The war on plastic in our crofting and fishing communities

Rebecca Johncocks converts fishing rope into doormats
PHOTO: Willie Urquhart/WHFP

We’ve swapped clingfilm for beeswax wrap, embraced the bamboo toothbrush and refilled our pasta jars, but the road to a plastic free planet doesn’t stop there.

Outside our kitchens and bathrooms and away from the supermarkets, plastic still dominates.

The durability and versatility of plastic means it is widely used in our crofting and fishing communities. A report from Zero Waste Scotland estimated that the Highlands has used around 190,000kg of LDPE (low-density polyethylene) for plastic bale wraps for silage.

And at the moment, there is no alternative.

In the past, crofters would dispose of plastic waste by incineration, but since a ban on the practice came into play in 2018, safe disposal has proved extremely difficult. There are no recycling facilities for agricultural plastic in Skye and Lochalsh and in order to recycle their plastic waste, crofters must obtain a licence and cover the cost of recycling and transport to the nearest facility in Invergordon.

However, progress is being made. In February, the John Muir Trust installed three Solway recycling bins for crofters in Sconser, Torrin, Drinan, Glasnakille and Elgol on Skye to allow them to recycle their agricultural plastic. The pilot scheme enables the JMT to collect, store and sort plastics such as silage wrap and feed bags before transportation to an agricultural recycling facility on the mainland.

John MacKinnon, a crofter in Torrin, said: “The scheme is a good asset to the crofters. We were kind of stuck the last couple of years. The problem has been talked about a lot and all sorts of solutions have been mentioned, but this is the first thing that has actually happened.”

Cathryn Baillie, Skye conservation officer for the JMT, said: “At present, JMT are going to cover the cost of transporting and recycling the waste, but if we want to encourage more crofters to join the scheme we will have to find a way to finance it. The further the waste has to travel, the higher the cost, financially and environmentally.

“Solway Recycling reprocesses agricultural plastic waste into outdoor furniture, chicken coops, dog kennels and even fenceposts. In the future, I hope that Skye and Lochalsh could replicate what we see elsewhere in Scotland and recycle our waste ourselves, creating employment opportunities locally and maximising on our resources. So much of what we discard can be reprocessed into useful items and there is no reason why the Highlands can’t profit, as we see happening elsewhere.”

A similar circular economy is emerging in the aquaculture industry. The world’s largest salmon producer Mowi, who have sites across Skye, Lochalsh and the Western Isles, released a sustainability strategy in 2019. Their ‘Blue Revolution’ plan states that by 2023 all of their plastic fish farming equipment will be either reused or recycled and by 2025, they will have “zero waste to landfill” at their processing plants.

Fishermen, however, face a bigger challenge. There are no local recycling facilities at all for the plastic items, such as rope, creels and fish boxes, commonly used by the creel fishers of the west coast.

Most fishing plastic is reused over and over again, but once it reaches the end of its usable life it all too often ends up in landfill or makes its way back into the sea.

However, in the north end of Skye Rebecca Johncocks of Shoretofloor has, for the past three years, been repurposing disused fishing rope into doormats and wall hangings. She explained: “I’m very keen to link up with the fishing community and beach clean initiatives, large and small, in order to divert rope from landfill.”

Like the majority of plastic, rope eventually breaks down into micro and nano plastics which are frequently mistaken as food by marine life and wildlife. One study found that a third of fish caught in UK waters, including species regularly present on our dinner plates, were found to contain plastic in their gut.

It is not only our planet and the life it nurtures which we need to protect, but our entire food chain. Aiming to get our weekly shop plastic free is a fantastic start, but it is just that, a start, one battle in this war against plastic.

Environmentally friendly alternatives in our industries are limited and until they become more available we’ve got to push for recycling. Gone are the days when plastic put into the recycling bin was rumoured to be just ‘chucked away’; plastic can and is being recycled.

A circular economy is emerging and it needs all the help and support it can get.

Helen Lavery, from Zero Waste Scotland, will be speaking on this circular waste economy in the Highlands and Islands on 10th March at the next Skye Climate Action meeting. Anyone interested can contact for the zoom link.