A day at the beach, whatever the weather, is a tradition ingrained in the soul of our island nation. Generations of children have cartwheeled across our sands, tossed pebbles into the surf and hunted for shells to be treasured long after the trip has ended. In the coming months, Britain's beaches will see an influx of nature lovers, armed with windbreakers and buckets of enthusiasm.
A few weeks ago, on a picture-postcard stretch of coastline in Cornwall, I watched as a small boy toddled across the sand collecting brightly coloured fragments. He ran over to me and held out his fist: “Tastic!” he shouted proudly. His mother bit her lip as I thanked him and added the small but significant contribution to a steadily growing bag.
quote Sian Sutherland, co-founder A Plastic Planet
We mostly use plastic for the wrong purpose – like packaging perishable food. It is bonkers
Balanced on a nearby rock, a young girl was deep in concentration as she picked what looked like fish eggs from the sand, some no bigger than a grain of rice. Fast-forward a few hours and her glass jar was almost full of nurdles. Not familiar with this modern-day spawn? Nurdles are the pre-production pellets that form the building blocks of “tastic” or, as it’s more commonly known, plastic. It was a crashing insight into what a trip to the beach will likely mean for future generations.
Scientists and campaign groups have been highlighting the risks to the world’s oceans from plastic pollution for a number of years. However, it was the broadcast of Blue Planet II in autumn 2017, accompanied by a stark warning from Sir David Attenborough, that made the biggest global splash and in doing so propelled the plastic waste issue into the world’s consciousness.
Globally, more than eight million tons of plastic – equivalent to 381,000 whale sharks – is reportedly tossed into the oceans each year at the rate of one dustbin lorry load per minute. The Marine Conservation Society estimates that more than 70 per cent of rubbish washed up on Britain’s beaches is plastic. On World Environment Day, which is marked on June 5 across the globe, our coastline needs protecting like never before.
Having grown up by the sea and at the urging of my sister, a marine biologist, I had travelled to Perranporth to take part in an organised clean and to see the scale of the problem for myself – its beach was described by locals as a “plastic war zone” after Storm Eleanor barrelled through in January 2018.
Arriving late afternoon the day before the planned clean, I made straight for the town’s glorious two-mile strip of golden sand as North Atlantic rollers carried waves of surfers back to shore. I had set out expecting to net a haul of plastic, but all I managed to find as I strolled along the length of the beach and back was a food packaging lid (best before: Jan 2017). I naively left the beach that evening thinking there would be very little to do at the clean the following day.
A shark-shaped kite fluttered overhead the next afternoon as more than 150 volunteers, aged from three to 73, gathered for the event organised by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), a marine conservation charity based in nearby St Agnes. The work of SAS recently received the Royal seal of approval after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle named it one of just seven charities to benefit from donations to mark their wedding in May.
Lizzi Larbalestier, a life coach and volunteer member of the SAS team, explained at the pre-clean briefing that we should collect all rubbish found but keep “avoidable” single-use plastic items such as bottles, straws, cups, lids, stirrers, bags and other food packaging, which are used for a moment before being discarded, separate from other waste. This would enable us to assess the extent of what SAS describes as the “scourge of the seas”.
I introduced myself to Dom Ferris, head of community and engagement at SAS, who was also there to take part in the clean, and mentioned that the beach had appeared largely plastic-free the previous evening. Dom asked me about the route I had taken – down by the waves and then back along the middle of the beach – and tactfully advised that I’d been looking in the wrong place.
Equipped with bags and durable gloves, a group of us headed down the beach to Penhale Sands, its furthest point and where rubbish from the ocean is known to accumulate. “The best place to look for plastic and other waste is along the strandline,” advised Dom, pointing to clumps of seaweed at the rear of the wide beach that marked the earlier high tide. The group fell silent and I inwardly reeled as we approached to find countless pieces of brightly coloured microplastics, small pieces of plastic measuring less than 5mm in diameter, dotted throughout the seaweed and strewn across the sand. It was an overwhelming sight.
Plastic tossed into the world’s oceans is broken down into microplastics by waves and UV light. Owing to their small size, these fragments are then mistaken for food by seabirds and other marine life, resulting in injury or death. With scientists predicting that, by weight, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, I didn’t want to be the one to have to tell the little girl collecting nurdles that she was going to need a much bigger jar in the future. Worldwide, billions of nurdles, also known as mermaid’s tears, are produced annually with demand forecast to increase.
Against the rush of the nearby waves, I got to work clearing toothpaste lids, bottle tops and plastic cotton bud sticks, which along with straws are to be banned by the end of the year, Theresa May announced this week. Confronted with the scale of the plastic waste problem, which it should be stressed is not unique to the South West coast and can be found to varying degrees on every beach on Earth, the clean soon began to feel like a drop in the ocean.
Moving along this otherwise wild and beautiful stretch of beach, we found plastic bottles, food trays and other packaging littering the dunes. However, our spirits were raised as we moved on to Perran Beach and began to encounter bands of walkers who, on seeing us, stopped to lend a hand.
A few hours later, as volunteers tucked into tea and cake back at base, Lizzi filled the bottom of a bucket with what looked like pristine sand and then covered this with water. Next, she dipped a sieve into the bucket to filter the grains, which had been dug up from the strandline, and in doing so revealed the sand was teeming with microplastics. A wave of nausea washed over the group.
Dom then lightened the mood by announcing that between us we had collected 350kg of rubbish, 50 per cent of which was plastic waste. A moment of cheer. The Perranporth clean was just one of a series of SAS events at which a record 35,000 volunteers (up 50 per cent on last year) collected a staggering 63 tons of plastic and other waste.
“Every single piece of plastic removed is a victory for our oceans but they also signal an urgent need for society to reinvent its relationship with plastics,” said Hugo Tagholm, CEO of SAS. “We can’t just pick our way out of the plastic pollution problem,” he added. Taking part in a beach clean is also about bringing home an urgent message that we all need to make changes “upstream”.
Britons have successfully reduced their plastic bag consumption by nine billion – enough to wrap around the world 100 times – since the introduction of the 5p tax in October 2015. So how else can we as consumers help turn the tide? Campaign groups recommend carrying a reusable water bottle, coffee cup and spoon; saying no to plastic straws/stirrers; and shunning products with excessive packaging to help reduce our “avoidable” single-use plastic footprint.
Since the turn of the millennium, the world has produced more plastic than in the previous 50 years. A Plastic Planet, which is calling for a plastic-free aisle in supermarkets, is campaigning to turn off the tap. “We need to dramatically reduce our plastic production,” said Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet. “Most of the time we are just using plastic for the wrong purpose – like packaging our perishable food and drink. It is bonkers.”
This wonder of the modern world – also used to make incubators for premature babies and life-saving heart valves – needs to be treated with respect. Only about 10 per cent of plastic, which can take up to 500 years to degrade, is recycled. A Plastic Planet and others argue that recycling, which is complicated by the material’s near-indestructibility, is not the answer and instead we need to be using less. As the beach clean revealed: when we throw away plastic, there is no “away”.
Across the globe, communities and individuals are springing into action. During my time in Perranporth I met Chris Easton, a retired postman, who turns plastic waste collected from the beach into “flotsam faces” to raise awareness in local schools and at the town’s museum. Defending our beaches resonates across the generations.
In an attempt to rid their coastline of plastic waste, the Scandinavians have taken up plogging (from plocka – picking up – and jogging). If you’re heading to the beach this spring/summer and prefer to do things at a more considered pace, pack a pair of old gardening gloves and take a stroll along the strandline. Now is the time to wade in.
HELP TURN THE TIDE
To get involved at a Surfers Against Sewage beach clean at locations nationwide or donate, visit sas.org.uk
To take part in a Marine Conservation Society beach clean, visit mcsuk.org
A Plastic Ocean, which Sir David Attenborough described as “one of the most important documentaries of our time”, is available on Netflix. For further information, visit plasticoceans.org
For further information about Earth Day, visit earthday.org