The results are in from the biggest beach clean-up event in British history and they’re not as bad as you might think.
Between 14th and 17th September just short of 15,000 volunteers took part in The Great British Beach Clean 2018, over double the number of the previous year. The event was run by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) in partnership with Waitrose and this year celebrated its 25th year with its largest ever turnout. An incredible 494 beaches were cleaned from all over the UK and 8,550 kg of litter were collected by volunteers. There was significant litter coverage with an average of 601 pieces for every 100 metres of beach in the UK, however this was actually a sizeable reduction from 2017. Although this does not reflect a long-term or global reduction, the high turnout and positive trends provides some optimism in the fight to protect our coastline ecosystems.
The clean up
The four day operation has changed very little since its inaugural clean in 1994 and is a great example of both citizen science and conservation work. Volunteers sign up online and are directed to a local beach where they join up with other like-minded people in groups. Participants are encouraged to wear warm clothing, sensible footwear and strong gloves if they have them. When they arrive at the beach the organiser gives a safety briefing and instructions on what to do as well as distributing any other equipment (i.e. bags and litter pickers). There is no time limit on the event but most people will give a couple of hours of their time. It’s so simple even kids can do it and in fact they do! Under 16’s are allowed to partake but only if they are supervised by an adult. So not only is the event useful for scientists it is also a great family day out to the beach and a way of doing your bit to help conserve the coastlines.
Numbers and trends
8,550 kg of rubbish across 494 beaches is a lot of data to go through but has produced some interesting and reliable results. There were an average of 601 pieces of litter on every 100m of beach which was a 17% decrease from 2017 when the average was 717. This is noteworthy but it is important to point out that 2017 was a 10% increase from 2016 meaning there has been no real long-term reduction. By country England has the highest average of 655 pieces per 100m and the Channel Islands have the lowest with 168. Although there was a total decrease by 17% there was a conflicting 14% increase in litter in Scotland.
The type of litter varied considerably but the top three contributors were plastic pieces, glass and cigarette butts. Other contributors included crisp or sweet packets, fishing line/nets and bottle tops. Although identifying origin can be tricky, public waste was the most obvious factor contributing to 28.6% followed by fishing at 12.1%. One of the most notable longer term findings of the study is that there has been a 40% reduction in plastic bags since the carrier bag charge came in to effect in all major supermarkets.
The turn out
Out of all of the stats from the Great British Beach Clean perhaps the most surprising and impressive this year is the number of volunteers who turned up to help. 14,527 people took part which was over double the 6,994 people who took part in 2017. The busiest beach was Pegwell Bay in Kent with 306 volunteers and three other sites also bragged over 100 people in attendance. The fantastic turnout is mainly down to the fact that 2018 has been one of the biggest years yet for marine conservation. TV programmes such as Blue Planet II and social media campaigns such a MCS’s #STOPthePlasticTide have raised awareness to the major issues facing marine life. For the first time the public are really willing to give up their time and make lifestyle choices that will benefit marine conservation.
However there is still much work to be done, the nearly 15,000 people who were willing to help is still a tiny fraction of the population in the UK. Given that it is free to do and improves the quality of beaches that millions of people use and appreciate the number should really be a lot higher. In particular in Northern Ireland where only 171 people volunteered across 8 beaches, that’s less than the number of people and beaches in the much smaller Channel Islands.
Unfortunately the levels of pollution in our oceans is at an alarmingly high level due to the amount of waste, particularly plastic and other non degradable items, we throw away. Marine life and coastal habitats are considerably effected by this and the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. However it is also evident that public awareness and willingness to help tackle the problem is also at an all time high. Now is the time to act and it is imperative that people are willing to volunteer to help out on localised scales with actions such as beach cleans.
It is incredibly hard to remove plastic and litter directly from the oceans. Therefore beach cleans are one of the best ways to tackle the problem as it is the only time the litter becomes accessible to collect. Every single piece of rubbish picked up on a beach is one less that can end up effecting marine life in a harmful way. It won’t fix the problem overnight but unfortunately there is no quick or easy fix for an issue of this magnitude. We are the ones who are polluting the oceans and so it is our responsibility to remedy the problem no matter how long and hard the solution.
What can you do?
Beach cleans are a great way to help maintain the quality of beaches for both public use and as vital ecosystems for marine life. It is very easy to take part in a clean-up or if you’re feeling particularly committed set up your own. There are numerous organisations that run beach cleans across the UK at all times of the year. MCS’s Great British Beach Clean will return in September 2019 and you can take part in what will hopefully be an even bigger turn out. Alternatively the National Trust are constantly looking for volunteers to help maintain the 780 miles of coastline they protect (see link below). Even if you only try it once you’ll be helping to make a difference.