Challenging Habitat Blog

Saturday is burning day!

Have you ever noticed the black columns of smoke rising to the sky in rural England on a Saturday evening?

Saturday is burning day for waste that isn’t legal to burn: bailing plastic, tyres, feed and fertiliser bags, plastic gloves, udder wipes, worming tubes…who knows what else.

The local council offices, the Environment Agency and DEFRA can’t be reached on Saturday evening, so nobody can report the illegal fire while it’s burning.

And in winter, plastic waste can be burned under the cover of darkness without having to stay up late…

… just as happened last night on a farm in the valley.

I smelled the acrid plastic fumes as soon as I stepped into our orchard before dinner, a stink that brought me right back to my childhood, when my dad burned the plastic wrapping of the blocks he built our house with.

That was in the early 1970s, and while the smell should have told us that all is not well with the practice then, detailed knowledge about the toxins released from low temperature open fires are now more common knowledge than when I was a kid.

Not that I want to excuse what went on on our building site – not at all! It was common practice then and it was wrong, even then. I am saying that we should learn something and change or behaviour accordingly.

Today, someone would have to try very hard to remain ignorant of the fact that burning plastic releases harmful chemicals into the air, soil and water.

Just one example of information freely available on the internet: Alexander Cogut (2016) has published a comprehensive overview over global open burning of rubbish, and at that time, approximately 41% of global trash was ‘disposed of’ in that way.

Do we really want to tolerate this on English soil? In 2021?

Cogut’s report highlights that the open burning of waste is carried out at relatively low temperatures and for that reason, releases a variety of pollutants. The main issues are:

  • greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane
  • particulate matter, which is air pollution that can cause severe cases of respiratory disease and coronary disease
  • persistent organic pollutants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans, all of which are known to cause cancer (carcinogens) and have been associated with causing other diseases.

Toxins are known to be particularly harmful to unborn fetuses, infants and children and can cause severe developmental damage in the young – in addition, air, soil and water pollution also damages ecosystems and wildlife.

Even if ignorance persists, ignorance is no defence in front of the law:

The Waste Management (England and Wales) Regulations 2006 classify agricultural wastes as ‘controlled wastes’ and it is prohibited to dispose of it by burning or burying. That includes, among other materials, plastic, foil, containers and even cardboard. Farmers have a legal duty to send waste off their farm, to be recycled, incinerated or go to landfill. Moreover, waste can only be transferred to authorised persons and a Waste Transfer note must be provided to show lawful disposal.

That’s a far cry from what happened last night!

Perhaps burning on site is permitted again since the UK left the EU???

Nope! Just checked – as of today, 17 Jan 2021 there are no known changes to EU legislation related to the Waste Management (England and Wales) Regulations 2006.

I am writing here about general principles, not a single incident near where I live – that was just a trigger to get this off my chest!

Saturday is burning day all over rural England!

Update: I wonder how much plastic is used to light wood burners every day ????

Littering is one of my pet-hates. This reminds me: I’ve said that before, during the first COVID-19 lockdown in the first series of ‘Outdoor Daily’ (now, there is consistency for you…).

Anyway, littering is unnecessary, careless, inconsiderate, unsightly, polluting, damaging to wildlife…need I say more?

The featured image shows a common occurrence in the Tamar Valley, where my daily walks with my dog T’isker take place these days. They are the plastic skeletons of shotgun cartridges and their contents. I find them in fields and along hedgerows, on field margins and in the reed beds of the estuary and the beaches of the Cornish coastline.

Likely sources are people using shotguns for controlling vermin (rabbits, rats, perhaps some crop-threatening birds) and people shooting for fun (pheasant and partridge, also rabbit and wild geese).

Question is: how many of the people using shotguns and other guns in the countryside are actually picking up their spent cartridges?

My friend Alan told me that it is a no-no to not pick up your spent cartridges…

Between 2008 and 2019, UK sales of cartridges and other ammunition were worth between a stunning £51000000 and an even more stunning £79000000. Wow! I don’t know whether this includes ammunition for the police (I doubt it) or the armed services (I doubt that even more).

Let’s just have a little back-of-the-envelope calculation:

  • say 50% of the money spent is on shotgun cartridges for use in nature (around £30 million)
  • perhaps people buy large volume to get a discount, and popular brands go for £200 – £300 per 1000 cartridges
  • so, at around £250 per 1000 rounds, that makes around 120 million individual shotgun cartridges

Perhaps that calculation is inaccurate, so I’ll try another one:

  • some 60 million game birds are reared and released into the wild every year by the industry, around half of which are killed during organised shoots
  • that’s 30 million dead birds, perhaps that means 30 million cartridges fired, but I guess it is more like four or more times that number (Alan also told me that a 1:4 hit rate is pretty good)
  • so, that leaves around 120 million shotgun cartridges spent on shooting pheasants and partridge on organised shoots
  • the rest of the cartridges are fired elsewhere, for other purposes

Either way, we are talking tens of millions of shotgun cartridges fired each year.

How many of the spent cartridges are being picked up? 30 million? 60 million? Most of them?

Either way, there is a mountain of waste generated, including valuable resources for recycling (e.g. metal from the primer)

What happens to those that are left in the landscape? Well, they contain quite a mix of stuff:

  • A plastic (sometimes paper) case
  • Primer (the metal end of the cartridge, steel or brass)
  • Propellant (the powder that goes ‘bang’)
  • Wad (plastic, cork or fibre – determines how the shot disperses)
  • Shot (metal pellets in steel or lead, containing 2-5% antimony, perhaps some nickel or copper coating)

I guess the propellant will get burned and becomes atmospheric pollution, the shot finishes up in the game and on the ground or in the water, the primer, wad and the plastic case drops to the ground or in the water near the gun. That’s a lot of plastic and metal introduced to nature…antimony is quite toxic and so is nickel is.

The good news: there are shotgun cartridge collectors on the market, so I guess some people pick up after themselves. Perhaps a well organised shoot will lay down some rules and see that they are followed. There is a legislative move from lead shot to using steel, which is less toxic and more inert in the environment and therefore less polluting. And the use of plastic wad is increasingly frowned upon, again something that could be encouraged by rules on well managed shoots.

The bad news: I keep finding these debris in nature…and so do other people:

"Shotgun cartridge on beach" by Robin Kearney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“Shotgun cartridge on beach” by Robin Kearney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Featured image: plastic shotgun cartridge wads in the reed bed of the Tamar estuary, UK.

Watch a summary of the circumnavigation and big thanks to World Parks on YouTube:

The Australian government is planning to build a massive concrete airport on Antarctica, The Guardian reports today.

Nobody actually owns Antarctica – it is governed internationally by the Antarctic Treaty.

The Australian government justifies their airport plans by arguing that it is necessary to ensure continuity of access to their research base.

Somehow I don’t fully buy into that argument, nor do many of the scientists and environmentally minded, The Guardian interviewed for their article.

Building that airport will be a slippery slope, a precedent for other big infrastructure projects on the continent.

It has the potential to broaden the pursuit of profit from the exploitation of resources and tourism in the Southern Ocean to the landmass of this great wilderness, with all the usual disrespect for nature and wildlife seen on all other continents.

Can this project, and others not motivated scientific research and unperturbed by consideration of sustainability, be stopped?

I think it is imperative to do so.

Featured image: “Globe centred on Antarctica – Satellite image – PlanetObserver” by PlanetObserver is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’m just returning from the dentist minding my own business and am stopped by a column of 16 SUVs (you know the type: Range Rovers and Japanese models with names, such as animal, terminator, dominator or whatever…) pouring out of the country lane I need to turn into.

A sure sign that the pheasant shooting season on the grand estate nearby has opened.

Quite apart from the issues I raised recently relating to the negative impacts of releasing millions of pheasants into British ecosystems, the paraphinalia that go with the shooting sport have, in my view, a serious issue with sustainability.

SUVs are largely a status symbol for city dwellers and the vehicles of the ‘sportsmen’ I encountered today were specklessly clean and pristine, indicating that they weren’t exactly utilised for off-roading on a regular basis.

They were large models.

According to recent research, the increase in SUVs on our roads were the second largest contributors of the rise in global CO2 emissions since 2010, behind power production.

If that wasn’t enough, they are largely diesel engines, which are responsible for the pollution of our air with small particular matter that gets into our lungs and blood stream, with the potential to cause many diseases, including cancer, and premature death.

I’m not a fan of SUVs, especially when they are used for journeys that a normal car can do, or for the ‘sport’ of shooting.

I’m back on the Pelican of London for the final day of the voyage: up the Thames, through Tower Bridge (twice) and the final docking at Canary wharf.

It feels strange to be socially distancing from people I lived and worked with, as recently as last week, in a covid-19 free bubble. …and I’m gutted not to be part of the crew maning the yards on our sail through the bridge.

It’s clearly scenic in its own way, and photographers aboard are as busy as ever. As environmental scientist, I preferred the more natural and pristine land and seascapes of Scotland.

The river is busy and unfortunately carries a lot of floating litter. I chose to show one of the less revolting items …

Exciting times: getting aloft for the sail through Tower Bridge!

Getting ready…
… opening just for us…
… Imogen leading a shanty….
…a job well done, just enjoy it now!

As the afternoon fades, we enter Canary wharf to dock for a final time on this voyage.

We’ve arrived!

A final evening of celebrating a fantastic journey lies ahead and then it’s good bye (for now).

This morning the science conference brings together all the projects we’ve been running aboard the Pelican of London.

First off – wind energy with Lorimer and Jasper, here explaining plans for a new wind farm in the Thames estuary.

Find out more about our wind energy activities here

Kerry and Aoibhinn present data of macroplastics collected during systematic beach cleans that will also be reported to the Marine Conservation Society.
Abigail, final year Environmental Science student at the University of Plymouth, talks us through nutrient concentrations around the British coast and relates it to the objectives of Water Framework Directive for coastal and transitional waters.
Thomas introduces the world of plankton with data from Scottish and Irish waters and wonderful images and film taken with digital microscopes.

Find out more about plankton on our voyage there:

Joe collated all 110 individual sightings of whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sunfish on a database that he visualised on Google maps. The data will be sent to the Seawatch Foundation for further analysis.
Shaolin presented extensive background information about microplastics in the oceans, from sources to impacts. Amazing numbers of these particles and fibers were detected by microscope in dust collected in the mess, the washing machine, deck scrubbings, sea water and sediment.
Molly compared traditional and modern ways of measuring temperature at sea.
The impact of microplastics on the geological record during the Anthropocene is explained with exhibits by Imogen and Penelope. An excellent food for thought with respect to making choices about our personal choices and behaviour, as well as what we want to achieve in life.

Tomorrow, we’ll be filming each projects in more detail.

Featured image: Copyright Dr Rohan Holt. Diver: Kelly Mackay

Our scientific observations and experiments are contributing to a puzzle from which stories emerge…

Soon, we will be able to provide a snapshot of water quality data at locations around Britain.

We are compiling a list of bird species seen during our voyage and obtain a count of marine mammals sightings.

Plankton net analyses provides data on groups of plankton and microplastics found suspend in the water column.

Many questions have already arisen:

How will all the plastic reflect our age in the geological record?

Fibres settled out of the air in the mess of Pelican during our voyage.

What can we learn from shedding of microfibers about our next purchase of outdoor clothing?

What processes impact on phytoplankton growth in estuaries?

Actually, what exactly is pollution?

These are just some of the stories championed by our young scientists on board, and we look forward to seeing each of them report to you before the voyage is completed.

Your litter may end up at sea! Watch this video to learn more about research aboard the Pelican of London

Tiny particles of plastic – below 5 mm in size – are called microplastics…and even where you can’t find them with the naked eye, at a microscopic level, plastic particles are present in almost all water samples…

Learn more about what the Darwin200 team found here:

The Darwin 200 team, Stew, Rohan and Stew are producing a series of videos from our voyage of sail training, nature observation and pollution surveys.

Although I was not on board for the first 11 (!) of these, I’ll post them here for their ‘seriously watchable’ value.

Happy viewing!

Darwin 200 Liverpool

Darwin 200 Episode 2 Planning the Science

Darwin 200 Episode 4 Dolphins

Darwin 200 Episode 5 Tackling Plastics

Darwin 200 Episode 6 Life on Board

Darwin 200 in Plymouth!

Darwin 200 Episode 7 Journey to the Scillies

Darwin 200 Episode 8 More Plastic!

Darwin 200 Episode 9 Diving in the Southwest

Darwin 200 Episode 10 Sunfish

I’ve recently reported on the risk associated with recreational activities or working on an abandoned copper and arsenic mine in the Tamar Valley, UK. Read these posts at ‘Challenging Habitat‘ and ‘Arsenic Health Risk at UK World Heritage Site‘.

The research attracted news coverage in local papers and BBC Radio Devon and I made local stakeholders aware of it.

I am pleased to see that the landowner of this site has acted responsibly and barred access to arsenic contaminated spoil heaps for sport. As a result, the cycling club Gawton Gravity Hub, who manages access to the site for mountain biking has installed new signage reflecting this change and sturdy timber bars prevent accidental trespass of no-go zones. The most toxic downhill routes are now blocked.

Still, access to the most dangerous part of the site, the area around the ruins of the arsenic processing and refining facilities, is still permitted.

While display boards warning of toxicity and explaining the process of arsenic sublimation and condensation in the calciners and labyrinth are fading, the path once covered in imported ‘inert and clean’ gravel is contaminated with arsenic dust.

More concerning still, just one step distance off the path, the stone and brickwork of the labyrinth undergoes wetting and drying that brings ‘blooms’ of efflorescent salts that are rich in arsenic and highly toxic.

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