Beach cleans cannot save the world unless we add an extra ingredient.

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?

Photo: Tracey Williams

Whilst “on their patch” anything seen that was different to “the usual” and seems out of place should be recorded. A good example is the HP (Hewlett Packard) ink cartridge story. 

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?

U.S & Canadian fishing tags found on Sussex & Kent beaches
U.S & Canadian fishing tags found on Sussex & Kent beaches

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.

Goose Barnacles (Lepas anatifera)
Goose Barnacles (Lepas anatifera)
Columbus Crab (Planes minutus) in Goose barnacles (Lepas anatifera)
Columbus Crab (Planes minutus) in Goose barnacles (Lepas anatifera)
Florida Rock Snail (Stramonita floridana)
Florida Rock Snail (Stramonita floridana) – photo: Steve Trewhella










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.


A collecting beach

When beachcombing you quickly learn which beaches are collecting beaches and those which don’t accumulate trash and treasures. Season, weather, tide, currents, geology and aspect all play a part determining which beach to walk for those stranded rewards. The River Cuckmere estuary cutting through the chalk cliffs between Eastbourne and Seaford in East Sussex is very definitely a collector and last week I planned my first autumn wander.

The salt marsh plants hide the rich silty mud beneath, but catch jettisoned dog poo bags and the aftermath of released balloons that eventually return to land and sea and endanger wildlife.

Nearing the beach, if you get a closer look at the millions of nearly microscopic pieces on the older high tide lines you will see that it is almost entirely microplastics. Looking a blur to my age-changing eyesight, it is a revelation to all when pointed out.

A 22yr old “Smartian” Smartie lid for scale

Most of the 5mm sized pellets were nurdles (pre-production plastic lost in transport over the last 50 years) and biobeads (waste water treatment media used by large organisations). Biobeads should never escape their closed systems in their job to clean the water we use, but obviously there has been a catastrophic loss or a continual seepage. I first discovered these in 2012, hidden in the dunes at the back of Camber Sands, and now they are ever-present at Camber Sands and the Cuckmere Estuary. Where else I wonder? Investigations to determine the source are ongoing. Here’s a BBC Inside Out South West report from September 2018.

More on nurdles here. More on Biobeads here.

IMG_4029I expect this rabbit has a modern age plastic interior in it’s burrow – look at the microplastics.

Can you see the seabean?

But there are treasures too – this is a seabean that has travelled over 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean from Tropical America! Seabeans are very special, here’s a guide to the seabean world!

Red Hamburger Bean (Mucuna urens)

This is definitely a collecting beach for floating trash and treasure!

Beach cleans, plastic and us, at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.

By the time you read this, Rye Harbour Nature Reserve will have had its early winter beach clean. We hear about beach cleans, but what is actually found?

Local Marine Conservation Society beach surveys show approximately around 70% to 85% of all the rubbish on the beaches is plastic, the rest a mixture of glass, metal, wood, cloth etc. This percentage of plastic has been slowly growing, as less products are made from natural materials that can biodegrade.

Marine Conservation Society Big Beach Clean 2016 national results compared with local Rye Bay beaches
Marine Conservation Society Big Beach Clean 2016. National results compared with local Rye Bay beaches

This plastic arrives from a number of sources, fishing industry, shipping, beach visitors etc, but it has been estimated globally that 80% of all the rubbish in the world’s oceans originated from land! (


We cannot guarantee that the journey of every piece of rubbish that we put in our bins for waste disposal or recycling will make it to it’s journey’s end. At every stage there is the possibility of a food wrapper, plastic bag or a wet wipe being dropped or blown out of it’s waste bin and finding it’s way into a water course (drain, stream, river etc) and eventually out to the sea. And then there’s wet wipes, tampon applicators, cotton bud sticks etc, being thown down the toilet, and during heavy rainfall our sewers can overflow into our waterways and rivers, meaning anything we flush can get washed out to sea.


Plastic does not biodegrade and may last 400+ years in our environment. And it only breaks up into smaller pieces through the action of the sun. These become microplastics in the ocean and find their way into the food chain. A recent study has shown that some marine birds are attracted to plastic by smell, mistaking it for food. And now over 90% of fulmar in the English Channel have plastic in their stomach.


Everyone can help in many ways. What are we all buying? What is it packaged in? Can we change our purchasing power to support less packaged items (or even unpackaged items!)? Refuse all plastic bags and take cotton ones? That lunchtime takeaway coffee – could we find a café that doesn’t use plastic cups? Why not take a reusable cup ourselves? My own small start to reduce my plastic footprint has been to stop buying plastic bottled water. I use a stainless steel container and refill. But we can all make sure our friends and family use of the toilet is for the 3P’s – pee, poo & paper – not a wet waste bin.

We can also support beach cleans. There is the regular first Wednesday group at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, who litter pick part of the reserve once a month. A great way to help wildlife, make the reserve cleaner and observe the reserve.

If interesting (man-made or natural) flotsam and jetsam washes up there’s a facebook group – Rye Bay Beachcombing – to post your photos or see when other beach cleans are taking place in the area.

(This article has appeared in the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve newsletter. To become a member of “The Friends” go to

Beach cleans – a brief history? (The difficult second post)

When did people first gather on the beach with the sole purpose of picking up rubbish and disposing of it thoughtfully?

Over a hundred years ago any “rubbish” on the beach would probably have been remains of shipwrecks, flotsam and jetsam, and may have been a valuable asset to income and home DIY.

So how has the rubbish, litter, marine debris (all human waste) changed on our beaches, and indeed how has it been removed?

Would it have been a reaction to rubbish changing the aesthetics of the beaches for local beach users?

In the ’50’s in the U.S there are records of Clubs and Recreational areas being cleaned. See an early bin liner in use at Lake Tahoe Yacht Club, but also look at the group with their spiked sticks and neat baskets!


This strandline in 1952 on Long Beach, New York shows rusty tin cans, some pottery/ceramics, and wood/vegetation.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 16.02.40

And here’s the machine to collect the tin cans …………………………………………. “The Anti-Tin Can Mechanical Rake”!Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 15.51.11

Then here in 1961 there’s a group ready to clean that beach in Ireland.


Certainly not plastic bags being used. I love the order – closer to our beach cleans today (barring fashion though!).

On to 1970 (April 22nd to be precise) and the first Earth Day, in the U.S, where 20 million Americans demonstrated for a healthy, sustainable environment of which there were many clear ups (Trash-ins?). This one at Bear Cut Beach on Key Biscayne, Miami.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 15.35.10

Have a closer look at the rubbish.

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 15.30.10

Tins, cans, paper plates, paper, glass. Anything else?

The next major change was in 1986 and the Ocean Conservancy (Center for Environmental Education at that time) starting the “Coastal Clear Up” which has spread from Texas beaches to being the International Coastal Clear Up that the Marine Conservation Society coordinates in the U.K every third weekend in September.

This is where we not only clean but also identify every single piece of litter in a short stretch (Cliff Dean’s blog gives details). If you wish to find out globally how beaches are affected by marine debris, this site has all the surveys undertaken since 2008. (You can sign in as a guest user but it is difficult finding which beach you want and for what date. Pett Level, East Sussex, United Kingdom is there for most dates, try Amelia Island, Nassau County, Florida, United States and see the cigarette butt problem they have!)

And by now, in 2015, the marine debris at Pett Level, U.K looks like this.rubbish bag 4  rubbish bag 2

These are some of the plastic rubbish dominated bags that some amazing volunteers collected off Winchelsea Beach for the SAS (Surfers Against Sewage) beach clean in November 2015. A brief report here on Facebook.


Phew! That difficult follow up to the first post has been delivered.

Photos from USC Libraries, Hampton Library, South Lake Tahoe Yacht Club, Dublin City Council Photographic Collection, Miami Herald, Andy Dinsdale.

What’s that lurking just around the corner?

If you go down to the beach today it looks amazing.


This is Cliff End at Pett Level, East Sussex, the beach my parents first took me to many many years ago. Wildlife includes Northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) at the eastern edge of their breeding distribution along the English Channel, Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) spying from the cliff tops, the occasional common seal (Phoca vitulina) fishing in the shallows and of course many species of marine organisms in the pools, in the sand and mud, on the rocks, everywhere.

In front of the cliff there’s the submerged mixed forest that was flooded and flattened by rising sea levels around 5000 years ago. And nearby the wreck of the HMS Anne lies, run aground and set alight in the aftermath of the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690. What an amazing place to live.

On the surface it seems untouched,

blissful, wildlife-full, historical,


Just around the headland is a sign of modern times.

Two berms have been constructed to protect the cliff which has been crumbling consistently into the sea.



Behind which a trash lagoon is building up.

Fairlight Berm plastic lagoon

How much trash is here? Too much.

Where has it come from? The sea has put it there, but much has originated from land based activities. And all from human activities.

What trash is there? Plastic single use items – bottles etc, remains of fishing equipment – nets, ropes, traps etc. Polystyrene pieces in their million from packaging, fishing boxes etc. Sewage related items – cotton bud sticks, tampon applicators, wet wipes etc that have been flushed! And much much more.

This trash lagoon is only accessible at low tide after a 30 minute walk (potentially in danger of being cut off), and so not too many people may know it is there, assuming their local beach is as clear as in the top photo.

One positive outcome is that it has been taken out of the sea and won’t be endangering marine animals. But what of the strandline animals living where the land meets the sea?

What can be done? This post is not the end.


18th August 2020
Strandliners Community Interest Company was formed in 2018 and has organised a project to clean up this bay in partnership with the Pett Level Independent Rescue Boat.

Volunteers and members from the Strandliners-trained Community Action Team are involved in their first post-COVID lockdown beach surveys and clean ups from August 27th 2020. They will visit seven times in small groups to bag up the rubbish and sort into polystyrene, plastic bottles etc by volume and weight.

For more information please visit