WE arrived at Dunmore Strand beach, near Clonakilty, one Sunday morning in the early summer.
It was overcast — I know, hard to believe! — and we had planned a family day out, with a twist. For our youngest lad, Will, was a boy on a mission.
He was doing his Beavers Chief Scout Award and, for the environmental section of the badge, he wanted to collect plastic on a beach.
His aims were threefold: To make the beach a little cleaner; to show just how bad the problem is; and to draw up a report and photos of his task for the scout leader.
When we arrived, the beach was deserted and, on first glance, appeared to just be covered in golden sand. Hmm, I thought, this task could take quite some time.
It turned out I was wrong.
Will, aged eight, put on a pair of gloves and began inspecting the spots where the tide had just gone out. I looked on from a distance as he bent down to pick up an item and placed it in the bag, then a few paces on, he did so again, then kept repeating the exercise over a stretch of sand of perhaps 100 square feet.
A small speck of a small beach on Ireland’s vast coastline.
He had filled his bag to bursting with plastic, and other items of rubbish, in 15 minutes flat.
The task was done, although he filled another bag, just because he could, and because he was so shocked at the extent of the problem. He hadn’t had to stray far from us at all.
Looking at the discarded items, we shook our heads in disbelief. All of this fetched up in one small area on a single tide. The next tide would bring more, and more... on every beach up and down the coastline and on coastlines around the world.
It was so utterly depressing that we told Will to go off and play with his brothers before his day out at the beach was ruined by this environmental eye-opener.
It’s funny when you have a day at the beach with your family, and you often find yourself thinking of your own days out in those places as a child, with parents and grandparents.
I thought of Will possibly bringing his children to Dunmore Strand in the coming decades, by which time the water may well be inaccessible through all the detritus and gunk.
I pictured him taking his children by their hands, raising his arm across the apocalyptic landscape, and telling them: “I remember when all this was sand...”
Where did all that plastic and other rubbish came from? It sure wasn’t hurled into the sea by some careless and inconsiderate local litterbug.
Even when it’s in landfills, plastic is at risk of blowing away and ending up in rivers or oceans. Even more of a risk is plastic litter, which can be carried by wind and rain into our drainage networks or rivers that then flow into the sea.
Plastic is choking our oceans and killing wildlife, plants, and fish at a frightening rate.
And it’s not just an Irish problem of course, it’s global.
This is one of those issues that has almost sneaked up on us, but now the public are informed — and angry. They want something done urgently, but the politicians and big businesses are well behind the curve.
As members of the public, we can all do our bit to try to alleviate this situation, even in small ways.
A few months ago, after one TV programme about the plastic menace, we as a family took a small decision to never again buy ready-wrapped bananas.
When you think about it, it’s daft, isn’t it? Supermarkets sell them unwrapped and also pre-wrapped in plastic. We figured that if we bought ours unwrapped, it would make a tiny difference.
Maybe shops prefer them wrapped as it extends their shelf life, and do the same with other perishable items, but think of the kudos they could gain by banning plastic from their stores.
The Irish TV science presenter, Liz Bonnin, echoed this point last week, after she presented a frightening BBC documentary on this issue, called Drowning In Plastic. Among its distressing scenes were the sight of a baby seabird, which had never seen the sea, vomiting up 20 jagged pieces of plastic, inadvertently fed to it by its parents. The faeces of a walrus in the remote Arctic Circle was also found to contain plastic, underlining the scale of this problem.
Bonnin called for a ban on single-use plastics in the UK, and accused industries and politicians of not doing enough to tackle plastic pollution.
She added: “When it comes to all single-use products, I just think if we can live without them, we should live without them.
“Forty per cent of the plastic that’s prevalent in our society is single-use stuff that we can absolutely live without”.
Costa Rica has announced a ban on all single-use plastic by 2021. Here in Ireland, Environment Minister Denis Naughten drew up plans to introduce a ‘Latte Levy’ on non-recyclable coffee cups, then did a U-turn because he said the industry was taking steps to address the issue.
Really? When 22,000 coffee cups are disposed of in Ireland every hour, that is 528,000 every day, or 200 million a year?
There is so much more that politicians and businesses can do to tackle the plastic menace.
Then a thought struck me.
Couldn’t just one of the presidential candidates currently doing the rounds of the country, kissing babies and acting all statesmanlike, adopt this as their big seven-year masterplan?
They could be the world’s first plastic-free President, eliminating it entirely from the Áras, then using their position to highlight the problem, touring schools and businesses and spreading the message that plastic is choking the life out of our planet.
Think about it: it’s a non-political issue that all politicians would be happy for a President to do, and would enable him or her to leave a lasting legacy and shine a beacon to the rest of the world.
That would be a person I would be proud to call my President.
So, how about it, presidential candidates; the people are crying out for leadership on this, it’s a guaranteed vote-winner.