I looked back with a touch of pride at the beautifully clean beige sand and grey stones of Sheringham beach before me. I had spent a few hours combing this broad expanse of seaside for litter -- picking up package strapping, polystyrene pieces and food wrappers mainly -- and chucking the flotsom into a bin bag.
Each item I tallied on a survey sheet as I chatted with a new friend and beach cleaning partner I met at daybreak when, clutching a hot cups of coffee in our gloved hands, our team had assembled for a health and safety briefing. We were then each issued with a bin bag and sent stridding off down the Norfolk coast.
I thoroughly enjoyed this beach clean and every other one I’ve taken part in. Come rain or shine, spending time on the UK’s beautiful beaches and doing something to help protect the environment is wonderful thing to do. Not only do I enjoy helping endangered marine wildlife, the quaint charm surrounding area and other people who like to visit the beach. It also does wonders for my health and wellbeing to get some exercise, a lungful of fresh sea air and to make new like-minded friends.
We found only ordinary debris but others have reportedly found unusual items, such as toasters, discarded dentures, even antique treasures. But it is the plastic waste, along with 'ghost gear', including thousands of tons of abandoned fishing nets, that most harm birds, fish and turtles. Surveys show the volume of beach debris alone has more than doubled in the last decade.
‘It's more than just tidying up a stretch of beach, it's about protecting wildlife,’ says Linda Hawes, Beachwatch Organiser for Aldeburgh. ‘By doing the surveys we provide important data which is used in campaign work. ‘All of the waste found is recorded and the results are collated into an annual report. This way, future campaigns can be more targeted to key problem areas so the public know what to look out for, such as six-pack drink yokes or plastic carrier bags.’
Beachwatch is a national beach cleaning programme supporting individuals, groups and communities in caring for their shoreline to help protect marine wildlife and the wider environment from litter. It’s run by The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) who are one of a number of organisations running valuable ongoing programmes, inviting volunteers to join in with cleaning litter from the beaches during fun, organised sweeps which also act as a wonderful way to meet likeminded people.
‘I find underwater life fascinating and feel very concerned about the way our oceans seem to be used as a dumping ground,’ says Michelle Duddy, Beachwatch Organiser for a number of beaches in Norfolk. ‘We have a responsibility to put right some of the damage caused and to prevent any further decline in the marine environment,’ she says. ‘The best way everyone can help is to get involved in beach cleans, plus it also keeps the beaches safer and nicer for the public to use’.
According to the MCS beach litter is at the highest level since records began with plastic litter increasing 140% since 1994. ‘It kills wildlife, looks disgusting, is a hazard to our health and costs millions to clear up,’ says the website.
The MCS also organises annual events such as this year’s Great British Beach Clean weekend to raise awareness. The results are yet to be published, but during the 2013 weekend, 2,309 pieces of litter were collected per kilometre on UK beaches with the most common litter item being plastic pieces.
The consequence is that birds, fish, turtles and invertebrates mistake plastic items for food which gets caught in their stomachs, or they become entangled which restricts growth, limits movement and can cause death. The MCS has reported that over 90% of fulmar seabirds found dead around the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs.
World Animal Protection and Surfers Against Sewage also hold a series of beach clean events to remove litter and what is known as ghost gear. Ghost gear includes lost and abandoned fishing nets, hooks and lines that pose a threat to marine animals by injuring and killing hundreds of thousands of whales, seals, turtles and birds each year. World Animal Protection estimates that 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear is discarded in the sea year on year.
Another problem is the use of plastic microbeads in many body scrubs. These microbeads are too small to be filtered out at water treatment plants and contribute to a ‘plastic soup’ swirling around the world’s waters. They are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove and fish and other creatures eat or absorb them. More information can be found on the Beat the Microbead website.
The MCS are always on the lookout for organisers as well as volunteers. Beach cleans take place all year round and to find your local one click here: East Anglia is home to some beautiful beaches. Here are the top 5 to visit for a beach clean:
1. Sheringham, Norfolk: A stony beach with sand and rock pools at low tide. Discover colourful beach huts, cliff top walks, a steam train and an annual 40s weekend in the pretty seaside town.
2. Aldeburgh, Suffolk: A shingle beach and arty town home to the Aldeburgh Festival of Arts. Must-visits include the ancient Moot Hall and the lovely Aldeburgh Bookshop.
3. Old Felixstowe, Suffolk: A beautiful walk along the sea passing a Martello tower and the Felixstowe Ferry as well as wonderful views of the magnificent Bawdsey Manor.
4. Sea Palling, Norfolk: This sandy beach is the result of nine offshore reefs created as part of a flood defence scheme. Good for swimming in summer plus pubs, cafes and shops.
5. Southwold, Suffolk: A mix of sand and shingle, it’s backed by wooden chalets and a promenade. Home to a wonderful amusement pier, putting greens and boating ponds.