Wet wipes on Scottish beach, Catherine Gemmell

Solving Scotland’s sewage related litter problem

3 minute read

Catherine Gemmell

Catherine Gemmell, Policy and Advocacy Manager

19 Apr 2022

Our members might’ve seen how we’re working to solve Scotland’s sewage problem in the spring edition of the magazine. Here we share an update on what’s been happening.

Thanks to thousands of volunteers collecting data through our Beachwatch project, we know ‘sewage related debris’ (like wet wipes, sanitary pads, tampons, tampon applicators and nappies) has been a problem on Scottish beaches for a long time.

Last year's Great British Beach Clean (GBBC) results threw the issue into the spotlight again.

Volunteers in Scotland found an average of 38 items of sewage related debris (SRD) per 100m of beach surveyed, compared to just 20 items in England, 11 in Wales and 10 in Northern Ireland.

UK Sewage-related debris data 2021 - Landscape.png

Credit: Marine Conservation Society

When we looked at wet wipes in particular the stats were even more shocking. A staggering 25 wet wipes were found on average for every 100 metres of beach surveyed in Scotland during the GBBC event.

We then looked at our year-round Beachwatch data and found a similar, if not more concerning, story.

On average 128 items of SRD were found by Scottish volunteers per 100 metres of beach surveyed, nearly triple the amount of the next highest figure, which was found in Wales.

UK SRD Data 2015-2020 - Landscape graphic

Credit: Marine Conservation Society

Our data shows that wet wipe pollution in particular is a year-round, consistent problem. Scottish volunteers have found an average of 71 wet wipes per 100m of beach surveyed between 2015 and 2020. That is seven or more times higher than in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

We wrote a Parliamentary Briefing to send to Members of the Scottish Parliament in November 2021 to help raise awareness of the issue. This included two key policy asks:

  • Setting progressive reduction targets for spills from combined sewer overflows by the end of 2022 and; installing electronic monitoring on all Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) by 2024, with data published on an annual basis
  • Supporting reusable sanitary products and phasing out single-use plastic sanitary items

When sewage items are flushed down the toilet they can end up on beaches and in our ocean. This usually happens when there is either heavy rainfall or a lack of capacity in the sewer system. Combined Sewage Overflow pipes are used to relieve pressure on the system and release sewage, SRD and other pollutants into the environment.

This is why we need to stop SRD items getting into the system in the first place and make sure that if they do get into the system, they don’t end up in the environment.

We have since met with Scotland’s public water provider, Scottish Water and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). Action so far has included the launch of Scottish Water’s ‘Nature Calls’ campaign which matches our long-standing call to ban plastic single-use wet wipes as well as encourage responsible flushing.

The Scottish Government also launched consultations on their updated Marine Litter Strategy and National Litter and Fly-tipping Strategy which we, with your support, responded to.

You can read our full responses, where we made it clear that more ambition is needed on the monitoring and screening of CSO’s to reduce spills into the environment.

More action has also come through the publication of the Urban Waters Improvement Route Map by Scottish Water and SEPA. Although we welcome many of the targets and actions outlined in both strategies and this route map, they don’t go far enough to tackle the issues outlined by our data.

That’s why last week we sent a letter to the Chief Executives of Scottish Water and SEPA to invite them to a joint meeting. We want to discuss how their ambitions can change in order to tackle the sewage related debris crisis unfolding on Scotland’s shores.

We received a quick response to our letters and have a commitment to a meeting to discuss our concerns and recommendations.

Watch this space for an update from the meeting and what steps we'll be taking next.

In the meantime, you can help keep up the pressure by sharing our Parliamentary Briefing with your MSP and by joining our beach cleans to keep gathering vital evidence we’re using to drive change.

Help us clean up Scotland’s coast and stop sewage-related litter at source!