Tackling a tide of marine pollution

Summer's fast approaching and if, like me, your thoughts are turning towards the seaside, it's reassuring to know that our island nation has some of the very best beaches to choose from, with excellent water quality. It wasn’t always the case, and that’s something of a cause for celebration for us. The Marine Conservation Society has published the Good Beach Guide every year over the last quarter century and more. Twenty-five years ago, a great proportion of UK beaches were being affected by sewage and failing to meet minimum standards. Today, not only are we recommending more and more beaches with excellent water quality but a more stringent set of measures (according to European Law, under the "Bathing Water Directive") have been introduced to drive water quality improvements further.

Every beach, though, has a rubbish side. Mostly plastic rubbish, in fact. It appears all around the UK, from the most cared-for holiday resorts to the remotest of islands. This blight is certainly an eyesore, but the impacts of plastic aren’t just cosmetic. Rope, net and line ensnare animals in a painful embrace that can lead to death. Plastic bags, polystyrene pieces and other items are swallowed by hundreds of different marine species.

This is distressing for the animals unlucky enough to become a victim, but there is growing evidence of a wider effect of this plastic debris. Seabirds that feed on floating plankton – such as the fulmar around our UK shores – can take in gutfuls of plastic pieces, instead of nutritious invertebrates and fish eggs. This large scale intake of plastic can affect the entire population of a region.  Turtles that consume plastic bags instead of their jellyfish prey, and endangered seals that live amongst the floating masses of debris around pacific islands, add to a growing list of species threatened by debris.

M&S staff and volunteers at the Big Beach Clean-up in Cramond,  near Edinburgh (Marine Conservation Society)
M&S staff and volunteers at the Big Beach Clean-up in Cramond, near Edinburgh (Marine Conservation Society)

We’re doing our best to clean it up, with beach cleans throughout the year involving over 10,000 volunteers annually. As well as being the biggest volunteer activity of its kind in the UK, an MCS beach clean does something equally important. We record every item found, building up a picture of the types, sources and quantities of litter ending up on our beaches. Sadly, the density of litter items found has more than doubled over that period.

The surveys are a great snapshot of the situation at any given time. Although they don’t give a definitive answer to how much litter is floating about in the sea, they do highlight the sheer scale of the litter problem, particularly plastics. The data enables us to identify the sources of much of the rubbish, whether that be from fishing, shipping, sewers or other public waste, so that we can do something about it. 

Some recent studies have attempted to put an actual figure on levels of marine litter in the world’s oceans. One published article ( is helpfully entitled “More than Five Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea". The figures are based on trawls of material at and near the sea’s surface in several parts of the world, and, scarily, the authors suggest that their estimates are conservative.

Join hundreds of people for the Great British Beach Clean this  September! (Jackie Clark)
Join hundreds of people for the Great British Beach Clean this September! (Jackie Clark)

Not all litter floats, and it is becoming clear that vast quantities sink to the deep sea, to settle amongst sediments on the seabed ( Overall, a recent paper in Science ( estimates how much litter gets into thesea from land-based sources near the coast. Researchers calculated that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean, a figure which they suggest will multiply around ten times before 2025 if action is not taken to reduce it.

A considerable proportion of the plastic found in deep sea sediment samples in the study mentioned above were tiny pieces known as microplastics. There are many sources of these microplastics including the breakdown of marine plastic litter items which create smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. They can also originate from cosmetics and cleaning products (see scrub it out), as well as from the breakdown of synthetic fibres when we wash our clothes, and pre-production plastic pellets, sometimes termed “mermaid’s tears”. These sources get washed into our sewage, rivers and waterways, eventually making their way into our seas and oceans.

Beach cleans and surveys.

Our annual spring beach clean, The Big Beach Clean-up, took place from the 7th – 13th May at beaches all around the UK. The event was a partnership between the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Marks & Spencer (M&S), with involvement from the Canal & River Trust (CRT) – last year we had 8,000 fabulous volunteers cleaned 96 beaches and 45 inland waterways. 

Then, the Great British Beach-clean is in September. Last year, our volunteers broke a 21 year record when they found 2,457 pieces of litter on each kilometre of beach they cleaned and surveyed. 5,349 volunteers cleaned and surveyed 301 beaches collecting a whopping 2,457 bits of litter per kilometre!

Now we've got a massive amount of evidence to show that not enough is being done to tackle the litter in the seas and on our beaches.

Are you up for The Plastic Challenge!?

We just don’t need all the plastic bags and bottles that pass through our hands every day.

Join the hundreds of people saying no to single use plastics, whilst raising money to fight plastic litter.

From the 1st – 30th June 2015 we’re challenging you to give up plastic!

But how long can you last? A day? A week? A month? Longer?

Plastic Challengers will try to reduce their plastic usage in all sorts of ways - giving up single use plastic products, like plastic bottles, plastic bags or ready meals.

Scrub it out

Many personal care products like scrubs and peels now contain plastic particles. So, every time we exfoliate or peel off those dead cells, we may be doing our bodies some good, but we're giving our seas anything but a make-over. As the products are rinsed off, they go down the drain and that means we are flushing plastic into our seas where it contributes to the 'plastic soup' problem.

MCS, with partner organisation Fauna and Flora International, is asking the manufacturers of these care products to replace all plastic particles with environmentally friendly alternatives, such as anise seeds, sand, salt or coconut. These are materials that were used before plastic particles.

Take the pledge to Scrub It Out! 


logo: Marine Litter Action Network
Marine Litter Action Network

Litter gets into the environment in many different ways, and there is no single solution to end it.

The Marine Litter Action Network (MLAN) was established to bring together people and their organisations from across different sectors to tackle the issue of marine litter. Together, we are working on practical solutions to reduce marine litter now, as well as securing commitments for long term actions from key players in the commercial, public and environmental sectors.

To ensure we represent the stakeholders in the network, the network has agreed the following founding principles:

1. Reducing marine litter will positively impact on our livelihoods, economy, and well-being of both people and wildlife.

2. Governments, businesses and communities must work together to effectively prevent this waste of resources.

3. We have enough evidence to act and implement solutions now.

4. Further resource would be helpful to optimise policy, best practice and solutions.

5. There are some fantastic existing initiatives; but given the growing scale of the issue, urgent and co-ordinated action is needed.

6. Economic and environmental benefits will follow if we re-think, re-use, recycle and recover materials to improve resource efficiency. Find out more click here

First published in CJS Focus on Marine & Coastal Environments in association with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) on 25 May 2015