an intriguing metal thing embedded into the sand. After much speculation we come to realise it is probably an old rusty car part. We wonder how such a thing could randomly end up here. Did a local accidentally drive their car into the sea at some point? Or did a car fall off the back of a cargo freight and disperse all across the Atlantic? I guess we’ll never know the real story.

As our walk continues, we notice more and more intriguing pieces of rubbish, coming in all varieties of shapes and sizes. Most notable of them is a large piece of plastic – which looks as if it was a part of a washing machine or some other household appliance – laying amongst the rock pools. The text imprinted onto it is not written in English and opens a debate as to whether it is Chinese or Korean. Regardless of who is correct, there is one thing we all undoubtedly agree on; it doesn’t belong here on the beach.

Without any discussion we begin collecting rubbish off the shoreline. It quickly becomes a competition. My boyfriend James and his brother Tom, take the competition entirely seriously, heaving enormous fishing ropes out of the water and onto the edges of the bay. We feel a sense of pride that we are doing our part, but also know deep down this is the tip of the iceberg.

Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans.

We discuss how this isn’t just a few people littering, but it is a part of a wider global issue. Fisherman are cutting these nylon plastic ropes when they get tangled at sea or are chucking them out into the ocean when they are frayed and no longer of use to them. While their job relies on having a bountiful supply of fish, they are paradoxically destroying their resources.

Approx 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution have been found per mile of beach in the UK.

As we travel up through the next few islands plastic pollution continues to shock and sadden us. On one of the days we find ourselves on a marine wildlife walk listening to an incredibly cool marine biologist named Daryl, talking about the sea-life population being in a state of decline.

He walks us up to a disused lighthouse, which has eerily derelict outhouses littered with abandoned snooker tables and vintage arcade games and as he does so he sadly explains that it might be too late to save some species. The Orcas in particular are suffering from infertility due to the sheer amount of toxic heavy metals found in the marine environment. What is more, marine wildlife is consuming non-biodegradable plastics at an alarming rate, filling their stomachs but leaving them starving.

100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million seabirds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually.

I wasn’t expecting when I first arrived in the Outer Hebrides to find that pollution in such a rural part of the UK to still be such a major concern. Away from the hustle and bustle of it all, the negative effects of the way we consume still blight these rural and detached islands.

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