Conservationists: Amount of beach litter is falling but more needs to be done

Results from the Marine Conservation Society’s annual Great British beach clean show a reduction in items of litter on beaches.

A plastic bottle being picked up off a beach
A plastic bottle being picked up off a beach

The amount of litter on British beaches is falling, but conservationists are calling for more action to tackle the plastic that makes up three quarters of rubbish on our shores.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) said more than 6,000 volunteers took part in its annual “Great British beach clean” in September, collecting a total of 5,065 kilograms of litter.

The average amount of rubbish is dropping year on year, according to the clean-up and survey which found an average of 385 items per 100-metre stretch of beach this year, down from 425 items in 2020 and 558 in 2019.

And it appears efforts to curb problem plastic waste such as cotton bud sticks and single use bags are having an impact, with a fall in those types of litter, the MCS said.

A handful of plastic rubbish
The amount of rubbish collected from beaches has fallen (MCS/Aled Llywelyn/PA)

But with 75% of all the items collected in the beach cleans made of plastic or polystyrene, the conservation charity is calling for ambitious policies that would phase out the manufacture and sale of plastic products in the UK.

The five most common litter items on UK beaches were plastic or polystyrene pieces which made up 112 items per 100 metres on average, followed by cigarette stubs, crisp and sweet packets and lolly sticks, plastic caps and lids and string or cord.

Cotton bud sticks moved out of the UK’s top 10 most common items of rubbish this year, with the number recorded the lowest in the beach clean’s 28-year history.

Just six sticks were found per 100 metres of surveyed beach – down from 15 in 2020, which the MCS said was an indication policies to outlaw plastic cotton buds – by Scotland in 2019, followed by England last year – were working.

Numbers of single-use plastic bags on beaches have also continued to drop, from an average of 13 per stretch of beach in 2013 to just three in 2021.

Levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) found littered on beaches were similar to 2020 when masks were made mandatory across the UK because of the pandemic.

Nearly a third (32%) of beaches cleaned in the annual event found PPE litter, although masks were well down the list of the most common rubbish items found, ranking 59th out of 121.

Lizzie Prior, beachwatch manager at the Marine Conservation Society said: “The ongoing downward trend we’re seeing in litter levels on UK beaches is a positive sign that the actions we’re taking at a personal, local and national level are working.

General view of a beach in Gower, South Wales
Beaches are cleaner but more needs to be done to improve the situation even more (MCS/Aled Llywelyn/PA)

“But we can’t sit back and relax, now is the time for even more ambitious action.”

Dr Laura Foster, head of clean seas at the Marine Conservation Society, warned: “Governments’ current piecemeal approach to single-use plastics policy just won’t cut it anymore.

“While we’re seeing a downward trend in litter on beaches, we’re still seeing huge volumes of plastic washing up on our shores.”

She said comprehensive and ambitious single-use plastics policies which reduce the manufacture and sale of throwaway items was the quickest way of phasing out plastic from the environment.

There should be a shift away from single-use items to having only reusable options available for things like cutlery, refillable and reusable containers being the norm and commitments for all packaging to be reusable or recyclable, MCS said.

An Environment Department (Defra) spokesperson said: “We’re pleased to see the amount of litter being found on our beaches dropping and the positive impact of our policies such as the single-use, carrier bag charge.”

The spokesperson said the Government had launched a public consultation on proposals to ban a range of single-use, plastic items including plates and cutlery, and a call for evidence on other plastics such as wet wipes and tobacco filters.

The new Environment Act has powers to introduce a deposit return scheme for bottles and make companies more responsible for the packaging they produce.

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