From newspapers to a multitude of social impact posts, it is almost impossible to avoid reports on plastic waste. Moreover, many of these reports relate to plastic waste that litters our beaches. Today, and thankfully, concerned citizens are grouping together to do their bit. From individuals or small groups through to large global beach cleanup days, people are rallying together to help rid our beaches of plastic waste.
As such, as plastic waste continues to flood our shorelines, our endeavors to reduce plastic pollution have resulted in a growth in beach cleanups across the world.
The problem is vast, with researchers reporting that our Oceans contain over 5 trillion pieces of plastic1. With this much plastic in the ocean, it washes up on our beaches, which end up covered in plastic waste.
As a result, the effect on marine life can be devastating, as fish, birds, sea turtles, and more wash up dead on our shores after consuming plastic.
So, as awareness and concern grow, let's take a bit more of a look at beach cleanups. Why do we need them, how do we organize them, and what is their impact?
Sadly, no one individual or organized group(s) of beach cleaner-up-erers can remove the trillions of plastic particles from the ocean.
However, we can do our very best to make a difference where we can. What's more, beach cleanups can make for a great day out meeting new people while also making a difference. If you're near the beach, or a waterway, consider joining a beach cleanup to help rid our beaches of the plastic scourge.
If you have a group of friends that share your ambitions for a cleaner coast, consider organizing a beach cleanup. Many hands are better than a few, and together we are stronger.
All you need to do is take a walk along pretty much any beach to see the problem. Chances are, you will come across some form of plastic waste. We're simply awash with plastic waste.
We can find plastic in so many products, and the variety of waste now found on our beaches is alarming. Anything from tires to bottles and even plastic toys is finding its way onto our beaches. Across the world, no beach is safe from plastic waste.
Around 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped in the sea each year. This is spoiling the natural beauty of many a coastline across the world as a lot of it washes up on beaches9.
In fact, what should be some of the most beautiful beaches in the world are recognized as some of the dirtiest beaches in the world.
Numerous studies have been carried out on the damaging effects of plastic waste. In 100% of marine turtles examined, scientists found plastic waste. To add to this, 59% of whales were also found to have plastic waste inside them.
Meanwhile, over 1 million sea birds die each year from ingesting plastic waste or getting tangled up in waste. When you consider that scientists have now found microplastics embedded in arctic ice, it paints a picture of the scale of the problem. What's more, it is estimated that there are around 5.25 trillion microplastic and macroplastic pieces in the ocean at this moment in time.
The effects are undeniably worrying, and something has to be done. The problem is so significant that we now have a dedicated World Oceans Day.
While it is difficult to identify when the first beach cleanup occurred, it is worth acknowledging that people took notice three decades ago. The International Coastal Cleanup began back in 1986, and this was one of the first initiatives of many to begin cleaning our beaches of plastic waste.
Today, the sheer size of the plastic waste problem can be exemplified by the number of beach cleaning programs that now take place.
Beach cleanups typically involve groups of volunteers, often organized by a motivated individual, local businesses, charities, or community groups. These volunteers take time out from their day-to-day activities to pick up as much plastic waste and marine debris as possible from our coastal areas.
In doing so, each beach cleanup helps to leave our beaches, which should be places of beauty and home to a wide array of marine life, cleaner and less polluted for future visitors. Be they human visitors, up for a stroll, swim, or day out. Or sea birds and other marine life that rely on our beaches for their homes and food.
Simply put, the reason for choosing to remove trash from our beaches is better than the alternative, which is to do nothing.
Further, by motivating litter pickers around the world, we can and should do our best to deal with marine litter. Every bag of plastic waste removed from our beaches is one less that can cause harm to our precious environment and marine ecosystems.
As such, beach cleanups serve several purposes. The first is to collect waste and remove it from the environment. The next reason is to increase public awareness. Many reading this will already be aware. However, there are still many who remain unaware of the problem. Every image and stat shared on social media that makes its way into the mainstream press helps raise awareness.
Further, involving more people in organized beach cleanups provides a first-hand understanding of the problem. In turn, creating a greater level of recognition while provoking more people to become mindful of how they dispose of their own waste.
Meanwhile, with each beach cleanup and for every image shared on social media, we not only help to remove plastic from the ocean but also help to raise awareness. And as we involve more people and spread the word, we can further raise awareness of the plastic pollution problem we now face.
With the Oceans being so vast that they cover over 70% of the world, even scientists are unable to identify where all our plastic waste comes from5, where it goes and what it is.
Furthermore, plastic waste travels the oceans. Plastic waste can travel thousands of miles6 from small islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to beautiful beaches in Europe and across many scenic destinations.
Despite this, cleaning beaches helps to increase knowledge. It can provide data to tell us where plastic waste comes from, what areas are most affected and what items contribute to the litter that we pick3.
Another benefit of organized beach cleanups is that studying the sources of plastic waste collected provides a crucial lever to help convince consumers and global organizations that they must play a part in reducing waste.
The big guys are responsible for finding alternatives to cheap disposable single-use plastics. Their global reach and ability to market brands globally impact not only what we buy but also what we throw away. And on a massive scale.
As such, Beach cleanups are just as much about clearing our beaches of waste as they can help us to gain a handle on the problem we face.
In 2018 the Break Free From Plastic movement found that some of the biggest brands in the world, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi Co., and Nestle contributed some of the largest volumes of plastic waste collected2.
This in itself is not surprising if you stop to consider the number of plastic cola bottles and single-use water bottles that we get through each day across the globe. Some of these, inevitably, get discarded incorrectly and find their way into our oceans.
Whereas brands or manufacturers cannot control how consumers dispose of waste, they can change the way in which they package their products4. Shining a light on the problem and exposing the biggest contributors, therefore brokers understanding such that we can better and more accurately lobby for solutions for a more sustainable future.
We cannot collect most of our Ocean plastic as it is physically impossible to locate and remove it all; not least, collection efforts are limited to plastic that washes ashore from coastal waters. Therefore, it is a problem that will remain with us for hundreds of years. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that plastic waste can take 100s of years to decompose7.
The top ten commonly collected waste items across recorded beach cleanups now all include plastic. The International Coastal Cleanup is an annual event held on the third Saturday of September that gathered over 1m volunteers across 100 countries last year. As such, this fantastic initiative by the Ocean Conservancy now constitutes the world's largest organized beach cleanup.
In 2019 this vast beach cleanup effort collected a staggering 70m items of garbage from the world's beaches. Other events occur at different times of the year in different countries, the second most prominent is Earth Day At the Beach in April every year.
They counted the items collected by type and tallied them across various sites. They collected over 5 million cigarette butts containing plastic in their filters. 3.6 million plastic straws and stirrers and nearly 2 million plastic bottles were collected. Along with this, they collected over half a million takeaway containers and nearly 1 million plastic bags.
348 million tonnes of plastic10 were produced globally in 2017. And despite efforts to move towards more sustainable plastic alternatives, researchers have forecast that plastic production is set to quadruple by 20508.
Despite campaigns and initiatives to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic waste, when you consider that 8 million pieces of plastic enter our oceans each day, there is no quick solution to plastic-free beaches.
Sadly, it looks like we will need more volunteers to help keep our beaches clean.
There's no doubt we'll have to do more, seek out technology solutions, motivate governments to act, and more. The ultimate solution, and one we should all aim for, is preventing plastic waste from entering our oceans in the first place.
The scale of the problem is massive and can prove disheartening as more plastic washes up on shores post any beach cleanup. All the same, inaction will certainly not help.
Beach cleanups deal with the plastic waste problem towards the end of the lifecycle of plastic. However, we can all do our bit to prevent plastic waste even needing to be manufactured in the first place by saying no to plastic bottles, choosing plastic-free gifts, and swapping plastic straws for eco-friendly alternatives.
Elsewhere other solutions are coming on stream to help tackle our plastic waste problem. For example, the EU bringing in targets to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. And ban single-use plastic entirely by 2021.
Meanwhile, alternatives to plastic are becoming more mainstream. Biodegradable plastic bags are now a thing. While organic materials such as hemp and bamboo can be found in everything from door fittings for cars to our clothes, swapping out plastic in increasing numbers of applications.
It might seem fairly straightforward to organize a beach cleanup. After all, surely all you need to do is turn up and get cleaning? And to an extent, you'd be right. However, in some cases, there is more to it than that, but still, it is not that difficult.
You can choose to clean a beach on your own if you wish. However, once you begin to involve other people, you may need to follow a specific process. Fortunately, you can do this by using the services on offer at the likes of the Marine Conservation Society. If you do choose this route, then you will need to do the following:
To join a beach cleanup already planned is a simple process. In the UK, The National Trust advertises beach cleanups. The Marine Conservation Society also offers you the chance to volunteer. Beach clean-ups take place around the country, so it is always possible to find one near you.
Seeing all the plastic on our shores is not a pretty sight. Seeing it for yourself will shock you due to the sheer volume you will find. However, you should also prepare yourself for what you could find.
While the majority of waste will include bottles, containers, and other random items, you might also find marine life that has fallen prey to the problem.
Do a little reading in advance about how to best deal with marine life that may have become entangled or ill due to plastic waste. For example, consider nearby vets or conservation centers and talk to them in advance about your plans. And ask them if they can treat marine life you might come across - just in case.
Overall, the process is one that will leave you feeling positive as well. By taking part in a cleanup, you will be assisting in a positive way. By collecting waste, you will be removing waste from our environment. The less plastic on our beaches, the smaller the problem becomes.
One positive to take from the situation is that there are charities bringing people together to fight the problem. These charities are all about spreading awareness of the problem. They then aim to educate and work collaboratively towards a solution.
The charities provide a community spirit that brings people together. People use these charities to work together to combat the problem. This alone helps make lighter work of the problem.
Some of these charities include Plastic Oceans, the Marine Conservation Society, and Surfers Against Sewage. All of these charities are based in the UK and aim to keep the seas and beaches of Britain tidy. On a global scale, the likes of Ocean Conservancy help people to find a beach cleanup near them, and the Blue Ocean Society runs an adopt a beach program complete with tools and handbooks to help you clean up the right way.
The problem of plastic waste isn't going away any time soon. In fact, the plastic waste floating in the ocean and on our beaches is just a small percentage of the problem. A large portion of plastic waste finds its way to the bottom of the ocean. Along with this, there are trillions of pieces of microplastics floating around. Collecting it all is impossible.
Despite this, beach cleanups help to remove waste. This is waste that could find its way back into the ocean, where it could litter another beach on the other side of the globe. It could kill more marine animals. All of this indicated that despite being a mountain to climb, each beach cleanup makes a difference.
Our beaches should be free of pollution. They should be places that retain their natural beauty and remain unspoiled. Unfortunately, we have caused a severe plastic waste problem, facing a mountainous challenge. Collecting waste is a positive move, but if we are to slow the problem down, we need to find an alternative to the plastic that we continue to use today.
The more we do, the more we can make a difference, but it will take a collective effort on a global scale.
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