“The Great Atlantic Garbage Patch”

In 2018, in response to an online writing competition (which I didn’t win), I wrote about a post-Brexit, Tory-led Britain that had become a victim of its own shortsighted policies regarding waste.

Just call me Cassandra, I guess? https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/28/at-last-the-tories-prove-that-brexit-has-polluted-the-uk

The Great Atlantic Garbage Patch

“Prime Minister? We have a problem.”

The Rt. Hon. June Harvester, Prime Minister of the United British Territories of England, Cornwall and Wales, lay supine on the long-chair in her office, a damp flannel folded neatly over her eyes.

“Can it not wait?” she demanded, motionless but for a weak flailing of one arm.

The lackey, one Lisa Scrivener, cleared her throat.

“I’m afraid not, ma’am.” She cleared her throat again. “Frankly, it’s nothing short of a crisis.”

The Prime Minister peeled away a corner of the flannel to glare at her subordinate. Undeterred, Lisa ploughed on.

“I’m afraid you might have to raise the emergency response committee, ma’am.”

The PM allowed the flannel to fall back. Though her voice was weary, her words were clipped as she said:

“Not a chance. I’m so tired I couldn’t even raise an eyebrow.”

Lisa clasped her hands in front of her and waited, taking care not to note the presence of an empty bottle of London gin, which had been poorly concealed behind one leg of the long-chair.

A minute passed. Then, with an exasperated groan, Prime Minister Harvester swung her legs off the long-chair and, manicured hands slapping at the luxuriously padded upholstery, pushed herself into a sitting position. The flannel fell from her face and she swiped it irritably to the floor.

“What,” she growled, “crisis?”

Lisa took a deep breath before drawing out her tablet and casting the screen’s contents into the centre of the room. The two women looked at the semi-translucent global map hanging between them. Lisa tapped her screen and zoomed in on the continent of Europe. Through the projection she saw the PM wince and swallow hard.

“Warn me before you do that again,” she commanded, gulping again and smacking her lips. “I need some water.”

Lisa hurriedly set the tablet down on the sideboard, poured water from a crystal jug into a cut-glass tumbler and, stepping through the hologram, handed it to the PM. Sipping cautiously, the Rt. Hon. Harvester motioned for her to continue.

“You recall, of course,” Lisa began, trying to keep her voice steady, “that, following Brexit, the then-UK was unable to trade with continental Europe, due to the terms of our departure –”

“You’d better be going somewhere with this, Scrivener – and fast,” interrupted the PM, rolling the tumbler between her palms menacingly. Lisa nodded vigorously.

“Yes, of course – this is just a bit of necessary background to better explain the current problem.”

Prime Minister Harvester narrowed her eyes. “Go on, then.”

“As you know, we began ramping up trade with the Old Colonies and – thanks to the influx of big business as a result of tax breaks and deregulation, which, may I add, was a stroke of genius, ma’am – the manufacturing industry on the island has really bounced back.”

The PM contrived to look elegantly smug.

“However,” Lisa continued, “this has resulted in a massive increase in the amount of industrial waste we create as a country – notably plastics. Fortunately, thanks to clever trade agreements, we’ve been able to sell the majority of this to the American companies currently operating here in the UBT, who deal with it in their home territory, which saves us the bother of recycling it ourselves.”

“As much as I enjoy hearing praise for my actions,” the PM cut in, “I fail to see the ‘crisis’ anywhere, Miss Scrivener.” Glass still in hand, Harvester stood carefully and crossed the room to the sideboard. She opened a cupboard and retrieved a bottle of American rye whiskey, which she held up to the light streaming in through the window, admiring the warm amber glow of the bottle’s contents.

While the PM’s attention was diverted, Lisa took the opportunity to zoom out farther on the map, displaying Europe, the North Atlantic and the eastern half of the United States.

“The problem,” Lisa continued, “is what the Americans have been doing with the plastic waste once they’ve got it on to US soil. Their landfill sites are full, China won’t take their waste anymore, and – ma’am? If I could just draw your attention to –”

Harvester, having wrested the cork from the bottle of rye, was solemnly topping up the remaining water in her glass, an expression of intense concentration on her face.


The PM slammed the bottle down on the sideboard.

“Yes, yes, yes, you have my attention. What?”

“I’m going to alter the image again…”

The PM squeezed her eyes shut and took a gulp of whiskey. When she opened them again, the map was shifting with an overlaid display of oceanic currents, all helpfully labelled.

“What am I looking at now? And,” the Prime Minister added, holding up a warning finger, “I would be obliged if you could give me the abridged version.”

Lisa nodded.

“This is the Gulf Stream, an oceanic current running from the Gulf of Mexico up past the western coast of the UBT. Unbeknownst to us, the Americans have not been processing their – our – plastics, they’ve been dumping them in the sea off Florida. From there, the Gulf Stream – which is a particularly strong current with a stable path – has been sweeping the waste plastic North across the Atlantic. In short, it’s bringing it right back to us.”

Lisa tapped her screen and the map vanished abruptly, replaced by an aerial view of the Cornish coastline.

“Lisa!” The PM grabbed the edge of the sideboard and slumped against it.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Lisa said, sheepishly. She cleared her throat. “This is footage of Land’s End from this morning.” She paused. “You can see why I called this a crisis.”

Harvester, to her credit, barely twitched as the aerial view panned along the coast of West Cornwall, revealing a filthy crust of waste plastics that stretched several miles out to sea. When she failed to respond for a full minute, however, Lisa felt compelled to speak.

“We’ve had reports of the same phenomenon along the coast of Wales – it’s particularly bad at Aberystwyth, extending out by around eight miles – and the Isle of Man appears to be completely surrounded, to a depth of approximately fifty metres so far, according to a local diving company.”

The Prime Minister sat down at her desk and took a deep pull of her whiskey, rolling the liquid around in her mouth thoughtfully. At length she swallowed it, grimaced and said:

“How can we stop it?”

Lisa blinked.

“Well, we can’t; at least, not with the immediacy I think you’re looking for. As long as the Americans keep dumping this crap in the sea, the Gulf Stream is going to keep bringing it up here.” She took a deep breath. “Prime Minister, if I may be frank, this is something that needs to be addressed post-haste. Beach clean-ups just aren’t going to cut the mustard this time. If we don’t put a plan of action in motion now, we could be utterly surrounded by floating plastic by this time next year. Ma’am?”

The Prime Minister was staring into her glass.

“And there’s no way of altering the Gulf Stream, so it doesn’t bring it here?” the PM enquired.

Lisa blew out her cheeks, pleased that her degree in Physical Geography was finally pulling its weight.

“Well, eventually climate change is going to do that – the warmer the planet gets, the more Arctic ice melts, the more fresh water is released, decreasing salinity in the Norwegian Sea, which will cause the Gulf Stream to shift south. But that won’t really solve –”

She stopped speaking when the Prime Minister thumped her fist on the desk.

“Of course! I can do that; I can fix that right now. I just need to make a phone call.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am? I – I don’t understand.”

“Shh!” The PM held up a finger for silence, her other hand already holding the phone to her ear. She pressed a button and waited, then said sharply:

“Mike? June. How are we doing for stores of Newcombe salts? It was a mild winter, I know that much… Okay… I need you to get the whole lot up to Ragnarok Station… The Arctic research station… Today, yes… Yes, all of it – are you dim or just deaf… What did I say about your questions, Mike? Good. Let me know when it’s done.”

Harvester ended the call and drummed her fingers on the desk.

“Newcombe salts?” Lisa asked, bewildered. “Isn’t that –”

“Do you remember,” said the PM, talking over her, “a few years back, when the bloody tabloids ran a campaign demanding that we ‘do something’ about icy roads in winter?” The Prime Minister pulled a disparaging face and made bunny-ears around the words. “Well,” she continued, “we decided it was in our best interests – the public’s best interests, I mean – to come up with a solution, so we set up a research programme in the Midlands, and our boys there came up with these Newcombe salts.” She took another swig of her drink, spilling some as she set the glass down again. “It’s a compound that instantly melts snow and ice, and moreover leaves a residue that continues to work for several weeks, thereby preventing further accumulations.”

She paused, allowing a grin to spread across her face.

“I’ve just sent our entire stockpile up to the Arctic. It’ll be there by the end of the day. Once it arrives, I shall order the team at Ragnarok to distribute it across a section of the ice sheet, which – if I’ve understood you correctly, Lisa – will send a torrent of meltwater into the Norwegian Sea, which will shift the Gulf Stream south, and take all this plastic with it.”

Harvester beamed at her junior colleague, whose jaw had dropped.

“I don’t think I follow, Prime Minister…” said Lisa slowly.

Harvester gave a happy, two-handed shrug.

“What’s not to understand? Problem solved.”

“But –”

The PM waved a hand dismissively.

“Oh, I know that’ll probably leave us short if next winter’s a bad one, but the stuff’s quick to make, and if there’s a real issue we’ll just blame the Opposition.”

“Prime Minister,” said Lisa, desperately, “I don’t think you’re acknowledging the likely repercussions –”

“Such as?” rejoined the PM archly.

Lisa considered her options carefully and found none she liked.

“Think of the environmental impact..?” she hazarded.

When the PM had stopped laughing, she wiped a tear from her eye and said:

“To be perfectly candid, Lisa – to hell with the environmental impact. Sod the Île de Ré and bugger the Algarve. Do you know,” she said, shifting in her seat, “when we left the EU, they made things so bloody difficult for us – didn’t give an inch, the bastards – and do you know why? Because they don’t understand us. They’ve never understood us, never been able to make head nor tail of us, and for my money they’ve never bloody tried! It’s always been England versus the mainland. Well, screw them. They didn’t want to trade with us? They can reap the consequences. Didn’t want to buy our recyclables? Well, now they can have them for free!”

The PM had risen from her seat and was leaning forward, one hand on the desk and the other gesticulating wildly. Lisa took an involuntary step backward and bumped into the closed door.

Prime Minister Harvester heaved a sigh and ran her fingers through her flattened perm. She sank back down into her chair and spread both hands, palms down, on the soft leather surface of the desk. By her left hand, the puddle of spilled whiskey gleamed.

“But, yes,” she said quietly, “perhaps I’ve made an error of judgment.” She patted the desk once with both hands, decisively, and smiled. “But I can fix that, too.”

Lisa looked relieved.

The Rt. Hon. June Harvester stood up, downed the last of her whiskey and straightened her navy jacket.

“I simply cannot have naysayers around me in a time of crisis. You’re fired, Miss Scrivener.”