Object Two: Pink plastic bottle

Pink detergent bottles wash ashore on Poldhu beach, Cornwall. Image courtesy of Aerial Cornwall
Pink detergent bottles wash ashore on Poldhu beach, Cornwall. Image courtesy of Aerial Cornwall

At the start of 2016, thousands of pink, plastic bottles arrived on the UK coastline. Like a day-glo naval assault, the bottles invaded the Cornish coast in south west England, thought to be the missing cargo from a shipping container declared lost by the M.V. Blue Ocean in May 2015.

Across Cornwall, reports emerged of wave crests turning pink with the sheer number of bottles washing ashore. A relentless clattering of plastic smashing on the rugged coastline and an overpowering smell of bleach at the water’s edge indicated the invasion had begun. Ironically, the bottles contained Vanish, a household stain remover. Despite its name, the local coastal communities had no option but to rally together and rid their beautiful beaches of this pink peril.

In the Twenty First Century, incidents like this only serve to highlight our over dependence on imported goods. In the UK at least, almost everything we own has arrived by sea. In her book, Deep Sea and Foreign Going, Rose George explains that a startling 90% of the goods in our homes have arrived by cargo ship.

The desire for cheaper labour and production costs often means products are manufactured far from their country of use and rely heavily on the shipping industry. In 2013, the World Shipping Council reported that 120 million containers were moved around the planet, so cargo spills must be a frequent occurrence.

The global market offers manufacturers cheaper labour and materials but all too often in the case of cargo spills, a hidden price is paid by those coastal communities saddled with the clean up operation. It is their tourist industry and fishermen who suffer. Container losses are impacting the marine environment in ways that have yet to be fully understood and undoubtedly this will be a price we all end up paying as materials are broken down and enter the food chain.

Almost all aspects of our daily life are represented along the tideline, from cosmetics to clothing, toys to trainers, and this latest pink arrival is sadly nothing new. With time, these bottles will become another anecdote when walking on the shore, a story to be told about container spills, much like Lego, motorbikes and even space debris, or the Hewlett Packard printer ink cartridges that also made the news this year.

More newsworthy items certainly capture the public’s imagination, like the 28,000 yellow ducks that spilled from a container lost in the Pacific Ocean back in 1992. Knowing what to look for, it became a novelty for the public to spot the ducks and provide data for studying oceans currents, as made famous in Donovan Hohn’s book, Moby Duck.

The shipping industry exists largely unnoticed beyond the horizon until news of a container spill brings objects ashore, and to our attention. Hundreds of identical domestic products strewn across a beach do create an uncanny spectacle.

Now these pink bottles have vanished from the headlines, we must remember that twice a day on every beach, thousands more non-descript, orphaned objects arrive, only to be washed out to sea again twelve hours later on the turning tide.

What is the message in 27,000 pink bottles? Is it that these bright pink splinters on the shore will not vanish? On the tideline, they persist in telling a tale of global economics, signifying our hunger for cheaper and cheaper prices via mass production. These pink plastic pieces expose our ignorance of the real cost – one which sadly cannot be measured in pounds and dollars. In our global community, flotsam knows no boundaries, carries no passport and is moving freely around the planet.

Further reading

  • Clare, Horatio Down To The Sea In Ships (2014) Chatto & Windus
  • George, Rose Deep Sea and Foreign Going (2014) Portobello Books Ltd
  • Hohn, Donovan Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea (2012) Union Books