UK beaches swamped by plastic

UK beaches are being ruined by an ever-accumulating tide of plastic litter, the Marine Conservation Society says.

Volunteers at 400 beaches collected 1,849 items of litter per kilometre in the weekend of the MCS’s 2009 survey and 63% of it was plastic, it said.

It said the amount of rubbish was 77% higher than in 1994 – its first annual survey – and the proportion of plastic volunteers found had never been higher.

The MCS said plastic was unsightly and harmed marine animals.

A spokeswoman said the figures showed plastic makes up an increasing proportion of beach litter – now nearly two-thirds of the total.

Vampire’s teeth

She said a 16% drop in litter collected since last year’s findings was a small trough in an overall upward trend.

She added there had been calm weather in the run up to September, when the latest survey took place.

The survey involved more than 4,600 volunteers, each of whom went to their favourite beach over one weekend. Altogether, they collected 2,742 rubbish bags of waste.

The haul included 7,393 plastic bags, 16,243 plastic drinks bottles, 17,712 fishing nets and 70,546 small plastic pieces.

Among the rubbish were a laboratory incubator, syringes, nappies, half a boomerang, a message in a bottle from “Sly Sally”; a joke severed finger and a set of fake vampire’s teeth.

The biggest source of waste was public littering, followed by both commercial and recreational fishing.

The MCS spokeswoman said the beaches with the most litter were in the South East of England.

She said this because they were closer to shipping lanes and had a higher number of tourists.

Toxic attraction

“Plastic does not biodegrade but breaks down into small pieces that will last for hundreds if not thousands of years. In parts of our oceans there are now six times more plastic particles in the water than plankton,” she added.

“No-one has been alive long enough to know how long this litter is going to last.

“Plastic fragments have also been shown to attract toxic chemicals onto their surfaces and marine creatures are eating these fragments.

“Ultimately, plastic litter may be providing a new method for these chemicals to be passed up the food chain to human consumers.”

MCS litter projects officer Rachel Bailey said: “Our seas and beaches are becoming overwhelmed with plastic litter, which not only looks horrible, but kills and injures many of our fantastic marine animals every year.

“Over 260 species of marine wildlife become entangled in litter or mistake it for food.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said they intend to hold a conference with the MCS and other interested stakeholders in the autumn to start discussions about tackling the problem of marine litter.

Environment minister Huw Irranca-Davies said: “Britain’s coastlines, beaches, and seas deserve better than to be treated as a dustbin.

“The mountains of waste which people leave behind are a risk to the health of both people and marine wildlife.

“MCS does fantastic work cleaning up our beaches but the best thing people can do to help is not leave their rubbish there in the first place.”