SCOTLAND’S environment protection agency has come under fire after shocking levels of plastic pollution were found on beaches in the Firth of Forth.

Sepa has been told it is not doing enough to protect humans and marine life in the wake of revelations that the pollution was “beyond horrendous”.

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Expert Alison Reeves of the University of Dundee said Sepa was being “too passive” about the problem.

The research found that almost two-thirds of plastic pollution on coastal locations on either side of the Forth was in the form of nurdles, small plastic pellets about the size of a lentil that are melted down to make plastic products.

The study pointed out that the area is home to plastics manufacturers, suggesting that mishandling in the industrial process is causing large numbers of these nurdles to find their way onto the shores, posing a major threat to birds and marine life and, potentially, humans.

Bo’ness, a few miles along the coast form the Grangemouth industrial complex, was the single most polluted of the sites studied, with 9671 pieces of primary plastic and 4894 pieces of secondary plastic, such as bottles, removed from an area 3m2 and just 2cm deep.

The study at 16 locations was carried out by researcher Suzanne Grimes who retrieved 20,281 pieces of plastic from a total area of just 48m2.

“I have been teaching about plastic in the UK for as long as I can remember but even I was shocked by what Suzanne found,” said Reeves. “There are lots of plastic manufacturers and industrial companies in the Firth of Forth area and this is a serious form of diffuse pollution.

“An area which upsets me is Sepa’s behaviour as they are not ensuring that plastic production and transport is conducted appropriately. So many nurdles in the environment are from obvious sources around the Firth of Forth but the problem is that nurdles are not branded. If they were branded in some way we could trace back exactly where they had come from.

“We know where it is coming from but we can’t prove it. The majority found are round the area of Bo’ness so we can work it out.

“Sepa could be a bit more heavy-handed and really start trying to find the sources and the culprit.”

She said spills were probably happening at places like loading points and would then be washed into streams and rivers.

“That’s really the only way such a volume of plastic is getting into the Firth of Forth so Sepa should be holding producers and the transport companies to account.”

Reeves said nurdles were also being spilled into the sea by container ships.

“The containers are stacked so high and not really strapped down so if it gets really bumpy they fall in,” she said. “We know these things happen but we are not doing anything to stop it.”

Reeves said the first time she had sworn out loud in front of students was when she had been shown images from the research.

“I have been here 28 years and it is the first time I have used the F word when I have seen someone’s results,” she said. “It is beyond horrendous.”

Reeves said she thought it was wrong that manufacturers had no responsibility for any pollution once the nurdles had left their premises.

“If they have made something it should be their responsibility until it is made into something else,” she said. “Plastic production and transport is key and fact is that Sepa are powerless because nurdles are not branded.”

Grimes said she had been shocked at the scale of the pollution.

“It was overwhelming and disturbing,” she said. “What I found was worse than any previous attempts to gauge the scale of the plastic pollution problem had shown.”

A Sepa spokesperson said: “Sepa regulates sites that produce plastic pellets and is working with pellet producers to ensure that the risk of pellet loss into the environment is minimised.

“Sepa takes this issue very seriously, and relevant operators are required to monitor for pellet loss and take action where this is identified. Pellets have been manufactured and used in Scotland over a considerable length of time and it is likely that some of the pellets in the environment, particularly coloured ones, are historic and due to their nature will not degrade.”

However Fidra, an East Lothian-based environmental charity, said that while accidental spillage and mishandling by the large plastic industry around the Forth meant that nurdles had been washed into the estuary for many years, new nurdles were still being found.

The charity is now calling on all companies handling nurdles in Scotland to sign Operation Clean Sweep pledge, an international initiative from the plastics industry to reduce plastic pellet loss to the environment.