The unexpected effects of plastic on animals

By Cal Major

I became a vet to protect animals; to improve their health and take care of their wellbeing. My passion has always been in marine conservation and aquatic species, but I love domestic species no less.

In July 2017 I set off on a solo circumnavigation of the Isle of Skye, Scotland, on stand up paddle board.

I had expected to see beaches covered in plastic, as they are almost worldwide now due to the 8 million pieces tonnes plastic that find their way into the ocean each year. I even half expected to come across sea-life affected by it. But I hadn’t expected the biggest heartbreak of the trip to be witnessing first hand the impact our plastic obsession is having on… cows.

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Cows are brilliant. They are unassuming, stoical and beautiful. I worked closely with them for the first few years of my career as a vet, and so have a love for them that runs deeper than just their beauty; for their strength, loyalty and resolve. Having been thrown over a fence by an angry beef cow with calf at foot, repeatedly kicked in my shins, sat on by a calving cow, charged at by a herd of new mothers and told where to go by these powerful creatures more times than I care to admit as a newly graduated vet, I also have a deep respect for their power, and the ease with which they could seriously injure a human if confronted or threatened. For this reason, standing back and watching this beautiful animal, unwittingly vulnerable, chewing on a discarded fishing rope broke my heart. The beach in question was piled high with plastic. But also visited by sheep and cows, lambs and calves, picking between the plastic for seaweed and edible goodies, and inevitably ingesting the plastic waste too.

I was unable to get any closer to this cow than you can see in the following clip, an excerpt from Skye’s The Limit, the film documenting my expedition. I was completely alone, out of signal and miles from any roads or people on land. The cow and her bovine mates could have seriously injured, even killed me if she had felt threatened by me approaching any closer.

This story has a happy ending. But for how long? How long before she finds more plastic to eat, or her calf does, or the next cow does, or the next sheep? How many innocent animals are we going to subject to this before, as a human race, we say “enough is enough”?

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Later in the week I met a pair of farmers with a herd of prized white Highland cows. These cows were their pride and joy, the farmers knew them each individually, and even cared for the geriatrics of the herd.

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They had experienced this problem in their own cows. They had had to have several of their beautiful cows operated on, their stomachs cut open, to remove plastic that they had eaten off the beach.

We have a responsibility to ourselves, our own health, the animals in the ocean, but also our four legged friends closer to home. All of our health is linked – humans, animals and the planet, after all.

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10 Easy switches to cut down on Single Use Plastic

By Cal Major

In our culture it isn’t easy to live without single use plastic – that’s the stuff that is used for a matter of minutes and then discarded. Go into any supermarket and notice what most of the packaging is made of, and you’ll find it all over the shop, literally!  I’m not going to focus on the negatives here, but on positive solutions.

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By refusing single use plastic where we can, we are acknowledging that we don’t want to be a part of the damage that it is causing. This will inspire those around us too, and put pressure on companies to use less plastic in their packaging. It’s not about shaming or feeling guilty for the products we buy that are packaged plastic, it’s about being proud of the choices we make that do reduce the amount we use. We’ve a long way to go before plastic free living becomes commonplace, but as a wise man once said:

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

Here are ten really simple switches you can make to reduce your plastic usage.

1. Ditch the plastic water bottle.

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Lets start with the easiest and most obvious. Single use plastic bottles are one of the most common items of marine litter we find on beaches – over 150 litter each mile of UK beach! And yet with the safe drinking water we have in the UK, plastic water bottles are one of the simplest things to live without. Get yourself a reusable bottle, and get into the habit of filling it up before you leave the house, and refilling it when you’re on the go. It can be daunting at first, but I have never been refused a refill in pubs, shops, cafes, even the airport. There are also some great refill schemes around the country.

For places that have signed up to give you free refills, check out Refill

2. Take a reusable bag with you wherever you go

Since the 5p plastic bag charge was introduced to England, the number of plastic bags being used has reduced by 80%! But I reckon most of us now have been caught out and had to balance our shopping precariously and waddle to the car when we’ve forgotten our bags. Remember to take one with you for shopping, or keep one in the car if, like me, you’re prone to forgetting it.

3. Buy a reusable coffee cup.

Did you know, single-use coffee cups have a plastic lining? They’re really difficult to recycle as a result.

There are some really lovely reusable coffee cups out there for sale. My favourite coffee cup is a Klean Kanteen double layered vacuum cup, which claims to keep drinks hot for 4 hours. I can attest to this – I’ll sometimes forget I made a coffee, return to it 3 hours later to find it still piping hot. No posh coffee goes to waste on my watch!

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4. Microbeads

Microbeads are the ninjas of the single use plastic world. If you haven’t yet heard of them, they are tiny bits of plastic that sneak their way into some cosmetics such as scrubs. What’s particularly dangerous about them is that they’re washed down the drain, and eventually into the ocean, where fish can ingest them. They’re really tricky little bits of plastic because once they’re in the ocean, they’re impossible to remove. So how do you know if the products you’re using contain microbeads? Get the free Beat The Microbead app. You can scan the barcode on a product and the app will let you know if it contains them or not. Super easy. Then don’t buy it. There are plenty environmentally friendlier alternatives.

5. Sanitary products

This is often a tricky subject to broach. Ladies, I know as well as you do that compromising on sanitary care is simply not an option. It’s bad enough feeling that many emotions in the space of 24 hours without having to use something we’re not used to or not comfortable with. Well. Despite remembering very clearly my opinions on Mooncups when I first saw them advertised, I started using one a few years ago, and it has changed my life. We have periods for about 20% of each month, which is a fairly big chunk of time, so finding a product that works for you is really important. Not only has the mooncup meant I can be proud to have plastic free, and indeed completely waste free, periods, it also lets me surf longer without thinking about my period, travel without worrying about where I’m going to be able to get hold of tampons, and, in an unexpected twist, reconnect with my body and what’s normal for me with no unnatural products causing it harm. It’s a fluster-free period, and for adventuring, long periods of time out at sea, and comfort, for me it’s the only choice. If Mooncups really aren’t your gig, there are reusable sanitary towels too. If tampons are your go to and you’d rather not change that thank you very much, then there are plenty out there with cardboard applicators rather than plastic ones. If we think about how many we’ll use in a lifetime, making this simple switch can reduce plastic consumption a whole lot. And whatever you use, please remember not to flush any of it down the toilet. Even tampons can block drains, cause sewage overflows and end up in the ocean. And quite frankly, I get a bit squeamish picking up plastic applicators off the beach.

6. Fruit and veg

It can be a little bit tricky to find all the fruit and veg you would normally eat unwrapped. But there are ways! I’ve found an amazing farm shop in Halberton (Devon) which has loads of unpackaged fruit and veg including… drum roll… farm grown kale! Those of you reading this who try and live plastic free will, I’m sure, understand the significance of this: it’s really hard to find non-plastic wrapped kale. There are heaps of farms around the country that will deliver you a fresh, local veg box, and you can always ask if they’ll bring their produce to you without plastic wrapping. If your only grocery shopping opportunities come in the form of a supermarket, which is unfortunately often the case, then choose the loose items where you can and don’t take one of those little plastic bags too put them in – it defeats the object! Most supermarkets have at least some fruit and veg that’s unwrapped.

7. Straws

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I was recently in Indonesia, and in 20 minutes on one beach I collected over 100 straws. All probably used for a matter of minutes, then to persist in the environment, causing harm along the way, for upwards of 200 years. We just don’t need straws most of the time! There are medical conditions which require certain exceptions, but generally we can manage just fine with our lips. If you really love to drink through a straw, you can buy reusable straws which are really nice to drink from.

8. Meat and bread

I appreciate how hard it can be to source meat safely without plastic wrapping. A lot of butchers now will let you take in your own tub for meat to be put into. This includes the deli counters in Midcounties COOP stores, and in Morrisons! Buying from local butchers means you can also be more discerning as to where your meat is coming from, its welfare standards and the quality.

Similarly with bread, a lot of supermarkets have bread out of packaging, or better still can you find a local bakery to support?

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9. Shower gel

There are lots of home recipes out there for making your own shampoo and conditioner, and even toothpaste, so if that’s your thing, give it a google. A bit of advice from personal experience: if you’re planning to make your own conditioner with apple cider vinegar, just read the instructions properly and don’t get too excited like I did and pour the vinegar straight onto your head if you don’t want to smell like a bag of crisps for a week. Shower gel was, for me, the easiest product to switch. There are some lovely soap bars out there, check out Dr Bronners, or find a local producer – there are loads of places making soap bars now with no plastic packaging. They are more natural too and eliminate the chance of accidentally buying a product containing microbeads.

10. Household cleaning products

I use Ecover because you can refill the bottles at various places across the country, hence not buying any new plastic bottles. Their products smell lovely and are natural too, so you’re also not washing harmful chemicals down the drain to harm the environment. Ecover are also recycling marine litter into their washing up liquid bottles! Check out their website for more info.

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Remember – using less plastic in your life shouldn’t be a chore, nor should there be guilt for the plastic you do use. It’s about the empowerment and pride that comes from choosing to make positive changes in your life that you know safeguard the environment, both locally and at large. And the more important this becomes for individuals, the more pressure there is on companies to make it easier for us to live without single use plastic.

Thank you, and keep up the good stuff! We’re all in this together – collectively we can really make difference.