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A Year of Beach Cleaning by Sarah Bell

David McCann   Mon 04 Nov 2019

“There will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050." Although it may seem like a distant reality, sadly it is a fast approaching consequence of our mass consumption of plastic. Plastic production is set to increase by 40% in the next decade as it can be found in almost everything we lay our hands on. The reason we favour plastic so much is because of its durability, it carries our food and drink from all corners of the planet, it is used in our favourite electronic devices and it dispenses our most-loved hygiene products. However, as a nation we struggle to process the vast amount of plastic in our homes and workplaces. The U.K does not have enough recycling systems in order to deal with our waste and so, it is shipped off to developing countries. Understandably these countries cannot manage the extensive amount of unsorted waste and it is dumped into landfill sites or most frequently, the ocean.

According to Surfers Against Sewage, "There are 51 trillion pieces in our oceans, which is 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy." Surfers Against Sewage is a marine conservation charity established in 1990. It was one of the earliest beach cleaning groups and continues to be one of the most influential in the U.K. Their name was inspired by Cornish surfers who complained of raw sewage floating in the ocean. In the 90's water treatment systems were not up to scratch and waste was drained into the sea, but the work of SAS led to major investment in sewerage infrastructure. Now the leaching of plastics from poor waste management, litter, sewers, fishing and factories takes centre stage. SAS holds two big, volunteer led beach cleans every year, the Big Spring Clean and the Autumn Beach Clean. They have inspired people across the country to set up their own groups or to take part individually in a #minibeachclean and many beaches now provide a litter picker.

Beach cleaning is one of many ways to fight plastic pollution and it is crucial at a time where our beaches are particularly vulnerable. I began beach cleaning in October 2018 after watching a BBC news report about the litter problem on shorelines in the U.K. I volunteered with Beach Cleaners- Ards and North Down which I found through Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful. The group was created by Regan Smyth and Lesley Crawshaw joined soon after. Lesley became the organiser of clean-up events and administering the group’s Facebook page. When I set out on my first clean-up I expected to pick up very little as after all, it was just a quiet, Northern Irish beach! Well, this belief was quickly turned on its head. An hour later and I was completely stunned by the amount of litter I had retrieved. It was often difficult to locate as litter was hidden amongst seaweed, plunged into rock pools and discarded in grassy verges. Once we reconvened I carried out a little recce on the contents of my bag and items such as plastic bottles, straws and packaging were rife. Above all, my bag was full of smaller fragments, also known as microplastics, and on the beach these pieces were often indistinguishable.

Whilst on holiday in September 2019, I visited a beach in the south of Mallorca and from a mere 2 yards of beach I managed to collect two handfuls of microplastics. As you can see, this contained pieces of balloon, fishing net, bottle tops and can openers. Plastic is subject to harsh UV rays and rough currents and it breaks down into increasingly smaller pieces which are easily ingested by marine animals. National Geographic states, "Scientists have found microplastic in 114 aquatic species and more than half of those end up on our plates." Plastic is making its way into our food chain through the fish or shellfish we eat and this is why beach cleaning is more important than ever.

Let's fast forward 365 days later and I continue to carry out cleans with Beach Cleaners- Ards and North Down. I am driven by a desire to protect our seas, but it is also my constant reminder of the reality of plastic pollution. The experience has been hugely thought-provoking and has led me to make small changes in order to reduce my everyday consumption of plastic. I want to encourage others to do the same, so I regularly share pictures of my findings on social media. I spoke to a fellow beach cleaner, Phil Wilkinson, who also hopes to raise awareness through his photography. However, Phil has a much more interesting perspective than I do as his photos come from the depths of the ocean. Through his lens we discover the magnificent array of creatures that live below the surface and the litter destroying their home. Phil often dives with Seasearch NI who aim to identify the various types of marine life and the underwater sites which require protection. Whilst on a dive a few months ago, Phil captured a photo which really stood out to me as I felt it highlighted one of the most damaging pollutants, fishing gear.

Abandoned fishing equipment causes a magnitude of problems for the environment. The UN Environment Programme stated, "Ghost gear is the most deadly form of marine litter out there," as their design poses a real threat to sea life. There are hundreds of instances worldwide where animals have become entangled in fishing gear and on Saturday 2nd November a seal was found on Ballywalter beach, Newtownards with a fishing line around its neck. It had deep lacerations and this caused its untimely death. Fishing nets are made of two types of highly durable plastics, polyethylene and nylon and as they break down over hundreds of years they shed microplastics into the heart of the ocean. Unlike a discarded plastic bottle or coffee cup, fishing gear takes a great deal of effort to remove as some can expand to the size of a football pitch. When I asked other members of our group about their clean-up experiences, fishing was a common theme. Most mentioned that they almost always find abandoned lines, lures and nets or rubbish left behind by fishermen. It is wholly unsurprising National Geographic found that fishing gear makes up 46% of ocean plastic.

Throughout my time of documenting clean ups I have noticed there are recurrent offenders and most are everyday items. The leader of the pack is undoubtedly, wet wipes. A recent BBC documentary called 'The War on Plastic' revealed that a single wipe is made up of 75% plastic. Up until last year many companies endorsed the flushing of wipes and this has caused a mass build up in sewers, also known as 'fatbergs', which are eventually pushed out into the sea after heavy rainfall. Wipes are a significant problem for the health of our ocean as one wipe can outlive most of us 6 or 7 times over. Other recurrent hygiene products include sanitary towels, tampons and cotton bud stems which are also being flushed and adding to fatbergs.

On a very recent beach clean I came across several pieces of Lego which I thought had been left behind by a small child. However, I came across a Twitter page dedicated to 'Lost Lego at Sea'. It turns out in 1997 nearly 5 million pieces of Lego fell into the sea when a huge wave hit the cargo ship, Tokio Express, washing 62 containers overboard. One held over 4.7 million pieces of Lego. I cannot confirm if this piece was lost from the same shipping container but if we were to believe it was, it indicates the robust nature of plastic. Despite being dumped 22 years ago and travelling hundreds of miles from Lands End, Cornwall it remains entirely intact.

We are incredibly lucky to be able to enjoy such glorious beaches along the Northern Irish coastline and Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful is one organisation who seeks to preserve our precious landscapes. Beaches are evidently a hot spot for socialising, particularly during the summer months. Thus, the most common items are often related to eating and drinking and from the images below you could probably piece together the remains of a barbeque or picnic.

Indeed it is this irresponsible attitude towards littering that plays a significant role in the progression of plastic pollution. David Attenborough recently said, "Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet," therefore, we can no longer hide behind a lack of education. We are all aware of the fragile state of our oceans, landscapes and climate and we must each try our very best to protect our planet.

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful has made it easy to get involved in beach cleaning through their Live Here Love Here campaign. This is a people powered initiative where communities can come together and clean-up, green up or spruce up their local area or beach. Under their 'Events' page you can find information about beach cleans being held across Northern Ireland.