Cleaning Your Beach, Mind and Soul

Trends change as quickly as the wind, places are awash with new development and the memories of each generation are as different as each evening’s sunset. All of this is true for plastic; from the women who remember the delightful ease of throwing away the first disposable plates after dinner, to the teenagers chasing the latest Gameboys, to the eco-conscious individuals now glad to see the tide turn on our hunger for plastic. It seems taking a stroll along the sand today involves more picking up of unsightly litter than it does interesting pebbles or intricate shells and while this environmental state is devastating, we don’t have to view it as such a terrible tragedy. Instead, we can act as the gallant protagonist in this story by giving something back to nature and the places we love, while simultaneously meeting people, getting outside and inspiring the minds of the next generation.

Since 1994, the amount of plastic loitering on our shores has risen by 140%, with the main offenders taking the shape of food wrappers, drinks bottles and cigarette butts. The filters in cigarettes are surprisingly made of plastic fibres and in only one hour, a single butt can contaminate up to 8 litres of water with toxic chemicals such as arsenic. Although each beach is different, in the UK alone 718 pieces of plastic were found per 100m of shoreline, from massive tangles of fishing nets to tiny nurdles. While the facts could be rolled out endlessly, making you feel even more powerless against this sea of pollution, the beauty of it is that we can all pick up litter. We don’t need money, masses of time, qualifications or an understanding of how the ocean works. Just picking up one single piece of litter could save the life of a local animal, leaving it free to live without entanglement, suffocation or exhaustion. By acting locally, you can help this beachcombing behaviour become a new ‘norm’ in your area until this simple movement spreads across the world and honestly, the ripples of change are already reaching far and wide.

Many growing online movements have popped up in recent years including #2minutebeachclean and #take3forthesea, both of which encourage you to pick up a small amount of litter on your walk, even if that is just in the last few minutes before the car. In the UK, beaches are now even providing free litter pickers for you to borrow to counteract any poor excuses. By sharing these notions with your friends on social media, you can help create a positive conversation about ocean plastic and get people starting to think about what really happens to their waste. If the sea is not lapping at your door, it’s not the end of your eco-warrior attempts; cleaning our streets, lakes, rivers and canals is equally beneficial as rainfall can carry our litter towards drains and rivers which tumble down into the ocean eventually.

In fact, scientific research has shown that increasing the health of the oceans goes hand in hand with increasing your own health as apples are no longer the only thing keeping the doctor away. Multiple benefits have been found from spending time near the sea or a water body in general, from higher levels of exercise and vitamin D, reduced depression and anxiety and just general mood boosting, something we could all do with after a hectic week at work. The effect of removing our plastic delinquents also gives us a sense of satisfaction whilst helping local industries such as tourism and fishing which rely on clean waters to prosper, with UK councils alone paying £18 million per year spring cleaning our seashore to maintain the essential tourist industry. If we just stopped carelessly abandoning our litter, this money could be put to a range of other causes trickier to solve. Studies have also found that those who regularly volunteer in a group or charity, frequently join because they’d like to make a positive difference but the reason they actually remain volunteering is often because of the social benefits. So don’t feel guilty about joining for solely selfish reasons, the ocean doesn’t mind either way!

If you don’t fancy traipsing the strandline alone, you can always seek out a new spot and invite friends, family or work colleagues for a day at the beach. It is amazing how much children know about the perils of plastic and for them a boring old clean can be transformed into a treasure hunt for the most exciting piece of gold (coloured plastic). To help the youngsters get excited, trash monsters can be made with the rubbish you collect or an old fashioned picnic and a game of rounders will motivate them to fill their buckets at lightning speed while you secretly instil a lifelong habit of caring for the ocean, something much easier than teaching them the importance of vegetables.

When cleaning the beach, whether that be on your own or with friends and family, there are several safety factors to consider. The best time to scour the shore is on an outgoing tide, allowing you to have a large enough area of beach to explore but also less risk of being caught out by the tide racing up the beach. You should also wear gloves such as old gardening ones when picking up litter to protect yourself from any germs but also sharp objects. Items such as needles should not be picked up unless you have thick gloves, a separate tub to place them in and are able to dispose of them properly. Any natural features should also be left alone including seaweed which provides an essential foraging habitat for critters living in both the marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Dead animals should also be left untouched with many countries providing specific phone numbers you can use to report a stranded animal, something handy to save on your mobile if you intend going out frequently. Once bags or buckets are feeling heavy, you can place the rubbish in the correct recycling bag based on the policy in your local area or in a designated bin, making sure there are no loose scraps the wind can send straight back out to sea, undoing all your hard work.

If you want to go one step further, you can organise your own official beach clean event for your local community where everyone is able to join in. Many organisations such as this one can help you do that if you decide to get in contact and become an ambassador or rep. This has many benefits from being helped with risk assessments to providing all the equipment you need for a deep clean. Some organisations even ask you to keep a record of which types of plastic you find and where which helps identify the problem areas and solve this issue from the source. It often feels like beach cleaning is an endless task as each crash of the wave washes more discarded goods onshore, but each piece you pick up could make a lifesaving difference to a dolphin, seal, shark or whale. If you want to feel more involved in the plastic problem, the final instalment of our blog series will give you suggestions on how you can become a citizen scientist, what inventions you need to keep an eye out for and our argument for why the future of plastic can truly be positive.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair