On a bright autumn morning, a colourful gathering is taking place on the banks of the River Kent. A team of local river guardians, campaigners and attenders at the Kendal Mountain festival has assembled to help with a regular river clean. We spend a cheery hour clearing the water and the banks of packaging, poo bags, broken hardware, stray underpants and diverse industrial debris.
Some of what we find has started to erode, corrode or decay, and I’m struck by how fragments of pot, bone, tumbled glass and natural fibre, and even some metals, feel almost wholesome in this context. Not so the plastics. The durability that makes these laboratory-created materials so useful has no match in nature. Most don’t break down in the environment, they just fragment, resulting in a distribution inversely proportional to their size. Hence 95% of microplastics in waterways measure less than 40 microns, too small to be filtered out, and most are wholly invisible. Those smaller than 5 microns are tiny enough to be absorbed into animal and plant tissues though gut walls or roots. We now find them everywhere we look, in blood and flesh, in sap and fruit, in milk and the bodies of the unborn.
Conversations around litter have become emotive and accusatory. Dom Ferris of the upbeat campaign group Trash Free Trails sees this as deliberate, explaining how tidy campaigns, which began in the US, were designed to deflect attention from manufacturers to consumers. Instead of challenging corporations to use reusable or recyclable containers, we started blaming one other. It’s a game that Dom refuses to play.
Returning to the festival, I notice an ornamental ginkgo tree surrounded by a carpet of acid green, bifurcated leaves. Ginkgos are famed for their hasty leaf dump – often shedding all their foliage in one day. In a year or less, the leaves will become humus, the rich black organic compost whose name is related etymologically to human – plants and people being equally of the Earth. But in this freshly discarded form, they are leaf litter, and I’m reminded that as a verb the word once meant strewing material for animals to sleep on. It shares a root with the French lit, meaning bed. Now it’s one we all lie in.
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