Sunset on Hastings Beach Ben Clayton

Beach cleans: "It's not just about plastic"

6 minute read

Sea Champions

30 Mar 2020

With the UK in lockdown, getting out and about is difficult. Especially if you have a fondness for our beaches. At the Marine Conservation Society, we are looking at ways that our amazing volunteers can still contribute to our work, whilst looking after their wellbeing at this time.

Today we thought we'd share volunteer, Sarah's, account of a beach clean and why it's not just about the plastic you can find.

"It's not just about plastic".

These few words, spoken by the Marine Conservation Society’s passionate Public Engagement Officer, Alisdair, are the perfect way to summarise the morning we have just spent on Littlehampton’s windy beach. People of all ages and all walks of life, from groups of friends and colleagues to couples and families, have gathered here to volunteer as part of our Great British Beach Clean.

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The sun is shining, and despite the strong breeze, it’s not too cold. The deep blue sea seems miles away, as the low tide reveals endless expanses of beige sand. If I look down, I can still see the footsteps of early morning dog walkers and the pawprints of their faithful companions. Every hundred meters or so, dark wooden groynes lead the eye back towards the blue horizon. Hungry seagulls are flying above looking for breakfast.

Towards the top of the beach, the sand gradually gives way to millions of grey, beige and white pebbles. This is where our group is now huddled, awaiting instructions.

Struggling slightly to be heard over the screeching seagulls and the gusts of wind, Littlehampton Great Beach Clean organiser, Kate Whitton, gives us a brief background of the charity and the overview of the day. Her enthusiasm is contagious and already, we can’t wait to get going.

First, we are to perform a survey. Across a 100-m-long strip of beach, we will pick and record every bit of litter we find. Armed with picking sticks, clipboards and garden bags, we spread across the survey area. Some of us disappear towards the low tide, where the small waves break gently against the wet sand. Others choose the area near the promenade and search among the dry pebbles. All of us are hunched and focused. I pause and wonder what we must look like to passers-by.

In less than an hour, we collectively pick 2.5kg of plastic, glass and other household items – when you remember how light plastic is, this is actually a huge amount, and given that the council cleaned the beach this very morning, even more alarming.

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For the next hour, we spread further and pick as much litter as we possibly can. When the time comes to weigh the litter again, it has increased by a further 11kgs.

By cleaning this beach, we will help marine life: fish, crabs, sea snails, barnacles and mussels will thrive in a healthier sea. But we will also help our fellow human beings, who would eventually be eating plastic themselves, as it sadly makes its way up the food chain.

But as Alisdair so rightly said, it’s not just about the plastic…

It’s about enjoying a sunny morning on the beach!

I grew up in the south of France, but I have lived in the UK long enough now to understand weather pessimism. “I bet it’s going to rain!” we say whenever we are planning outdoors activities. But today, it’s a warm late-summer sun greeting us as we set off on our litter picking mission. Only a few white clouds blemish the bright blue sky.

A strong breeze cools the air, bringing with it the smell of seaweed and suddenly, I am taken back to the times when, as a child, I used to visit my British grandmother, only a few kilometres from here. She would take me for walks along Worthing’s promenade then buy me an ice cream – I always thought it was a strange choice of snack for what I thought were such cold days.

I came back years later with my first love. We would spend hours stacking pebbles, looking for crabs, throwing ricochets and spotting worm holes.

Walking on the sand with him, hands held tight and eyes blind with love, I guess I missed the fishing lines, beer cans, plastic sheets and broken glass which, even then, spoiled our precious shores. This time, I am intently looking for them, but this memory nonetheless leaves me with a feeling of nostalgic happiness.

It’s about the people you meet!

I joined this project on my own but as has often happened when volunteering solo in the past, I initially felt a slight apprehension. I picture myself picking litter on my own, while around me, groups of friends, colleagues and families laugh together; I have to remind myself that I was not here to make friends, but here to help make the world a better place. Of course, what I find each time I volunteer, is that I always end up meeting cool people alongside saving the planet and that these two things often go hand in hand.

Apprehension subsides soon enough, when people in marine blue shirts – the organisers – smile at me as they scurry around looking for bits and completing last-minute tasks. They’re now ready to welcome us and check us in. Within minutes, I am in conversation with them and other volunteers.

When the activity kicks in, it doesn’t take long for us all to mingle, swap picking techniques and compete about which one of us has found the weirdest or most unlikely item. We talk about our lives and jobs and agree on how lucky we are to be here, under the Friday morning sun, when most of our colleagues are stuck under the bright neon of an open plan office, listening to the hum of the air conditioning and the screech of the printer, instead of the wind and the seagulls.

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It’s about learning!

If asked to list the items I would expect to find washing up on the shores of our precious beaches, plastic would have been my first answer. I wouldn’t have suggested half of the items we found this morning: exploded fireworks, children toys, sanitary products or medical devices. Of all the items we collected, the largest proportion came from our homes or our picnics, but the fishing and shipping industries are also highly responsible for damaging our coasts.

But it’s not just litter we find on the beach and as the morning progresses, the Marine Conservation Society team, always full of smiles and gratitude, share with us their knowledge about the creatures of the sea. We learn that mussels cleanse the sea by filtering microplastics and other pollutants, how barnacles adapt to increasingly difficult conditions, and how some algae fill little pockets with air in order to rise to the

surface of the sea to catch some sun rays for photosynthesis. I also find my first mermaid’s purse, from which a shark fish must once have emerged, a tiny but entirely formed creature, before escaping into the sea.

Of course, we also learn about the great work conducted everyday by the Marine Conservation Society, the importance of the survey we have just performed, and how volunteers can support even further!

It’s about doing something worthwhile!

I am aware that this small strip of beach we have cleared this morning is not going to stop all the pollution, reverse all the effects of global warming or indeed stop marine life getting entangled. But together, the 100 or so of us may have saved the lives of 100 fish, 100 mussels, 100 limpets, or 100 other creatures. We have also given each other strength and hope, feeding off each other’s enthusiasm and love for our planet. And together with all the other beach cleaners around the country – and hopefully around the world – we have had an even greater impact.

After having had so much fun, we will share our experiences with our colleagues and friends and hopefully inspire them to take part next year.

It’s sometimes easy to feel we are entering the post-apocalyptic world of a dystopian movie. The world is waking up to the climate crisis and that of plastic pollution. With this awakening can come worry and “doom and gloom” as they call it over here. I think this may cause paralysis. I strongly believe that we can do something about it and by making volunteering fun, we can unite to make the planet a better place for us and future generations.

Today, huge climate strikes are happening around the world. There is one in Brighton, which has just started. And after a relaxing time volunteering in the sun, I am off to join the fight.

So, a day at the beach or a day saving the planet? How about both?

If you would like to suggest ways for volunteers to continue being involved in our work whilst we are in lockdown, then please send your ideas to [email protected], adding "Volunteer Ideas" into the subject heading.

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