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The Great British Beach CleanCleaning up our beaches

By Leanne Downs20 September 2018

Leanne travels to Dungeness in Kent, to take part in Britain’s biggest annual beach cleaning event, to see just how much plastic is being recovered from our beaches every year.

There is a widely acknowledged ‘Blue Planet Effect’ happening after David Attenborough’s popular programme aired on television last year. The image of a mother pilot whale carrying her dead calf for days after it’s death, believed due to ocean litter, shocked the nation into action. There’s a lot of noise right now about ocean plastic, with initiatives springing up all over the country in order to clean up our act.

The Marine Conservation Society Annual Beach Clean is benefitting from the increased appetite to take action. Now in its 25th year, the event is bigger than ever before, both in the number of people attending and in the volume of rubbish collected. From small scale science project to  one of nationwide significance, it has grown into the largest and longest running beach litter survey in the UK, with thousands of people giving up their time to take part every year. This year, I headed to Dungeness in Kent to take part in the clean up there and see the project in action.

The Romney Marsh Countryside Partnership is funded by several bodies such as the Folkestone and Hythe District Council and Natural England

Dungeness sits on a point of land jutting out to sea between Folkestone and Hastings on the South East coast, perhaps mostly known for its Nuclear Power Station. It is also a site of high natural and scientific importance and is protected as a National Nature Reserve, Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation and falls under the Site of Special Scientific Interest which extends to Romney Marsh and Rye Bay nearby.

The area is popular with tourists for its post apocalyptic and otherworldly aesthetic; a huge expanse of shingle (the largest in Europe) dotted with small converted rail carriage homes, fisherman’s huts, discarded fishing boats and other random buildings with a brutalist charm. More recently the most cutting-edge contemporary designs have been erected, only adding to the disparate medley. Two lighthouses jut high above everything else, with the power station as a backdrop. A miniature steam railway adds to the delightful oddness of the place, stopping at full-sized stations, it runs for over 13 miles from Hythe to the reserve.

Litter pickers begin to spread out across the section of beach, with the old lighthouse in the background

Typically for the area, the weather was dry and windy on the day of the beach clean. Dungeness is said to classify as a technical desert, due to the low levels of rainfall here, and its flat profile combined with its position sticking out to sea means that it is often exposed and windy. I arrived just after 10am to find over 50 people already strewn across the designated section between the power station and the newer of the two lighthouses, armed with litter pickers, grey sacks and orange clipboards issued by the Owen Leyshorn from Romney Marsh Countryside Partnership who manages the reserve and led today’s beach clean.

In total, 64 adults and children joined the beach clean on this stretch of beach, with people arriving all throughout and continuing to collect rubbish after the recording period was over. The MCS beach clean is structured and organised with a designated stretch of area being cleaned for a set amount of time, with all rubbish collected being recorded using an agreed system, all across the country. The stats are then collected and published so that we can get an idea of how much rubbish is washing up on our beaches and how this is changing over time in regards to volume and content.

As part of the MCS annual survey, each piece of rubbish is recorded

I spoke to Dungeness resident Mark Luetchford who fell in love with the area and moved here from London. He regularly participates in beach cleans here and says that he has seen for himself, a huge drop in the amount of carrier bags being collected along this stretch of coastline, since the introduction of the plastic bag charge at shops and supermarkets.

During the beach clean I collected over 100 pieces of rubbish myself, which was mostly small offcuts of poly-rope, plenty of fishing twine and lots of miscellaneous plastic items; plastic lids from juice cartons, straws and bottle tops to name a few. It saddened me to see first hand the serious issue of the breakdown of plastics into microplastics, and how difficult it is to remove these from the environment.

Over 60 volunteers all contributed 2 hours of their time, collecting 64 kilograms of rubbish

I recall trying to clasp a lid from a takeaway soft drink (such as those used by McDonalds) in my gloved hand, only for it to break into at least fifty tiny pieces in a split second. I raked the shingle with my gloved hand to try and collect as many pieces as possible, but some were so small they sank further and further down between the rocks, impossible to collect with my finger tips. Others were blown away in the wind. The same thing happened with a straw, the plastic becoming so fragile and brittle that every time I tried to collect a fraction of it, it broke into further tinier pieces.

Perhaps among the most surprising items to be found were a glow stick and the insides of car batteries, and the most disturbing – a syringe without a needle attached.

Mark Leutchford has seen a decrease in plastic bags since the 5p charge was introduced

This was Owen’s 23rd annual MCS beach clean at Dungeness, but he often leads other beach cleans in the area, supporting residents and volunteers by providing gloves, litter pickers and sacks. Despite regular beach cleans here, the total weight of the rubbish removed during this years annual beach clean was 68kg. When you acknowledge that the majority of the rubbish collected was in the form of small pieces of lightweight plastic and scraps of rope, that amount is astonishing. He tells me that 800 bags of rubbish per year are removed for this beach alone, which really highlights the extent of the issue we are facing.

Owen Leyshorn weighs all the rubbish at the end of the day and sifts through it for recyclable pieces

Organised beach cleans similar to this one take place most weeks throughout the year, however the next recorded national clean on this scale, organised by the Marine Conservation Society, will take place next year. If you would like to get involved in a beach clean near you, check out the MCS Beach Clean Events Page.

Leanne Downs

About Leanne Downs

Leanne Downs is the content editor for Thryve and works as an outdoor writer, blogger and photographer. She loves hiking, hillwalking and wild camping.

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