Storm Dennis, Storm Ciara – How Long Does Plastic Last?

Storm Dennis, Storm Ciara – How Long Does Plastic Last?

Storm Dennis, Storm Ciara – How Long Does Plastic Last?

The recent storms in the UK have given us an insight into just how long plastic can persist in the environment, with single-use items washing up on UK beaches from the 1950s and 1960s in recent weeks!

Big weather events like the recent winter storms in the UK create waves that shift sandbanks and wind that can erode sand dunes. These then release plastic that has been covered for many years and incredibly well preserved.

Documenting and researching the origins of such old pieces of our plastic past is the Twitter and Instagram account, @LegoLostatSea. The account, originally dedicated to the 1997 spill of 5 million LEGO, when a container came off the Tokio Express ship near Cornwall. To this day, LEGO daisies, cutlasses, seasgrass, inflatable boats and dragons washing up on beaches around the South West, as the sea releases more of the 23 year old hoard!

Lego Lost at Sea

Today, the account has over 10,000 followers on Twitter and works hard to identify particularly old, interesting or persistently found pieces of plastic and their origins. Through this work we can get an insight into just how resilient plastic can be to environmental factors, with pieces that are almost 70 years old washing up in February 2020, after being released from dunes or sandbanks by the high seas.

Cereal Giveaway Plastic Toys 60 Years On

Among solid plastic items they have found (see the pictures below) are a football spinning top from Kellogs Cornflakes from 1958, a Doby Washing up Bottle from the 1950s, a Tallon Jet car model from 1962 and a figure given away with Sugar Puffs in 1957.

Snack Food - a Moment on the Lips Half a Century Deep Under Ships

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that a solid lump of plastic can last a long time in the sea or sand, but even lightweight, single-use plastics like pots, bottles and even crisp bags can be found decades later. Pictured is a 1970 Moffat Maid Lemonade pot, who could ever imagine that this would be on a beach 50 years after it was consumed!

Moffatt Lemonade Pot from the 1970s

Balloons Blow for 38 Years

You will also see a Smurf balloon from 1982, lost or released deliberately almost 40 years ago. Balloons are obviously huge fun for kids and often seen as symbolic for remembering someone who has been lost, but unfortunately they are a particularly dangerous and persistent form of litter for wildlife. Some balloons are marketed as biodegradable or being made from natural latex, but sadly that still means they last months and possibly years in water, which is easily long enough for something to eat them, mistaking them for food.

Smurf Balloon from 1982 Found on Cornish Beach Clean

Indeed another item found by Lego Lost at Sea highlights that even natural rubber based plastics can persist in the ocean for 100 years, with “Gutta Percha” blocks washing up all over Europe from a Japanese World War I wreck off the Scilly Isles. 

Plastic as a Global Problem

Another very identifiable cargo spill that occurred was a consignment of HP Printer cartridges, which were lost 6 years ago and have been found in the US, Bermuda, the Azores, UK, France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Norway. Still more have washed up in Cornwall in the aftermath of Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis. This goes to show just how global the plastic pollution problem is, as what is dropped in one nation’s rivers, streams or drains could end up thousands of miles away.

Microplastic Tide

We did a video last year on the plastic tide we had seen in Malta on otherwise very clean beaches, which was largely composed of microplastic particles. Surfers Against Sewage, who we donate money to regularly, recently published video and pictures from Cornish beaches showed the shocking amount of plastic particles that were visible along the strandline (high tide mark) and in rock pools. This is what normally happens to aged plastic, it doesn’t break down chemically, it breaks up into smaller and smaller fragments, that become part of the sand, gravel or pebbles of the beach.

Microplastic on a Cornish Beach Following Storm Ciara

Aiming for a Non Plastic Beach

We salute the legions of regular beach and river cleaners who help stem the plastic tide and stop sometimes decades old plastic from remaining in our oceans. These volunteers play a valuable role in reducing ocean plastic and sadly it looks like we will need them for many years. We have always been focused on reducing the amount of plastic on beaches by reducing the amount people consume and therefore how much is produced, aiming ultimately for a plastic free or Non Plastic Beach.

Gutta Percha Block Washed Up On Cornish Beach

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