Litter problem along England’s protected coasts

Litter on a beach
Britain’s growing coastal litter problem | Image: Countryfile

Beaches in or near England’s Marine Protected Areas have the same levels of litter as those in unprotected areas

A new study has found “No difference” in the amount of human-generated litter present inside or outside British Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

The University of Exeter, Natural England and the Marine Conservation Society used data from Marine Conservation Society beach cleans. They found MPAs in the South East and South West had the highest levels of shore-based litter.

plastic bottles being collectd from a beach

“Our work has found that MPAs, which often contain sensitive marine habitats and species, are exposed to litter much in the same way as non-protected sites,” said Dr Sarah Nelms, of the University of Exeter.

MPAs have no physical boundaries so, to protect them from any potential impacts of litter, we need to take a whole-system approach and reduce the overall amount of litter being released into the environment

Dr Sarah Nelms

Dr Hazel Selley, Marine Specialist from Natural England who commissioned the work, said: “A clean, healthy and biologically diverse marine environment is immensely valuable, for the economy in coastal communities, for our charismatic wildlife and – once we can travel again – for the mental well-being benefits of spending time by the sea.

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10 facts about marine litter…

  1. A plastic bottle left on the beach may last for more than 450 years in the marine environment.

2. Plastic makes up the vast majority of marine litter, and unfortunately never truly goes away.

3. The amount of marine litter found on UK beaches has more than doubled in the last 15 years.

4. It’s estimated that 6.4 million tonnes of litter enter the sea annually.

5. On average there are 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every square mile of ocean.

littler on a sandy beach

6. Approximately 8 million individual pieces of marine litter enter the sea every day.

4. Around 4.5 trillion cigarette butts litter the environment every year.

8. Sadly 94% of Fulmars in the North Sea have ingested plastic.

9. Since the 5p plastic bag charge in the UK, there has been an 80% reduction in the number of bags given out in supermarkets.

10. 37% of marine litter comes directly from the public. Refuse, Reduce, Reuse & Recycle!

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What can I do about plastic in the sea?

Everyone can do something to reduce the amount of plastic that enters the ocean. Here are seven ways you can make a difference.

1. Reduce Your Use of Single-Use Plastics
Wherever you live, the easiest and most direct way that you can get started is by reducing your own use of single-use plastics. Single-use plastics include plastic bags, water bottles, straws, cups, utensils, dry cleaning bags, take-out containers, and any other plastic items that are used once and then discarded.

The best way to do this is by:

a) refusing any single-use plastics that you do not need (e.g. straws, plastic bags, takeout utensils, takeout containers)

b) purchasing, and carrying with you, reusable versions of those products, including reusable grocery bagsproduce bagsbottlesutensilscoffee cups, and dry cleaning garment bags. And when you refuse single-use plastic items, help businesses by letting them know that you would like them to offer alternatives.

2. Recycle Properly
This should go without saying, but when you use single-use (and other) plastics that can be recycled, always be sure to recycle them. At present, just 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide. Recycling helps keep plastics out of the ocean and reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation.

3. Participate In (or Organise) a Beach or River Cleanup
Help remove plastics from the ocean and prevent them from getting there in the first place by participating in or organising a cleanup of your local beach or waterway. This is one of the most direct and rewarding ways to fight ocean plastic pollution. You can simply go to the beach or waterway and collect plastic waste on your own or with friends or family in a #2minutebeachclean

4. Support Bans
Many countries around the world have enacted bans on single use plastic bags, takeout containers, and bottles. You can support the adoption of such policies in your community, such a plastic-free towns.

5. Avoid Products Containing Microbeads
Tiny plastic particles, called “microbeads,” have become a growing source of ocean plastic pollution in recent years. Microbeads are found in some face scrubs, toothpastes, and bodywashes, and they readily enter our oceans and waterways through our sewer systems, and affect hundreds of marine species. Avoid products containing plastic microbeads by looking for “polythelene” and “polypropylene” on the ingredient labels of your cosmetic products (find a list of products containing microbeads here).

crab inside a floating plastic cup in the ocean

6. Spread the Word
Stay informed on issues related to plastic pollution and help make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family about how they can be part of the solution, or host a viewing party for one of the many plastic pollution focused documentaries, like Bag ItAddicted to PlasticPlasticized, or Garbage Island.

7. Support Organizations Addressing Plastic Pollution
There are many non-profit organizations working to reduce and eliminate ocean plastic pollution in a variety of different ways, including Oceanic SocietyPlastic Pollution Coalition5 GyresAlgalitaPlastic Soup Foundation, and others. These organizations rely on donations from people like you to continue their important work. Even small donations can make a big difference!

These seven ideas only scratch the surface for ways you can help address the growing problem of plastic pollution in the oceans. The important thing is that we all do something, no matter how small. For more ideas and resources, sign up to join our Blue Habits community of people worldwide committed to joyful daily actions that improve ocean health.


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