From newspapers to a multitude of social impact posts, it is almost impossible to avoid reports on plastic waste. What’s more, 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 clean up days, people are rallying together to help rid our beaches of plastic waste. As such, as plastic waste continues to flood our shorelines our endeavours to reduce plastic pollution has resulted in a growth in beach cleanups across the world.
The problem is vast, with researchers reporting that our Oceans contain over 5 trillions pieces of plastic2. With this much plastic in the Ocean inevitably it washes up on our beaches which end up covered in plastic waste.
So, as awareness and concern grow, let's take a bit more of a look at beach cleanups. Why do we need them, how to organise them and the impact they have.
Sadly, no one individual or organised group(s) of beach cleaner-up-erers can remove the trillions of plastic particles from the Ocean.
However, what we can do is to 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 whilst 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 organising 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. The 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 tyres to bottles and even plastic toys is finding their way onto our beaches. Across the world, no beach is safe from plastic waste.
In fact, what should be some of the most beautiful beaches in the world are recognised 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, there was plastic waste found. 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.
While it is difficult to identify when the first beach clean-up took place, it is worth acknowledging that people were taking 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 involved groups of volunteers, often organised by a motivated individual, charity or community group, taking time out from their day to day activities to pick up as much plastic waste 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.
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Simply put, the reason for choosing to clear our beaches of plastic waste 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 clean-ups 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 and that makes its way into the mainstream press helps raise awareness.
Further, involving more people in organised beach clean-ups 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 clean up, and for every image shared on social media, we not only help to remove plastic from the Ocean but we also help to raise awareness1. 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 from7, where it goes and what it is.
Furthermore, plastic waste travels the oceans. From small islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to beautiful beaches in Europe and across many a scenic destination, plastic waste can travel thousands of miles8.
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 pick4.
Another benefit from organised beach cleanups is that studying the sources of plastic waste collected provides a crucial lever to help convince consumers and global organisations that they must play a part in reducing waste.
The big guys have a responsibility to find alternatives to cheap disposable single-use plastics. For 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 clean-ups 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 collected3.
Which 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 products5. 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.
Most of our Ocean plastic cannot be collected as it is physically impossible to locate and remove it all. Therefore, it is a problem that will remain with us for hundreds of years. This problem is exacerbated by the fact the plastic waste can take 100s of years to decompose9.
The top ten commonly collected waste items across recorded beach cleanups now all include plastic. The International Coastal Cleanup is an annual event that last year gathered over 1m volunteers across 100 countries. As such this fantastic initiative now constitutes the world's largest organised beach cleanup.
In 2019 this vast beach cleanup effort collected a staggering 70m items of garbage from the world's beaches.
They counted the items collected by type and tallied them up across the various sites. They collected more than 5 million cigarette butts which contain plastic in their filters. 3.6 million plastic straws and stirrers were collected and nearly 2 million plastic bottles. Along with this, they collected over half a million takeaway containers and nearly 1 million plastic bags.
348 million tonnes of plastic14 was 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 205011.
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 are going to need more people volunteering to help keep our beaches clean.
There’s no doubt we’re going to have to do more, seeking out technology solutions, and motivating 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 clean up. 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. Whilst 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 organise a beach clean-up. 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 clean-ups. The Marine Conservation Society also offers you the chance to volunteer. Beach clean-ups take place around the country and so, it is always possible to find one near you.
Seeing all the plastic on our shores is not a pretty sight. When you see it for yourself, it 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 centres 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 clean-up, 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 clean-up near them.
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 clean-ups 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 unspoilt. Unfortunately, we have caused a serious problem with plastic waste and we face 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 is going to take a collective effort on a global scale.
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