World's junk washes up on deserted Scots island

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The Independent Online

It is the most remote place in Britain, a cluster of storm-lashed islands surrounded by the turbulent waters of the north Atlantic. Yet even St Kilda, 40 miles and several hours by boat from the Western Isles of Scotland, is not immune to the rising tide of rubbish polluting the world's oceans.

Discarded plastic containers that once held Brazilian mustard, Japanese detergent, Dutch yoghurt and French shower gel, as well as 149 mostly unidentified bottles were among more than 500 pieces of rubbish collected from the archipelago's only beach, Village Bay, on the main island of Hirta.

Staff from the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which manages the islands, a World Heritage site that is home to a million seabirds and just 17 humans, filled 13 bin bags from the 450-metre stretch of shingle during the two-day survey at the end of last month.

All the material is believed to have been swept on to the beach by the ocean currents - the islands are in the path of the Gulf Stream, which brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to the north Atlantic. Conservationists say the haul graphically illustrates the threat posed to the environment of the world's most remote and protected wildernesses from increasing consumer waste.

"The implications of this kind of discovery are horrendous," said Gill Bell, a beach campaigner for the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which runs an annual survey of more than 300 beaches around Britain. "It demonstrates how plastic just does not degrade and can pollute the environment in this way. And unfortunately it is entirely consistent with the findings of our own survey."

Sarah Money, the NTS seabird and marine ranger on St Kilda and one of three NTS staff resident during the summer months, said: "We take enormous care to ensure that all visitors take their rubbish away with them, and this is not the kind of beach where anyone would go for a picnic, so all of this must have come from around the world. It shows that despite being so remote, St Kilda is not immune to the problem of plastic marine debris pollution."

The five islands which make up St Kilda were once home to a hardy community of crofters who survived by fishing, eating seabirds and selling goods to passing holiday boats, but who were eventually evacuated in 1930 when their diminishing numbers threatened their long term survival.

Today, the islands are home to important colonies of seabirds such as gannets and have a unique dual World Heritage site status for both their cultural and natural significance. Apart from the NTS, the only permanent residents are 14 civilian employees of QinetiQ, the Ministry of Defence company which operates a radar tracking station for the missile-testing range on the island of Benbecula, in the Western Isles.

Visitors can arrive either by helicopter, private boat or by a three-hour minimum boat trip from the island of Harris, weather conditions allowing. Cruise ships stopping off can push visitor numbers up to more than 2,000 a year, although most stay only a few hours.

The MCS said some of the products could have been thrown overboard by passing ships, but others might have drifted thousands of miles on ocean currents. As an example, it said that in August 2005 a man in Long Island, on the eastern US coast, dropped five messages in plastic bottles; it took six months for one to wash up on a beach in Poole, Dorset. "But without the proverbial 'message in a bottle' it can be difficult to work out when products might have been dropped as many are sold globally with multiple languages on the packaging or can be transported anywhere by consumers," said Ms Bell.

While the rubbish on St Kilda came from a bigger than normal geographical spread, in sheer number of items it was better off than many other British beaches.

In 1994, on its first survey, the society found an average of 1,000 items of rubbish for every kilometre of beach, while last year the figure had almost doubled to 1,981 items. The survey covered 332 beaches with a total length of 100 miles.