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Littered plastic bags on UK beaches almost halves in one year

The number of plastic carrier bags found on UK beaches has halved in the last year, according to results from the 2016 Great British Beach Clean.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which organises the annual event around the UK, says the reduction is due to the introduction of the 5p plastic bag charge at checkouts, and is good news for marine wildlife.

Littered plastic bags on UK beaches almost halves in one year
Volunteers clean waste from a beach

September’s Great British Beach Clean (GBBC) was the UK’s contribution to the global International Coastal Cleanup, which last year took place in 93 countries, providing a worldwide snapshot of marine litter.

As part of the nationwide beach clean, litter-pickers provided the nation’s coastline with a much-needed facelift, but also contributed their findings to a global beach clean count, which provides data on the pressing issue of plastic pollution.

This year, the GBBC saw just short of 6,000 volunteers clean 364 beaches around the UK, picking up 268,384 individual pieces of litter over one weekend. On average, 649 litter items were collected per 100 metres, a decrease of four per cent compared to 2015.

The figures published today (22 November) in the GBBC 2016 report found that in 2015 an average of 11 plastic bags were found per 100 metres of coastline cleaned, but in 2016 there were just under seven – a decrease of almost 40 per cent and the lowest number in the last ten years.

Levies on single-use carrier bags were introduced in Wales in 2011, Northern Ireland in 2013, Scotland in 2014 and finally in England in October last year.

Beaches in England and Northern Ireland saw the biggest drop in the number of plastic bags found during the September clean up — over half compared with 2015. In Wales, where the charge has been in place for five years, the number—just under four bags for every 100 metres cleaned — is significantly lower than any other year since 2011. The MCS says that overall the trend is down and that can only be good news for visitors and wildlife. 

Lauren Eyles, MCS Beachwater Manager, said: “In the last decade, our GBBC volunteers have found an average of ten single use carrier bags for every 100 metres of coastline cleaned. This year, for the first time since the charges were introduced, we’ve seen a significant drop in the number and that can only be as a result of the 5p charge which is now in place in all the home nations.”

Quantity of litter on beaches means there is ‘very little to be cheerful about’

Whilst there has been a drop of almost four per cent in the number of littered items found on UK beaches through the MCS events between 2015 and 2016 – with 268,384 individual items of litter collected at 364 events by just under 6,000 volunteers, MSC says there’s very little to be cheerful about when it comes to the sheer quantity of litter on our beaches.

Beaches in Scotland saw a decrease of 18 per cent in overall litter levels, rubbish in the North East dropped by 14 per cent and in the Channel Islands by 10 per cent. But there were increases in the amount of beach litter in the North West (24 per cent), Wales and the South West (15 per cent) and in Northern Ireland (9 per cent). 

Littered plastic bags on UK beaches almost halves in one year
Marine plastic

The data showed a rise of over four per cent in the quantity of drinks containers found on the UK’s beaches – including plastic bottles, bottle tops and aluminium cans. And there was an astonishing rise in the amount of balloon related litter found on UK beaches – a 53.5 per cent increase on 2015. As a result, the charity says it is taking its ‘Don’t Let Go’ campaign to a local level to persuade more councils to ban the release of both balloons and sky lanterns on their land.

Turtles mistake plastic bags and balloons for their jellyfish prey, and the items can block their digestive systems leading to death from starvation. A study at the  University of California, Davis has recently shown that some species of seabirds are particularly attracted by the scent of this plastic junk ‘food’.

Presence of marine plastic has devastating effects

Plastic debris remains a growing concern in the marine environment, with Eunomia Research and Consulting reporting that 12.2 million tonnes of plastic is entering the sea every year. During the 2015 international cleanup, the top five most commonly collected items were cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles, food wrappers, plastic bottle caps and plastic straws, respectively. All are forms of plastic debris.

The presence of plastic in the marine environment has a detrimental effect on the wildlife it houses – earlier this year, for instance, 13 sperm whales beached themselves on Germany’s North Sea Shore, each containing pieces of plastic in their stomachs and intestines.

Eunomia has released research findings that suggest that efforts to combat plastic pollution of the sea should focus on beaches, where around two tonnes of plastic waste can be found in every square kilometre, and where litter can be most easily prevented.

Last year the International Coastal Cleanup, of which the GBBC is part, nearly 800,000 volunteers collected more than 8,000 tonnes of rubbish were collected from the world’s beaches — the equivalent, organisers say, of the weight of more than 100 Boeing 737s. Events from 93 different countries were logged during the 2015 cleanup, covering over 25,000 miles of coast.

The Marine Conservation Society’s report on the results of the Great British Beach Clean 2016 can be downloaded from the charity’s website.

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