There has been a change in the rubbish on our beaches, says DWT’s marine awareness officer Julie Hatcher – but there’s still more to do
Have you noticed a big change on our Dorset beaches in the last few years? The piles of plastic drink bottles, heaps of fishing litter and tangles of advertising balloons that used to accumulate in coves and corners of beaches have mostly vanished. Following the introduction of innovative and inspiring movements such as 2minutebeachclean plus widespread coverage of the marine litter issue, there has been an avalanche of action.
All along the coast, community beach clean groups have formed and individuals are inspired to pick up the litter they see when they are out and about. Litter is removed from beaches almost as soon as it touches land.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story for marine litter. In the relative absence of large litter items, it is shocking to notice the profusion of microplastics that remain.
A man-made death trap
These tiny pieces of plastic, each measuring no more than 5mm in diameter, wash ashore in their billions during storms. They often blanket the strandline, rockpools and seaweed in their myriad of colours and shapes. Too tiny to pick up by hand, they make their way into the beach habitat, mixing with the organic debris that provides vital food and shelter for the wildlife that lives there. To remove them mechanically is to remove that rare and specialised wildlife ecosystem.
The term microplastics encompasses tiny particles, chunks, threads and beads from a wide range of sources. They include nurdles, the form in which raw plastic is transported around the world; irregular broken pieces from larger objects; bio-beads used in sewage treatment; bits of monofilament and nylon threads from fishing line and nets; polystyrene beads … the list is endless.
But that’s just the stuff you can see. In addition are the microscopic microplastics. These miniscule plastics include fibres from our clothing and the microbeads used in some industrial applications. Even the cosmetics industry continues to use non-banned microplastics. They are ingested by plankton, right at the bottom of the marine food chain.
Nothing can be more depressing than walking on an exposed beach in the aftermath of a storm and seeing an endless swathe of microplastics stretching into the distance, coating all surfaces and smothering pools. But it’s when you look closely by your feet that the true horror hits you; the sheer number of individual items making up this man-made deathtrap.
This stuff can’t just be picked up like bottles and fishing nets. People have tried sweeping it up en masse and filtering out the sand and organic matter but it can’t be done without destroying that extraordinary wildlife habitat.
The answer lies with preventing it entering the environment; with consumer demand and political campaigns; with changing our habits and behaviour. We can all start by reducing our consumption of single use plastic, by re-using and refilling containers for example. Selecting items with minimal plastic packaging, supporting businesses that make the effort to reduce plastic waste and checking cosmetics ingredients to avoid microplastics are all steps we can take to minimise the effect they have on the environment. Change can happen quickly – and we can all have an impact.