Ocean hero: the woman who has organised 120 beach cleans

By: Irene Lorenzo
Date posted: 5 April 2018

Michelle Duddy was just a toddler when she moved to Bacton, in Norfolk. Fast forward almost 40 years and the beach is well and truly in her bones. Now a veteran beach cleaner with a message of hope: the tide is turning.

Michelle Duddy

Every piece, no matter how small, we collect will make a big difference to the amount of potential micro plastics entering the sea

Michelle Duddy

Michelle Duddy, known fittingly as Shell, received a call from us saying she was to receive the Marine Conservation Society Award for all she’s done for our oceans. She said she was incredibly touched and yet she felt that we had given her an amazing opportunity.

Shell does beach cleans, runs stalls and gives talks – all in the name of marine conservation. She joined the Beachwatch programme in 2013, and since then has organised in excess of 120 cleans, including company ones with the likes of Aviva, McDonalds and Virgin Money.

“One day my son trod on a broken metal can and cut his foot quite badly and I started to think about how dangerous some of this litter was. I felt that I had to do something about it. I found the MCS Beachwatch page, realised there were no organisers in Norfolk and decided to become one there and then.“

By that time, Shell had lived in Norfolk for 33 years, first in the coastal village of Bacton before moving to Mundesley in her teens. Shell says the sea has always been important to her. Fascinated by marine life, she spent the majority of her childhood and teenage years on the beach.

“My childhood memories were created on Bacton and Walcott beaches. Our friends owned a boat which we would enjoy water skiing from and we’d spend many hazy summer days swimming in the sea, making sand castles and searching for sea gooseberries, shrimps, crabs and starfish in the rock pools and enjoying long walks along the coast.”

Norfolk beach huts

Shell loves Norfolk. If you’ve not been there, you may think of it as just very flat with a few broads thrown in – those waterways formed by the flooding of peat workings. Well, there is a lot of that but it’s the coast that has captivated Shell. It wasn’t until she started taking her two children to visit the seal colonies along the Norfolk coast in the 2000s that Shell spotted an unwelcome addition: litter.

“I kept finding more things like polystyrene trays and crisp packets, plastic bottles, metal cans and full bags of dog muck. It frustrated me that people were being so careless and not looking after our beautiful coastline.”

Shell’s first beach clean as an organiser was at her childhood haunt of Bacton. She says she had no idea what to do or what to expect!

“I didn’t think about the tide times so the tide was in, but it was only me, my daughter and two friends, so we waited for the tide to go out then got stuck in. I was surprised at how much we found on what looked like a clean beach – four full bin bags. I did find it a bit daunting as I had no idea just how bad plastics were for our marine environment and how much of it there was. It was definitely an eye opener.”

Michelle Duddy beach clean montage

Now, there’s no stopping her. Shell took on Mundesley and Sea Palling beaches as well as Bacton and Walcott. Doing the all-year-round surveys means she’s doing a beach clean, some-where, most weekends. The Norfolk coast has come in for a battering over the years. Whilst nothing has been as dramatic as the ‘Big Flood’ of 1953 that left over 300 people dead and 40,000 homeless, the 2013 tidal surge was devastating and, says Shell, scary.

“Walcott, where many of my friends and family lived while I was growing up – and some still do – was devastated. Some houses were flooded and damaged beyond repair. People’s drains had overflowed and heating tanks with kerosene oil had been tipped over and leaked. There was raw sewage in people’s homes and some of the cliffs had collapsed making the beaches dangerous in places. Some of the people who lived in caravans lost almost all of their belongings, as the vans were thrown into nearby fields, whilst local businesses were totally flooded. The beaches were full of debris, metal, concrete, gate, household appliances and rubbish. I volunteered to help clear people’s homes from the flooding as well as clearing the beach.”

Shell firmly believes that people are more aware of the damage we are doing to our seas:

“As there are a lot of factors that contribute towards it, people sometimes get confused. I think the shear amount of rubbish can be overwhelming at times, but I always point out to volunteers how every piece, no matter how small, we collect will make a big difference to the amount of potential microplastics entering the sea – keeping the message positive.”

Shell says on some beaches the number of volunteers has almost doubled since Blue Planet II. At the last clean at Sea Palling over 70 people turned up:

“More people are starting to be interested in organising beach cleans and generally getting more involved. I’d say it’s the Blue Planet II effect.”

But Shell thinks there’s lots that industry and politicians can do to speed up change.

“I think the recycling process in this country needs looking into and there should be more control over where plastic ends up. Consumers need affordable alternatives and plastic packaging needs cutting to the absolute bare minimum. People are still using small veg bags for one orange or one banana, then buying a plastic bag instead of reusing their own. If they weren’t available people wouldn’t use them.”

For Shell though, it’s all about being on the beach:

“I love nothing more than being there. It gives me time to gather my thoughts and clearing the beach of rubbish and ghost gear just seems like a natural thing to do. I get a real sense of achievement knowing that every bag or bucket of litter collected isn’t going back into the sea and harming the marine life which we all love.”

This article was written for our spring 2018 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

Actions you can take

  1. Organise a beach clean
  2. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2017
  3. Join a beach clean
  4. Visit the beachwatch website

Did you know?…

MCS launched its Beachwatch programme in 1994

Litter has increased by 135% since 1994, with plastics increasing by a staggering 180%

Globally, plastic litter has reached every part of the world’s oceans

Why not join a beach clean ... or organise one?

To date, our beach clean volunteers have removed 6 million pieces of litter from our beaches and collected marine litter data to support our campaigns for cleaner seas and beaches.

Learn more and join a beach clean