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The problem with plastics

MCS and International Coastal Clean Up surveys have shown year after year that plastics make up the majority of debris found on beaches, both in the UK and many other countries around the world. In the Southern hemisphere, half of all debris found on remote island beaches can be made of plastic.

pictures of plastic on beach

Our 'throw-away' consumer culture means that a growing number of unwanted plastic items are discarded into our seas and onto our beaches every year, posing a threat to both ourselves and wildlife. A recent study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimated that there were 46,000 pieces of plastic litter per square mile.

Plastics are extremely durable, lightweight, cheap and versatile - features which mean that they have replaced many traditional materials such as metal, glass and wood. Unfortunately these features have also made them the most pervasive, persistent and hazardous form of litter in the marine environment.

Floating debris can also be transported substantial distances by wind and currents, resulting in the deposition of items from many different countries on beaches around the world. Litter can travel thousands of miles around the world's oceans. In 1992 twenty containers full of plastic ducks and other toys were lost overboard from a ship travelling from China to Seattle. By 1994 some of the toys had been tracked to Alaska, others reached Iceland in 2000. The toys have now been sighted in the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

View the following video, taken from the BBC series Tropic of Cancer, to see the problems caused by plastic in the Pacific Ocean. 

For information on the problems of litter see our marine plastics - pollution policy and position statement.

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