From beach bum to beach clean, Lucy Siegle on the power of picking plastic
I was lucky enough to grow up near the beach. Not some fancy, palm-tree lined vista, but a good old Devon shingle beach with a sturdy Easterly wind. I could put up a windbreak before I learned to tie my shoe-laces. From April to November the beach is where you’d find us as kids. We loved the beach, but we never thought of cleaning it.
But then I was probably one of the last generations to use plastic as a kid without having to think about where it came from and where it would end up. The truth is our use of plastic has accelerated to such an extent that we are now having a severe impact on the environment. Researchers have found that 79% of all the plastic created since the 1950s (when plastic use began to boom) is still with us either in landfills, or in the wider environment, particularly the ocean. By 2050, unless we radically change the volume we are producing and the way we use it, there will be more bits of plastic in the ocean that fish.
Today’s kids are not so lucky. As we have woken up to the plastic pandemic (thank you Blue Planet II!) we have started to see many different responses. I have met people all over the country who are setting up Plastic Free Communities (there are now 500 across the UK), I have followed many different recycling initiatives and even written my own book of everyday solutions Turning the Tide on Plastic, but above all, I have joined as many beach cleans as I can.
In truth most of my plastic education has taken place on the beach. By joining different organized beach cleans, by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) I have begun to understand the make-up, breakdown and variety of plastics that are causing such havoc in our lives. Every time I go, I learn something new. For example, joining the MSC beach clean at Sewersby Steps recently, sponsored by Silentnight, I learned more about wet wipes and how they are a recent and prevalent form of plastic pollution.
On a beach clean in Cornwall a few years ago, I came across a tiny sphere of plastic that had probably bobbed across the waters from plastic manufacturers in Northern France. These tiny, semi opaque balls of plastic have been dubbed with the poetic nickname of ‘mermaids tears’ by surfers. But they are actually far from poetic; they are feedstocks for the plastic industry, melted and shaped into everyday items. But as thousands are poured into hoppers in factories, thousands escape down drains and from cargo ships where they become readymade microplastics that can be ingested by creatures right through the food web, from zooplankton to fish.
These are not the only plastics found on the beach of course. Beach cleans also bring us into contact with hidden plastics, such as fishing waste. Nets and lines that were once made of hemp, a biodegradable natural fibre, and these days are made of plastic. When nets are lost at sea, they carry on catching fish and trapping wildlife for years, all the while breaking into fragments of plastic. Lost fishing gear, known as ghost gear makes up 10% of the millions of tonnes of plastic that swirl around the planet’s ocean systems.
When you see plastic along the shoreline, there’s a chance that the next high tide or next storm will pick up that plastic and dump it in the ocean. If we pick it up and collect it, well that’s an intervention that prevents it from going back into the marine environment and damaging the ecology further. While a lot of attention goes on the visible plastic found floating near the surface, concentrations of plastic on the beach are 111 x higher that in the sea. A beach clean might not be as sexy as heading to mid ocean on a research vessel to scoop out plastic and make it into branded trainers (yes that really happens these days!), but it is heroic.
When you join a beach clean, you are joining people across the world. In effect you’re joining the global resistance against plastic waste. Of course we get competitive: weighing in your rubbish and seeing just how much you’ve collected is part of the fun of an organized beach clean. I’ve been on one clean where we collected over 60 bin liners full of plastic, which felt like a successful day at the office. But there’s still a way to go in terms of world records. Versova beach, a one-and-a-half-mile strip of coastline in western Mumbai facing the Arabian Sea is regarded as the world’s most successful beach clean. In one 12 month period, volunteers collected four million pounds of plastic rubbish. Wow.
Of course, a truly successful beach clean would be one with no bags, and no plastic and that’s our aim. But the truth is that current trends suggest more plastic will be produced over the next five years than in the entirety of the last 70 years, so the beach clean remains our strongest weapon for turning the tide and ensuring that fish continue to outweigh plastic.
 Eunomia, http://www.eunomia.co.uk/reports-tools/plastics-in-the-marine-environment/