I first organised a training session for aspiring beach cleaners, including
myself, back in 2005 as part of an RSPCA project increasing the public awareness of the marine environment in South East England. (I was “The Gravel Ranger” due to the source of the funding!). The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) trained and gave us the skills to continue. Well, nearly 100 beach cleans later we arrive at an interesting global shift in the public’s attitude to rubbish, waste and plastic.
The MCS host the U.K’s annual marine debris data collection every third weekend in September for the international Ocean clean up event that began in the mid-1980’s.
It involves …………… picking up,………….. identifying,…………… recording, …………. bagging, …………. binning or recycling every single piece of litter/rubbish in the same stretch of the same beach every year (it can also take place more often if anyone wants – and can be addictive!). So everything ends up as a tally on a sheet of 100 plus categories, firstly what material, secondly what is it (or was it, if it is just a piece)?
Each of these 200 to 500 surveys of beaches around the U.K help give a snapshot of the state of our seas and collectively are condensed into a summary which the MCS can lobby the Government to enable change. Their 2018 Great British Beach Clean report is just out.
This data is vitally important in the long term reduction of rubbish on our beaches and in our oceans, through year on year comparison, focusing on repeat polluting offenders and worldwide collation of data. Resulting in evidence for plastic bag taxes, cotton bud stick material changes etc.
The 2018 GBBC report shows a reduction of rubbish found on our beaches. 601 litter items down from 717 litter items per 100m in 2017.
But, hold on a sec……….
Less rubbish found on our beaches could also mean more people are picking it up individually and more community beach cleans being organised, leaving less to be “officially recorded”. This greater awareness of the problem (the “Blue Planet effect”) and motivation to do something is positive. But the “new wave” of picking up rubbish from the beaches alone will not lead us to solve the problem of marine pollution in our seas, unless we start recording what is washing up on the beaches again.
In an ideal world, if everything that washed up on our beaches was recorded, we could have greater confidence where this rubbish was coming from and act accordingly to reduce at source.
Turn the waste tap off.
Obviously that is not immediately possible, so there needs to be some thought into how to involve all the millions of regular beach visitors, dog walkers, water sport enthusiasts, beachcombers etc to easily record or report certain items.
Why is this important?
If it wasn’t for a beachcomber walking their beach and seeing something different washing up, taking a photo and posting it on their Facebook page, many thousands of HP ink cartridges would have been left washing around our seas and polluting for many many years with no idea where they came from.
From that one post others began to identify them, take a photo and post on FB. Eventually they were discovered on all U.K beaches between the Orkney Isles and Dungeness, as well as French and Portuguese beaches too.
HP were contacted about the arrival of their ink cartridges and they responded to say that after a storm, a container full had been lost in the Atlantic a year before.
Was this industrial scale of pollution in the public domain before beachcombers notified HP? As far as we know HP and the shipping company may have received insurance for their loss, but if a container is lost at sea it can be very difficult to know what was in it ……………………… until maybe strange items wash up on shores.
Once contacted and owned up, HP partnered the MCS to help fund clean ups for the beaches where they had been found. This made it to the BBC in 2016. How many more containers and contents are lost at sea yet companies never taken to task?
There’s also all the transatlantic plastic.
What? Wait a minute you say! Plastic from the Americas?
Yes there are many identifiable pieces of North American fishing industry rubbish (amongst other rubbish) including buoys, crates, traps etc, that have made their way across the Atlantic to the U.K shores. The journey can take anything from 4 months (this model boat made it in the summer of 2018) to 30+ years for fishing trap tags used in 1988 in Canadian waters depending on the currents, wind and stopovers on beaches etc.
This transatlantic marine debris comes from, or journeys through, warmer waters which will have different marine species. In the winter of 2015/2016 over 30 marine species (many new to the U.K) were recorded on beaches having rafted across the Atlantic on plastic. Here’s a list from David Fenwick’s discoveries that winter).
You may feel that this would only happen on the far west coastline of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the frontline of our protection to the Atlantic currents and storms.
But I discovered 3 Columbus Crabs (Panes minutus) and 1 Florida Rock Snail (Stramonita floridana) on an American fishing buoy covered in Goose Barnacles (Lepas anatifera) at Dungeness, Kent, South East England in December 2015. Columbus Crabs, usual habitat is the Sargasso Sea, were relatively common that season, but the Florida Rock Snail was, at that time, the second for the U.K.
All were still living! In the past these marine animals may have travelled on tree trunks and branches, as well as old ship’s timbers. But wooden rafting media would get broken down much quicker than longer lasting non-biodegrading plastic, allowing these many species to be able to travel the oceans further, possibly reaching previously unreached habitats.
If Columbus Crabs and Florida Rock Snails can survive the transatlantic crossing to N.W Europe (3,500+ miles) and remain living, could other species come across and thrive? What if some of these non-native species pose threats to our native species, causing environmental and economic harm?
There is a need to increase identification and recording where transatlantic plastic washes up on N.W European shores.
There’s a wonderful French (other languages included) online tracking page, Wikidéchets where anyone finding these important marine pollution items can upload their recordings. This will show the legacy from all the polluting sources, whether losses from container spills, waste water treatment works, shipping, aquaculture industry or the public (and more!). This data is vitally important if we are to know where the rubbish comes from, how long it has been there and then beginning the discussion with the polluters about the “Has it stopped? Why is it still happening? How to stop it?”.
So a future project is to enable all beach cleaners, from organisers of large clean ups to solo beach visitors, to be aware of the important rubbish that needs recording, and make all beach users aware that anything different from the usual rubbish on the beach may be the beginning of an important discovery leading to the highlighting of a major polluter. When we have this evidence we can begin to campaign and stop polluters at the source.
A future blog post will be a summary of important items to record if seen for the South East England coast.
So thank you, Sir David, in generating awareness on the problem of rubbish in our seas but now we need to enable a way to record all this data that is going missing.