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There is an average of 528 items of litter for every 100m of coast around Northern Ireland, a new report has found – that’s about five bits of litter for every step you take on some beaches. Perhaps more shockingly, this figure compares favourably against the rest of the coast of the UK and Ireland.

The report, by environmental charity Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, is an analysis of surveys on ten reference beaches from Runkerry Strand in the North West to Rostrevor in the South East. Staff and volunteers have covered a total of 56 kilometres over fourteen survey rounds since September 2012 to collect the data and remove the litter.

Chris Allen, who manages the survey for Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, said “This new analysis looks at all the data we have collected since 2012. We’ve found tremendous variation between the surveys, so taking them all together allows us to get the best picture of the amount and composition of litter washing up on our beaches.”

Over the four years of the study, there was no significant change in the overall litter count, although the number of plastic bags and sanitary waste items have both reduced, which has been attributed to the carrier bag levy and improvements to treatment works by NI Water respectively.

Chris went on “When you compare our reference beaches against the reference beaches in the UK, Ireland and the countries around the North Atlantic, we actually come out with less litter per 100m. That we can have over 500 bits of litter per 100m and still be cleaner than other places is pretty worrying. This stuff damages boats; kills marine life, and could cause contamination of fish and shellfish that end up on our plates. Not to mention it looks pretty disgusting when it washes up on our beaches.”

As well as highlighting the amount of litter, the report praises the work of volunteers in cleaning beaches around the country. 4,187 bags of rubbish have been lifted by volunteers taking part in just this project – once the litter is counted, it is removed to ensure it isn’t counted in the next survey.

One group of people working hard to control litter are the residents of the Fishing Village of Ardglass in County Down. Kevin Quigley of the NI Fishery Harbour Authority said “We know litter is a problem – the tides wash it up here from all over the place – but our staff have pride in this beautiful harbour village and so can be seen regularly with local and other volunteers undertaking beach cleans.

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful revealed recently that Councils in Northern Ireland spent £43 million cleaning up litter in 2015-16, and it’s clear that some of what’s left is making its way into the sea. However, there are a number of initiatives taking place around the country to tackle the problem, including Council-led strategies specifically to remove and reduce beach litter, and education programmes run by NI Water and Eco-Schools to teach responsible disposal of litter. Fishing vessels have even begun to bring litter caught in their nets back to shore for responsible disposal.

You can read the full 2016 Marine Litter Report at http://www.keepnorthernirelandbeautiful.org/cgi-bin/generic?instanceID=50