Another effort to help rid a beach of plastic waste

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Last weekend I did the beach clean-up thing again, and again I went along with my son, my mum (Sandra), and about 40 other people. There's always something new to say about the problem of litter and plastic pollution: once again, I thought I'd pen some random musings on the experience, and on the problem of litter and pollution in general.

There's every reason to be depressed about the fact that, thanks to our species, many environments and ecosystems are royally screwed, but there's hope in the fact that more and more people are at least aware of the situation, and more and more are acting on it. Being complacent and saying that it's all too late for change is, I think, the worst opinion to have. But, yes, prepare to be depressed, again.

Last time round (October 2008), I said that - on the next clean-up - I'd make an effort to tackle the northern half of the beach ('the beach' is Chessel Bay Nature Reserve, Southampton). This is indeed what I did. What a mistake. While the southern end (the woodland end) was starting to look good (in terms of macro-litter), the more urban northern end is rather different, as you can see from the photo above. In four hours of work, I filled four bin-bags, which is ok but not good enough. The constraint is how much time it takes to get down on your hands and knees and collect all the micro-litter: the fragments of polystyrene, bits of sweet wrappers, and the tiny objects like small bottle tops and so on [image below shows the weekend's haul, Sandra Naish for scale].

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As I've said before, the really depressing thing is that there are literally millions of bits of micro-litter in the beach sediment: nurdles and other fragments that simply cannot be removed unless you spend hours sieving. And note that research continues to show that plastic pollution is far from simply cosmetic. We know that the chemicals contained within plastic waste, such as DDE and PCB, are accumulating within the bodies of marine animals and killing them (e.g., Rios et al. 2007). And because plastic fragments strongly resemble plankton, diverse marine animals now routinely ingest plankton and die as a result. In areas such as the North Pacific, plankton-mimicking plastic fragments now outnumber plankton as much as six to one (Moore et al. 2001), yet the effects of plastic ingestion remain mostly unstudied in many marine animals (it's well documented in birds, because their juveniles and dead corpses are easy to examine).

The Modbury Effect continues to attract interest. If you don't know, this is the movement, initiated by former wildlife film-maker Rebecca Hosking, to ban plastic bags. Hosking tackled her home town of Modbury, Devon, winning success in 2007, and since then there has been a lot of suggestion that other places should follow suit. As of March 2009, more than 70 towns and communities in the UK have agreed to go plastic-bag free. Elsewhere, I believe that places such as San Francisco and Oakland have bans in place. South Africa announced a ban in 2003 and China did too in 2008. In Morocco last year I saw a truly disgusting amount of plastic litter. In places, black plastic bags covered the landscape as far as the eye could see, and vegetation at the sides of the rivers was festooned with thick masses made up of torn plastic carriers. This sort of thing makes it clear that we have a long, long way to go, as few developing nations are anywhere close to worrying about their own waste and pollution problems. Because the bags clog drainage systems, bags were banned in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2002. Again, they are NOT simply a cosmetic problem, given that they are the origin for many billions of tiny plastic particles now gathered on beaches, in oceans and in the bellies of animals.

While, of course, I commend any effort to remove litter from the environment - and, let's face it, it makes you feel good because at least you're doing something - I did come away from the latest effort thinking that we had hardly made a dent in the quantity of rubbish. There is just too much for 40-odd people, visiting and tidying the site twice a year, to deal with. You would need hundreds of hours of work, involving hundreds of people, and working on a regular basis throughout the year, to make a proper difference.

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Here is a representative sample of beach waste, collected within less than five minutes from the same square metre or two of the beach. Among the commonest items are polystyrene, plastic bottle tops, plastic tampon-applicators, sanitary towels, plastic bottles, confectionary wrappers, plastic bags, disposable lighters, drinking straws and hundreds and hundreds of plastic lolly sticks and cotton-bud sticks (the glove is for scale). The numbers of cotton-bud sticks has to be seen to be believed. In fact, this month the Marine Conservation Society reported that 50% of the sewage-associated waste they found in beach surveys was made up of these things. The fact that they're part of sewage waste shows that people are routinely throwing them down the toilet. I find this a pretty dumb and bizarre thing to do and have never thought of doing it myself. Evidently a lot of people do do it however. If you do: stop, now.

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I found three syringes, all with their needles still attached. The red plastic bands that now litter every single street in, it seems, every single village, town and city of the UK are also now ubiquitous in beach waste. I've never seen them on the beach previously, but this time I picked up a lot. I'm not kidding about these things being ubiquitous: I live in Southampton, where there are loads of them, but I've also recently picked them up at Marwell Zoo (!), in Portsmouth, Fareham, Winchester, Plymouth, Bridport, London and Bristol (all locations in the south of England). We know that the bands are dropped by postal delivery workers. I've been picking them up since I first noticed them in October 2008, and here is my current collection. Not sure what to do about it, but if anyone works for the British postal service, or knows anyone who has influence in that organisation, please see if you can do something about it.

Let's end this, again, by seeing what we individuals can do. Stop using disposable plastic bags. This is simply lazy and there's no need for it anymore: use re-useable bags of some sort. Stop buying products that use excessive packaging, and stop buying cotton-buds that have plastic sticks. We should also somehow get a penalty system imposed for companies that dump, accidentally or otherwise, nurdles and other such pollutants.

Whingeing about rubber bands and little plastic sticks might seem trite and petty, but it's part of the same problem as dying albatrosses, choking turtles and oceans swamped in plastic crap. We're doing a very good job of ridding the oceans of seabirds and other fauna: I want to say that I at least tried to do something about it.

For previous thoughts on litter collecting, plastic pollution, and beach waste see...

Refs - -

Moore, C., Moore, S. L., Leecaster, M. K. & Weisberg, S. B. 2001. A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42, 1297-1300.

Rios, L. M., Moore, C. & Jones, P. R. 2007. Persistent organic pollutants carried by synthetic polymers in the ocean environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin 54, 1230-1237.

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Good stuff, at least as worthy as finding Loch Ness monster!

I started collecting Royal Mail red rubber bands about 6 months ago. My collection now comprises a ball 11cm in diameter. Postal delivery workers URGENTLY need to be told to stop just dropping them on the ground.

Excellent post. One question though, from someone living in the next county to the area you were cleaning: why does that location look so dreadful compared to other beaches I visit, such as Bridport, Charmouth and Lyme Regis?

By GostoneTheCrows (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

Kudos to you Darren. The litter problem is truly staggering, even in out-of-the-way places like out in the boonies where I live. There, you can find litter choking even the most "pristine" waterways, and you cannot walk five feet down the road without running into a piece of garbage. Worse yet, the people in my community appear to have just "given up hope" on controlling the litter problem, as they have on so many other issues, and have just learned to live with the filth. Unlike the beach where you work at, we have no form of litter control whatsoever, and so macrolitter is everywhere. I even found cigarette butts in the gravel pit of my old childhood swingset in my own backyard.

Honestly people, Planet Earth does not have a giant "dump waste here" sign over it. The seas are not bountiful and endless, as once stated by many Victorian naturalists. They are finite, they can be harmed, and they are being so now. Just look at how bad of shape our oceans are in, due to fertilizer runoff, litter, and overfishing. And no one appears to want to do anything about it. While tons of money is being dedicated toward fighting global warming, through both good efforts to go green and through...not so smart efforts that may scam the good-hearted out of their money, few are truly willing to do anything about the state of nature. "The crappy shape of our outdoors won't affect us" they think "because we have modern technology to clean our water, grow our food, etc., etc., etc." And eventually, this will come to bite us in the butt.

Perhaps the rise of television and other electronic entertainment is to blame for this. I'm not saying that TV, video games, and the internet are bad, but you notice that no one goes out for walks in the woods anymore (save for exercize), fewer people go out to feed the ducks, fishing trips are rare occurences. We are pre-emptively "murdering" (in cognitive terms) our next generation of wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists. Can anyone honestly say that "Walden" could be written in the 21st century, what with both the lack of enthusiasm in nature and the awful state of our environment.

Maybe its a catch-22, an endless cycle. Fewer people are willing to go out into nature because it is so messed up, but at the same time nature is getting more messed up because fewer people are willing to go out and realize it is worth saving. We need to break the cycle, because while a plastic-eating bacteria may evolve to break down a lot of our waste, it won't be fast enough to save a lot of the natural world that we love.

By Metalraptor (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

Thank you, Darren and family, for the hard work you put in on Saturday - and to everyone else who came along, too. Picking up rubbish on this scale is really hard and dirty work - but I hope we're making progress - because we need to.

I recently went to Modbury, the first plastic-bag free town, and talked to people there about their policy. Yes, it's do-able and successful. The town is attractive and the residents clearly have pride in the place. We can all contribute to making the same changes they have.

Thank you, Darren, for another very good article on Chessel Bay Local Nature Reserve and the challenges we face taking care of it. It's a wonderful spot in a very busy city.

There's a lot to be done to sort out the mess humanity has made of the natural environment - but do it we must.

BTW - Holland manages to have both - free plastic bags and no litter. I think part of solution is Dutch habit of putting rubbish bins at every imaginable place. And habit of taking your litter with you after picknicking.

I also have a theory that no rubbish keeps people from littering, and some rubbish makes a sort of tipping point, when people don't care. An equivalent of theory that sight of one broken window causes vandalizing a whole building.

You all know by now, that I have lots of urgent work to do, right... ;-)

Maybe evolution creates a plastic-eating ungulate? It would have gut with symbiotic plastic-breaking bacteria instead of usual cellulose-breaking microbes?

Jerzy: Holland is quite fortunate then. There are bins nearly everywhere* in Singapore, yet we are experiencing a growing problem with littering, even in places where a bin is just a few steps away.

*Nearly everywhere, except at bus terminals and train stations, which is ridiculous, due to the high amount of human traffic in these places. These places have much fewer bins than they ought to, and they're often overflowing. The rationale for removing the bins that used to be in these locations was to remove the risk of terrorists planting bombs in bins. *facepalms*

Getting rid of plastic bags is truly brain-dead. They recycle better than paper bags, and are far more useful.

IMHO the primary question is how this garbage is ending up in the ocean, or, in general, elsewhere outside of landfills, dumps, and incinerators. If this is known, the question then becomes how to stop the dumping/littering/scattering, confiscatory fines being a good start.

Getting rid of plastic bags is truly brain-dead. They recycle better than paper bags, and are far more useful.

Assuming there's a recycling system in place. Locally, they just get burnt.

(A local heating plant burns basically any junk they can get their hands on. On one occasion apparently including a dead rhinoceros from a nearby zoo.)

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

Dutch railway stations stand still, despite terrorist risk.

I assume banning plastic bags is half-measure of badly functioning civil service. Banning plastic bags is simple and easy to enforce. Alternative, more effective methods: putting rubbish bins, emptying them, recycling, cleaning requires some effort from the local council, which poorly functioning councils are unable to do. Like solving youth crime by curfew.

"Getting rid of plastic bags is truly brain-dead. They recycle better than paper bags, and are far more useful."

Recycling wastes energy. You're right that paper bags are not that great either, but note that what Darren suggested was reuseable bags. Get some canvas bags or bags made from recycled plastic.

I was in Nova Scotia last year and the local grocery store actually did not provide paper or plastic bags. You had to bring your own reuseable bags or buy them there. Good idea.

I should clarify my last comment, where I said that, "Recycling wastes energy." I didn't meant to imply that is not a worthy endeavor. It does take energy, but it also makes better use of materials, and keeps waste volume down. Basically, throwing stuff out < recycling < not having the junk around in the first place.

Gah, my "less than" symbol seems to have interpreted as HTML! My last comment should finish thusly: throwing stuff out < recycling < not having the junk around in the first place.

OMG, I cannot post right!!!

throwing stuff out is less than recycling is less than not having the junk around in the first place

Happy now, scienceblogs?

I'm going against the grain, here, but I always ask for plastic bags at the grocery checkout. These plastic bags go directly into a landfill (wrapping household waste, often also plastic), which will sequester the contained carbon for centuries. Recycling plastic is probably a mistake. It drives down the cost of plastic, so more is used, and more of the oil is burnt instead of being transformed into the readily sequestered form of plastic. The recycled plastic, out of your control, is likely to end up in the ocean instead of the landfill.

If somebody knows where I'm wrong, I'd welcome learning it.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

I don't have the numerical data to back my argument up Nathan, but I'm pretty skeptical that thin plastic bags in a landfill is really a viable carbon storage strategy. Comparing them against a reusable option, you would also have to factor in carbon released during production (from petroleum exploration on down the line) and transport both pre- and post- use. I take your point that recycling plastic *might* in some roundabout way promote consumption and combustion but I'd like to see some real numbers to back this up.

Plastic bags are notoriously volant (hence "American Beauty" blah), I've heard them referred to as "Texas tumbleweeds." Unless you are personally depositing your bags in the landfill, and you are sure they aren't getting reworked by dozers I don't think you can necessarily be confident that they aren't going to wind up where they shouldn't (nor can you if you stick them in the recycling bin of course).

As Darren and Mike have noted there is really no excuse not to be using reusable bags (also, note that paper bags at least can be easily composted not that I'm necessarily advocating their use).

If one is forced to use plastic bags, one should at least use them for more purposes than a one-time trip to the grocery store. Use them for package padding, or do what I do...plastic bags make my three resident non-hominid tetrapods very happy, as I use them to clean their litter boxes.

Of course, reusable bags are much better.

By Metalraptor (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

Over here, (Pennsylvania, US), recycling is mandatory in most municipalities and both homeowner and garbage hauler can be fined if found in violation. BUT that doesn't stop people from being swine. Despite numerous receptacles, cloth bags for sale in almost every location, and a booming recycling program, people still litter. It makes no sense to me. Most of our grocery stores have bins for the reclamation of used plastic bags of all kinds (shopping bags, bread bags, ziploc bags etc) and we use that service when the cloth bags aren't handy. Even our daily newspaper carrier recycles the rubber bands once a month or so.

And I can't remember who posted it, but there is definitely a "tipping point" when it comes to littering. People see litter and they litter in response. It's always easy to say that "it will deteriorate" or "the street cleaners will get it". I work down the road from our local high school and the entire route is littered with candy wrappers, plastic bottles, cigarette packs etc. It's terrible.

All it takes is a few minutes or in some cases a bit of creativity and then things like this wouldn't be a problem.

Last year, I made a conscious effort to reduce the number of plastic bags I used. I knitted myself some cotton string bags (very easy and fun) and got myself a wheeled shopping trolley. I started getting a weekly grocery delivery in returnable cardboard and polystyrene coolboxes. I went from estimated six supermarket carrier bags a week, to 27 for the whole year.

This year I'm tackling the number of plastic bottles my house uses. I've switched to solid shampoo and soap from shower gel, and I'm looking at using soap nuts for laundry. But I've not been able to find out the environmental cost of growing those, or the conditions of the workers who harvest them, so I'm not quite ready to switch to them yet. I'm not sure what to do about washing up liquid.

I found some cotton buds with cardboard stalks. Now I compost them with other organic waste. I know I'm not making a huge difference in the big picture, but I feel as though I'm doing what I can.

However, I've noticed all this does take time, thought and a bit extra money. I have the time and cash to make the effort, but not many people in my area have those luxuries - it's very run down and poverty is high. We have a lot of litter and people don't really care much for their surroundings, sadly :(

By DunkTheBiscuit (not verified) on 26 Mar 2009 #permalink

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Joannah

[from Darren: thanks! I deleted your urls though because they looked like spam.]

Good for you man, I do that here in NY and it really does help, I think people are less inclined to litter once they see a pristine area vs an area covered in garbage, 'well if everybody is doing it why not'

OMG, I cannot post right!!!

Probably you previewed. If you first preview and then hit "post" on the preview page, what gets posted is not what you've written â what gets posted is the preview itself. So, when you write the HTML entity for <, then preview it, and then post, what gets posted is < itself, and that's interpreted as HTML.

So, if you must preview, hit the "back" button and then post.

from Darren: thanks!

No point in being polite to a spambot. What it left is the exact same text that I've seen all over ScienceBlogs, here too several times BTW. Doesn't pass the Turing test.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 27 Mar 2009 #permalink

For information: Tesco - at least my nearest branch in Eastleigh (not all that far from Darren!) - now has two large in-store depositories for used plastic bags. I recently asked, and was told they accept any plastic bags, not just their own. They'll shortly be getting half-a-dozen large bags of bags [sic] from me, accumulated over the past 18 years I've lived here.

Tesco (and, I believe, similar supermarkets) also supply stout reusable plastic shopping "bags for life" for 10p, and swap new for old free ad infinitum (if you keep overloading them with books like me, the handles do go eventually). The few flimsy carriers I occasionally acquire (or have stockpiled) are, like Nathan's, all used for the kitchen non-recyclables pedal bin and when filled are tied up and put into the non-recyclables (grey) Council wheely bin (collected fortnightly) to go to landfill: I doubt many of them escape into the wild. Unfortunately these and several other sorts of plastic (which make up the bulk of the landfill waste) are simply not yet accepted for recycling (it being uneconomic), and nobody will agree to have an energy-generating incinerator built near their back yard for fear of dioxins.

Eastleigh Council now supplies 3 further separate bins for various recyclables:
green wheely (fortnightly, alternating with the grey) for paper/cardboard/cans/plastic bottles;
brown dual inside & outside bins (with handles, sealable lids and biodegradable liner bags) for compostable/food waste and shredded paper (collected weekly);
and a 50-litre black crate for glass (4-weekly - mine goes on "orange Tuesday"). They also supply special bags for returning used batteries, which are collected alongside the glass. There's really no excuse for any litter not to be taken home and disposed via these channels. The colour-coded charts issued to keep track of the schedules for all these are getting quite hard to follow.

My only garbage-related gripe with the Council is that street litter bins are too few and too infrequently emptied. Better provision might lessen the overflows that periodically blow along the pavements and into my front garden, supplementing what's directly thrown in by local kids (I'm near two schools).

By Terry Hunt (not verified) on 30 Mar 2009 #permalink

Darren, more worthy labour and another worthy blog resulting. (Interesting comments too.)
Personally, Thanks!

As before, I'm drawing this one to the attention of the local Friends of the Earth (Fife) group, of which I'm a member. We campaign on issues of bags, balloons, etc.

Adverts are surely the seeds of many of these problems we see manifested in physical form across the landscape/seascape (and for other ills of recklessly consumerist society in denial and deluded)... Toxic memes, persistent pollution of the mindscape!

Good adverts may also exist, with beneficial effects; but there is a huge preponderance of crap... Manipulative propaganda, brainwashing (especially) the young into dysfunctional mindsets and unsustainable behaviour.

I suggest therefore that deleterious advertising deserves to be both banned and penalized at source, on the principle of 'polluter pays'.