Turning the tide on an ocean emergency

If the ocean dies, so does everything else” 

By Louise Hollingsworth

The sun is shining, the skies are blue and the one thing you want to do is go to the seaside. So you make a picnic, grab your beach towel and head to the car for a glorious day by the beach. When you get there, you realise you haven’t brought enough food and have to buy more. At the end of the day when you’re packing up, you don’t want to carry all your rubbish to the car so you just leave it; someone else will pick it up, right?


Just some of the litter left behind on the beach.

What actually is beach littering? It’s where items such as crisp packets, coke cans, buckets and spades, barbeques and bottles have been brought to the beach, and left discarded after use either intentionally or by mistake. It’s not only unsightly, but it is damaging to marine life, ecosystems and people and is causing an ocean emergency. This is not the most ideal scenario, and with the rise of ‘staycations’ and the UK roadmap leading us to more freedom and more people coming to the seaside, beach litter needs facing head on and now.

“Beach litter is a significant problem. Polluted beaches pose a serious health risk for people who come in contact with dirty water or sand, and it is estimated that beach pollution affects more than 800 species of wildlife around the world” says Samuel Wickes, of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

When litter is left behind on the beach, it stays around on the planet for a long time and that’s if it’s not mistaken for food. It doesn’t just stay in one spot either – Samuel Wickes of NRDC says: “Litter can travel thousands of miles. Global ocean currents act like giant conveyor belts and move water, animals, and trash. While there is no telling where one specific piece of trash from North Yorkshire may end up, it can’t be denied that even one piece of trash can be dangerous to an animal anywhere in the ocean.”

Plastic oceans

Marine litter is made up of 60 – 80% plastic, and even reaches 95% in some locations. 

Why is this bad? Plastic is a man-made material which is derived from fossil fuels, such as coal, crude oil or even salt. Using these materials is bad because they’re nonrenewable, and once something is made from plastic, it then takes hundreds of years to breakdown and causes damage through both toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Samuel Wickes from NRDC says that: “eight million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the world’s oceans every single year. The majority of this plastic does not biodegrade, so once it is present in marine environments, this pollution will have far-reaching impacts on organisms and ecosystems for centuries to come.”

Litter found on beaches is made up of several items. Member of marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage and Scarborough resident Fliss Cater litter picks in her town: “In summer it’s mostly cigarette butts (by a long way), on South Bay we get a lot of plastic tags and nets from beach toys sold by shops on the beach, and food/drink packaging. In winter, and after storms it’s mostly fishing wires and ropes, they get tangled in seaweed, or buried under the sand and are really difficult to remove”

Holiday makers in Scarborough on May Bank Holiday

An alarming example of how far litter can travel is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is an area in the North Pacific ocean which is full of plastic marine debris; meaning that beach litter from all over the world has gathered here. It has occurred due to circulating currents from the Pacific ocean, and there have been reports of nearby fish consuming the plastic.

Marine life

Plastic can come in any form, from a plastic fork to the infamous plastic rings found in packs of beer. While there are risks with micro plastics, there are also more direct dangers with these plastics in their original form, in particular its damage towards ocean wildlife. 

Because beach litter is made up of many different items that have been discarded along the beach, it can have many different effects on numerous sea life and marine life.

Seagulls are just one type of seabird affected by beach litter.

Sara Howlett from the RSPCA says: “Animals who get their legs, heads or necks stuck in litter can suffer severe injuries as they struggle to break free and can even suffocate, while others will slowly grow weaker and weaker as they try to hunt or find food or water. Some get fishing line or netting cutting deep into their skin, affecting circulation and with wounds becoming seriously infected. 

“These hazards can very quickly become a matter of life or death for these animals and action is urgently needed to tackle this problem head-on. It’s up to everyone to do their bit in the war against litter”

Not only do animals become entangled in it, but they can also mistake it for food, and this means most animals end up digesting plastic which can seriously hurt them too.

Some of the tiny pieces of plastic are consumed by fish and can be passed on to humans as well. These are known as microplastics.

“Plastics often resemble food for marine life. They can be confused for small fish, krill, and plankton, and plastic bags in particular can be mistaken for jellyfish, especially by sea turtles. Because plastic cannot be digested and does not pass readily through the digestive tract, eating it causes a wide range of complications for marine species, including starvation, malnutrition, intestinal blockage, and intake of toxins, all of which can lead to death,” says Samuel Wickes.   “Additionally, scientists are concerned about the larger, long-term impacts of toxic pollutants absorbed, transported, and consumed by fish and other marine life, including the potential to affect human health.”

Some of the litter collected by me on a litter pick with Surfer’s Against Sewage.

The story of travelling litter

When litter is left discarded on the beach, the tide often washes it away. Just because we can not see it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem, and the litter washes up elsewhere; usually thousands of miles away. 

“Plastic is found across marine environments, even in some of the most isolated places on the planet. Images from remotely operated vehicles show plastic bags drifting 10,898 meters (6.8 miles) below sea level in the Mariana Trench, the deepest known place in the world’s oceans. Seven Scientists have found traces of 17 different types of plastic embedded in core samples taken from Arctic sea ice.8 Swaths of plastic nurdles, the small plastic pellets used to manufacture larger products, are scattered on beaches across the globe,” says Samuel Wickes, of NRDC. 

A Diet Coke can found on Cayton Bay

Scarborough resident Bryony Wild litter picks in her spare time, and began to do so when she was visiting Indonesia: “There were no waste management systems in place, plastics were usually burnt in a pile in people’s own gardens, and much of the waste ended up in the waterways. Beaches glistened with what first appeared to be fragments of coral at the edge of the tide, on closer inspection it turned out these iridescent shapes were little pieces of plastic (microplastics),” and this shows how bad the global ocean pollution problem is.

Surfers Against Sewage member Fliss Cater finds a lot of things when litter picking, but has found an array of new rubbish and old rubbish. “I’ve found a walkers crisp packet once, with a best before date of 1992! It was immaculate, apart from the print that had faded slightly. It makes you realise plastic that doesn’t break down can be around for a long time… and when it does break down it causes havoc”

Beach littering and local areas

Seaside town Scarborough is the second most visited town in the UK, with an average of 1.4 million people making a trip to the coastal area each year. If half of these visitors left just one piece of litter behind each, that would be 700’000 pieces of litter affecting our oceans and damaging the planet, from just one beach alone.

Local resident Fliss Cater has lived in the town for 3 years, and is now a member of the local litter picking community No More Trash, as well as Surfers Against Sewage.  “Seeing the natural beauty of the beach destroyed by litter made me sad, and a bit angry (plus the damage to marine life washing up on the beach), so I just couldn’t help but do something about it”

Fliss Cater, of Surfers Against Sewage after one of their beach cleans.

“We have an ocean full of ticking time bombs, so even if we stop every bit of plastic entering the sea from today, there’s tonnes of it already there. SCARY S***”

Fliss Cater’s mission of litter picking is “To try to prevent as much plastic as possible from entering the sea. Once it gets washed away by the tide, it rarely comes back and will break down into microplastics. Intercepting it on the beach is the last opportunity to stop it washing away into the sea. If the ocean dies, so does everything else!”

On the 13th June, the Facebook page ‘Visit Scarborough’ shared a photograph of the rubbish someone had left behind on the beach. Included in the photo was buckets and spades, an empty can of vimto, a carrier bag and a dirty nappy. As expected, the comments on the post were of like minded people sharing their disdain for this kind of behaviour, but this happens frequently despite there being numerous bins all along both bays in the town.

Fliss Cater adds: “The more visitors we have, the worse it is, so it can be particularly bad around school and bank holidays in summer.”

Fin the Fish on Scarborough’s South Bay.

One of the bins found along the seafront is Fin the Fish. You can deposit plastic litter into Fin the Fish, which is a big, fish-shaped sculpture bin which has been placed on Scarborough’s South Bay beach, and is to encourage everyone to throw their rubbish away.

“Created to showcase that plastic pollution is damaging all marine organisms on a daily basis, Fin is one step towards reducing this volume and showing that however small your action is, everyone can help to reduce the plastics entering our oceans if they ‘do their bit’.” Says Councillor Janet Jefferson.

Featured alongside Fin is a big sign which educates the person depositing the litter. The sign features facts about beach littering and how it affects different eco systems. 

The sign accompanying Fin the Fish helping raise awareness for the affects of beach litter.

Turning the tide

There are many things that we can do to help turn the tide on beach litter. Fliss Cater suggests numerous things, for both consumers and business owners, “Reuse, repurpose, recycle. Buy from refill shops and packaging free where possible. Businesses should also be looking to reduce plastic packaging, if it’s not on the products in the first place it won’t be a problem.” 

Samuel Wickes agrees with Fliss, and adds: “One of the most effective solutions is to call on producers of single-use plastics to take greater responsibility for their products. You can speak up for policies that you support by contacting your elected officials. Similarly, makers of plastic packaging should be required to find innovative ways to design better materials that can be more fully recovered for recycling or reuse, and reduce the amount of plastic used for packaging overall. They should also help cover the costs required to keep plastic out of our oceans.”

For members of local communities, Fliss adds: “Join local community litter picking groups, and put pressure on your council to put more public bins in litter hotspots, and fine people for littering. There needs to be a big shift in attitudes towards littering, we need to try educate people about the effects of dropping litter, as well as deter them “

Sure, litter picking is essential for the health of the planet, but unknown to many it can also be great for our mental health too!

Bryony Wild litter picks for a hobby and has found it to be therapeutic, “Purely from my perspective, beach cleaning can be something that feels quite holistic. It involves sea air, it connects you to the elements, and it can somehow present itself as a cleansing process psychologically.”

Beach littering has an adverse effect on our planet, but if we pull together, we can make a difference.