France for me has long been paradise, for the last 25 years I’ve made a pilgrimage to the sand bars of Hossegor and Capbreton, and now I look back, there has always been rubbish on the beaches. I remember one particularly stormy spell followed by one of those perfect barreling days where we were literally surfing through rubbish. it sticks in my mind because there was a mannequin in the water which we all thought was a body. That was 17 years ago, and there has been a lot more plastic and other rubbish entering the water ever since. Back then I thought the tractors on the beach were cleaning up from inconsiderate beach users but this couldn’t be further from the truth, they are actually filtering out rubbish from what was washing up. So with this in mind, I headed down to France for the first proper mission of The Plastic Project.
Dynamics of The Bay of Biscay
One of the first things you have to understand about the problem in France is The Bay of Biscay. Essentially and very simply the bay almost acts as an eddy in The North Atlantic. At the end of an offshoot of the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic Current, currents and their associated debris enters the bay, but not so much leaves. Couple that with prevailing onshore winds, and it’s easy to see how any plastic/marine litter isn’t going to go anywhere but to the bottom or eventually get washed up. It means there are patches of litter, nothing on the scale of The Pacific Garbage patch, but crazily high numbers. Just looking at the research and it’s pretty shocking, in some areas after calm conditions researchers have found up to 160,000 pieces of litter per square kilometres. So it’s not difficult to see how after a big storm this comes ashore with swell and onshore winds onto the beaches of South West France. The most recent survey of these came up with the startling figure of 3800 pieces of marine litter every 100 meters, yep you read correctly, every 100 meters. That includes tiny mermaids tears to plastic bags. Interestingly on the beaches plastic bags make up a smaller percentage of the rubbish, under 20% in most places, but at sea up to 95% of all litter are bags. One interesting point is that these bags spend a lot more time suspended or on the sea bed than a lot of rubbish. So they are the stats which I promised not to go on about, so what does it mean on the beach?
So making it simple, what happens in France is, plastic ends up in The Bay of Biscay, it stays roughly in position in a weak eddy, until storms blow it ashore. So sadly for the beaches of France they will have a steady supply of rubbish for a very very long time. That high tide line or storm line is always littered with tiny to large pieces of plastic. It almost feels like it’s normal, only after big storms are there huge amounts, most of the time it’s just a constant.
What can we do?
When I started this project, it was about inspiring people to change the way we deal with plastic and all of our waste in general. Originally it was all about exposing the incredible pollution due to marine litter in Northern Europe and The Arctic, areas of unseen beauty, but having been in France, it became logical to start somewhere which most of us already know about. The thing in France is it’s on a level that is almost part of the environment, when I post up an image of a bottle in a remote corner of Iceland or a beach waist deep in plastic in Norway it’s far more shocking, but the reality is the constant stream of plastic onto the beaches of France is as shocking, and even if we stopped using plastic/never allowed any to go into the Atlantic again, there would be no change to the situation in my lifetime.
The Bay of Biscay isn’t over, I’ve got myself on a boat to go out and see first hand the situation at sea, that will wait till spring though, I’ve been in storms on the Bay of Biscay before and it is less than pleasant. Now it’s all about heading north, I have a series of three expeditions before Christmas, you can follow them all here, on my Facebook and Instagram as well as any of the sponsor’s face books and Instagram. If you want to support this mission you can do here, I’ll send you prints and postcards from every mission and you’ll get a heads up for any talks or workshops I’ll be doing.
I’ve just done a cold water talk and an intro to the plastic project at The London Surf Film Festival, next up I’m a panellist and will be working on the communicate your adventure desk at the Royal Geographic Explore weekend in November.