Beach litter figures down overall, but quantity of plastic found on shorelines grows to unprecedented levels
Sonia Van Gilder Cooke
The Guardian, Friday 26 March 2010
From the mundane debris of food wrappers and cigarette butts, to a laboratory incubator and a dead goat, Britain's beaches are strewn with litter, according to the Marine Conservation Society.
The volunteers who conducted the survey, the UK's biggest, found one piece for each step along the shore. The results showed litter levels along the coasts have increased dramatically since 1994, from 1,000 items per kilometre to over 1,800 items. It also found that plastic litter was at its highest level ever.
In 2009, the overall number of items on beaches declined - falling 16% from last year's record high to 342,000. But the percentage of plastic litter reached an unprecedented 64%. Emma Snowden, litter projects coordinator at MCS, said: "It's a lot of these single throwaway items."
The most common type of litter was small plastic pellets, broken down from larger items. Other items in the top 10 include food wrappers, cigarette butts, plastic drinks bottles, chunks of polystyrene and cotton bud sticks, of which nearly 13,000 were found.
The report warns that coastal communities are bearing the brunt of the rising tide of litter, which can harm tourism, fishing and water sports. Marine animals are also at risk - thousands of birds, turtles, fish, and marine mammals are thought to die each year by eating or becoming tangled in litter.
The rise of plastic is of particular concern because it breaks up into ever-smaller pieces rather than degrading. "In the marine environment, plastic just doesn't disappear," said Snowden. Scientists suspect that these plastic pellets may absorb potentially toxic chemicals which are then ingested by marine animals.
The government plans to convene a round table this autumn to discuss the problem of marine litter. Each major party has signalled their support for government action on the issue.
The MSC stresses, however, that it is also matter of personal responsibility. "Every bit of litter has an owner," said Snowdon. "We can all help by not dropping or throwing it out the window, by taking a cloth bag to the supermarket, by refilling water bottles. Sewage-related debris is a really easy one to stop. If people would stop using their toilets as a wet bin, we wouldn't have this on the beach."
The public was responsible for nearly half of the rubbish surveyed this year - items such as crisp wrappers and drink bottles made up 42% of the total collected. Fishing, shipping, and sewage-related debris added a further 22%. Although some items travelled from countries as far away as China and Saudi Arabia, most of the rubbish, according to Snowden, comes from the UK. "Of the litter we can source, the majority is from us: the great British public. People are dropping it on the beach, but even in towns and cities, it's washed down the drains."
Some parts of the country were harder hit than others. Welsh beaches had the highest level of litter this year, up 21% from last year, to 3,100 items per kilometre. Scotland's levels of litter declined 26% in 2009, but its beaches were still polluted enough to put it into second place. England came in third overall, but the south west was the most rubbish-strewn region in the entire country with 3,269 items per kilometre.
These statistics reflect geographical location as well as how many people use the beaches. "The south west always tends to have the highest because it's a popular destination for tourists," said Snowden, "but also because of its proximity to shipping lanes."
The south west receives about twice the national average of shipping debris, according to the report, but the south east has been affected as well. Last year, Northern Ireland had the lowest densities of litter - this year, the beaches of the Channel Islands were the UK's cleanest.