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The Great British Beach Clean

Great British Beach Clean

This week we’re going to be joining in with the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) Great British Beach Clean. This takes place every September and this year is running from the 16th to the 25th of the month. Thousands of volunteers at hundreds of events around the UK not only pick up litter from our beaches but record what they find to help drive change. The week also ties in with the International Coastal Cleanup, which began over 35 years ago in the US.

What Is the Great British Beach Clean?

The MSC’s Great British Beach Clean combines two important aims. The first is to get us out onto the UK’s beaches clearing up the enormous amounts of litter that end up on our coast. Beaches are hit by a double whammy of debris, with litter arriving by both land and sea. This includes public littering on the beaches themselves, debris from the fishing and shipping industries washing up onshore and items from our sewage network, such as tampons and wet wipes. Because a sizeable proportion of all this waste is plastic and doesn’t break down easily, the consequences are long-lasting and lead to a dangerous build-up of harmful items in key areas for wildlife.

Great British Beach Clean litter
Food and drink packaging is one of the commonest forms of beach litter

The second aim is to act as a citizen science project and collect data so that the MCS can target their campaign work effectively. During their beach cleans. volunteers record the types of litter they collect in a 100-metre stretch. This information is crucial as it shows where beach litter comes from. This in turn highlights where they need to direct their campaigns in the future.

Recent Findings

Results from the 2021 week of beach cleans reflect a mix of positive and negative news. The average number of items found per 100-metre survey line has dropped in each of the last 3 years. And the number of single-use plastic items found each year is also continuing to drop. This is almost certainly a result of a combination of factors including the introduction (and then raising) of plastic bag levies, regional bans on items such as plastic straws and cotton buds and a greater general awareness of the impact of plastics on the environment.

However, there are still causes for concern. Three quarters of litter recorded was still plastic or polystyrene. In addition, as we reported in our August news round-up, many items of COVID-19 PPE, such as masks and gloves, were discarded during the pandemic and will continue to impact wildlife for years to come. This was borne out by the MCS’s 2021 results, with masks being found on around a third of all beaches.

Cigarette butt
Cigarette butts are non-biodegradable and toxic

Wet wipes are another big issue. Despite many brands containing plastic, they are still often flushed down the loo rather than being put in the bin. Loo-flushed wipes then end up on our beaches via our sewage outlets. Cigarette butts and, increasingly, vape pens and cartridges, are also a continuing problem. Non-biodegradable and highly toxic, butts are extremely dangerous to wildlife, with records of birds even trying to feed them to their chicks.

Seaborne Litter

The above results all relate to waste generated by us, the public. This is either via direct littering of the beach and nearby streets or through our sewage. Of the identifiable litter recorded during last year’s events, approximately 40% came from these two sources. However, as mentioned earlier, as well as waste generated on land, our beaches receive debris from the sea, and this comprised around 15% of the litter logged last year.

Great British Beach Clean ghost nets
Discarded fishing nets, or ‘ghost gear’, can entangle wildlife at sea and on land

Approximately two thirds of this came from the fishing industry. Lobster pots, fishing lines and nets, as well as fish boxes and waterproof clothing have all been found on our beaches. One of the biggest problems caused by fishing gear is wildlife becoming entangled, both at sea and on land. As well as the risk of marine mammals drowning in this way, birds are also vulnerable. Seabirds from gannets to shags have been recorded using discarded fishing gear as nesting material, and both adults and young often become entangled at the nest. Some escape with the loss of a limb, but many fail to disentangle themselves and die.

Black-headed gull
There is a good chance this black-headed gull lost one of its legs due to plastic entanglement
One legged black-headed gull

Seaborne litter also arrives from the shipping industry. Some items are lost overboard accidentally, such as the container full of bath toys lost in the North Pacific in 1992. The rubber ducks’ subsequent movements helped show that our oceans are actually one connected body. Conservationists have also used them to highlight the scourge of plastic in our seas, affecting life as far away as the Antarctic. Over time, larger plastics in our oceans from a variety of sources are weathered by waves, wind and sun to form microplastics. These don’t break down into harmless molecules but are ingested by organisms both at sea and on the beaches they wash up on.

This small piece of plastic is on its way to becoming microplastic, like the purple example next to it

How to Take Part

Joining in with this year’s beach clean is simple. The MCS website has lots of resources to help you either find an event near you or set up your own. And if you don’t live near the sea, you can carry out a litter pick inland as part of the MCS’s Source to Sea Litter Quest.

Recycled Litter picker
This litter picker is made from recycled fishing gear by a company called Waterhaul

Many organisers will provide equipment, including bags, litter pickers and gloves, but it is a good idea to find out first if you do need to bring anything yourself. Remember that beach litter can be sharp, toxic or unhygienic, so always use gloves and preferably a litter picker to lift it. Our litter pickers are made by a company called Waterhaul who recycle fishing gear into glasses frames and litter pickers!

Never touch anything with your bare hands. This is especially important this year as the UK’s beaches have seen unprecedented numbers of dead birds on them, killed by avian flu. If you find any dead birds during your litter pick, do not touch them or attempt to move them. If there are more than five birds of any species, call the DEFRA helpline on 03459 33 55 77. More information is on their website.

Once the Great British Beach Clean is over, you can carry on making a difference in a number of ways. One option is to become an MCS volunteer and organise beach cleans throughout the year. You can also look at reducing your plastic footprint by replacing single-use plastics with reusable options. Every single-use plastic item taken out of the system is one less potential litter item on our beaches.