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Barking up the wrong tree: The Big Clean Up

Guest post from Beach Guardian

Over the last couple of years, litter in the natural environment has not only flooded the water courses across the globe, but also the global media. Never before has there been so much focus on the detrimental impacts of this relentless waste. However, there seems to be one massive overlooked issue that has become somewhat pushed under the carpet, or yet, left hanging on trees…

Dog On Dunes Resized

This is, of course, the topic of dog poo. It is estimated that the UK’s 8 million pet dogs produce approximately 1,000 tonnes of excrement every day. A 2014 Keep Britain Tidy campaign titled ‘The Big Scoop’ found that 9/10 dog owners will responsibly clean up after their dogs. But what about the minority that does not? And what about the dog owners that make this effort to wriggle their chilly fingers into an inverted plastic poo bag, haphazardly claw their precious pooch’s muck into their clasp but then gleefully hang the fouled bag onto a tree branch like a festive defecation decoration.

Clearing up dog poo and disposing of this properly, in a rubbish bin, is not just important for aesthetic implications.

Firstly, dog mess has been known to spread diseases such as toxocariasis. This infection is caused by roundworm parasites that are found in the digestive systems of dogs, cats and foxes, which produce eggs that are released in the faeces of the infected animals and thus contaminate sand or soil. These eggs have been known to enter the human body, commonly in young children, and once hatched, the larvae can spread to most areas of the body.

Though, just ensuring you pick up after your dog is only half of it. Once the faeces is safely in a poo bag, it is critical that this bag is put in a disposal bin. Plastic, as a material, was designed perfectly fit for purpose. It is lightweight, cheap, and incredibly durable. But this is exactly why it has been highlighted as such an immense issue. If these bags are left in the environment, they will remain for centuries to come.

For an episode of my weekly vlog ‘Tune in Tuesday’, I found 201 used dog poo bags along a mile stretch of the North Cornwall coastline, after witnessing the death of a calf nearby which, following a necropsy, was discovered to have ingested plastic dog poo bags which became lodged in its gut.

Unfortunately, due to the prominence of this littering issue, a wave of ‘greenwashing’ arose. By definition, ‘greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice’. You may have seen, or perhaps even purchased, ‘green/eco dog mess’ bags that are plastered with phrases such as ‘100% degradable’ or ‘compostable’. This has regrettably misinformed the many and led to the casual littering of thousands of single-use plastic products.

Generally, compostable products require incredibly specific conditions to breakdown as described, including high pressures and temperatures which often can only be achieved in industrial composting facilities. With our climate, and if these end up in the watercourses across the country and spill into the oceans, these conditions are entirely absent.

Furthermore, the products listed as degradable are equally as deceitful as they typically just break apart into microplastics, not break down. These microplastics continually fragment smaller and smaller into the sediment until ingested by the various decomposing invertebrates in the ecosystem. As is generally witnessed in a typical food web, these smaller organisms are henceforth munched upon by bigger beasties. This feast continues up and up until, you guessed it, we are there at the top of the chain as apex predators.

So to conclude, what is known to be a hugely common yet overlooked littering practise has some perhaps terrifying outcomes. Though, there are simple solutions. All this issue requires is an increase in responsibility and thoughtfulness from the minority of dog owners, to ensure that all faeces is cleared up on every walk and consequently placed in the appropriate disposal bins.

A local Cornish innovation from the coastal town of Newquay may assist you with this: a product called ‘Dicky Bag’. A small attachable neoprene carry case to hold bagged dog mess whilst you walk; completely smell proof and washable, easy!

So please remember, bag it and conceivably, more importantly, bin it! Thanks for reading. If you would like to find out more about the work from myself and Beach Guardian CIC, please head to www.beachguardian.co.uk

Emily Stevenson

Emily is co-founder of Beach Guardian CIC, a campaigning and education organisation based in Padstow that works to connect people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing. This manifests in beach cleans, school trips and working with tourist boards to raise awareness of plastic pollution. Find more about their mission here