Beach clean volunteers at Great British Beach Clean on Eastney Beach Portsmouth GBBC Billy Barraclough

It was fantastic to see so many people from across the UK get involved in this year's Great British Beach Clean. Volunteers young and old took part in a quest to clear their local beaches, streets and parks of litter and record their findings.

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What did the results show?

During the third week of September this year, 6,176 volunteers took part in our Great British Beach Clean. A total of 5064.8kg of litter was collected and recorded over the week by dedicated volunteers and the results are in.

  • In positive news, the average litter recorded per 100 metres is dropping year on year across the UK. An average of 385 items were found, compared to averages of 425 in 2020, and 558 in 2019.
  • Cotton bud sticks moved out of the UK’s top ten most common rubbish items. An average of six plastic cotton bud sticks were found – the lowest in the Great British Beach Clean’s 28-year history – down from 15 in 2020.
  • Numbers of single-use plastic bags on beaches have continued to drop, from a high of 13 on average in 2013, to just three in 2021.
  • 75% of all litter collected was plastic or polystyrene. An average of 112 pieces were found for every 100 metres of UK beach surveyed.
  • The number of cigarette butts found in Wales more than doubled from 2020 to 2021, with this year's average an all-time high for Welsh beaches.
  • Wet wipes were the second most common form of litter in Scotland, many of which contain plastic and make their way to the coast through the sewer system.

For more detailed information, see our Wales and Scotland results pages.

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Our data is driving positive change

The drop in litter levels can at least in part be attributed to single-use plastics bans and charges put in place across the UK, supported by Marine Conservation Society data.

  • In April 2021, Scotland increased the carrier bag charge to 10p. It was also the first UK country to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic cotton bud sticks in October 2019.
  • England followed suit last year, introducing a ban on single-use plastic straws, cotton bud sticks and stirrers.
  • The Welsh Government is yet to introduce a ban on plastic cotton bud sticks.

Lizzie Prior, Beachwatch Manager at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “The ongoing downward trend we’re seeing in litter levels on UK beaches is a positive sign that the actions we’re taking at a personal, local and national level are working. But we can’t sit back and relax, now is the time for even more ambitious action.”

The ongoing downward trend we’re seeing in litter levels on UK beaches is a positive sign that the actions we’re taking are working. But we can’t sit back and relax, now is the time for even more ambitious action

Lizzie Prior, Beachwatch Manager

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But more needs to be done on plastic

Despite the overall drop in litter, plastic remains the most prevalent form of litter across all the UK's beaches.

Levels of PPE found this year were similar to 2020, when masks were made mandatory across the UK. 32% of UK beaches cleaned found PPE litter though masks ranked 59 out of 121 for most common litter items.

Wet wipes have consistently featured in the top 10 most common litter items on Scottish beaches surveyed over the last five years. This form of litter, including other sewage-related items (like sanitary towels and nappies) isn’t a pandemic-related problem, but a chronic, long-term issue that needs to be tackled now. Join our campaign to take urgent action.

In Wales, an average of 56 cigarette stubs were found per 100m in 2018, dropping to 33 in 2019 and just nine in 2020. The jump to 64 this year is certainly cause for concern. As a result, the Marine Conservation Society is working with peers at ASH Wales to call for a ban on plastic in cigarette filters, and action to reduce smoking-related litter.

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cigarette butts found per 100m of Welsh beach in this year's Great British Beach Clean

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%

of litter picks found PPE in 2021

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%

of all litter collected in this year's beach clean was plastic or polystyrene

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “UK governments’ current piecemeal approach to single-use plastics policy just won’t cut it anymore. While we’re seeing a downward trend in litter on beaches, we’re still seeing huge volumes of plastic washing up on our shores.

“A shocking 75% of all the litter we collected from UK beaches this year was made of plastic or polystyrene, so it’s clear what we need to focus our attention on. Comprehensive and ambitious single-use plastics policies which reduce the manufacture and sale of items is the quickest way of phasing out plastic from our environment.”

Comprehensive and ambitious single-use plastics policies which reduce the manufacture and sale of items is the quickest way of phasing out plastic from our environment

Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas, Marine Conservation Society
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How you can help

You don't have to wait until the Great British Beach Clean to help keep our beaches beautiful and our oceans safe for wildlife.

Beachwatch volunteers can take part in beach cleans throughout the year – either by signing up to an organised event or by organising your own event.

And if you don't live near the sea, no problem! That's where our our Source to Sea: Litter Quest comes in. Most litter that ends up on our beaches or in the sea starts its journey in villages, towns and cities miles from the coast.

All of the data you collect on the beach, on your street or in a local park helps us campaign for change, which means that your school can help turn the tide on ocean pollution.

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