Amount of litter on UK beaches is falling, national clean-up finds

The amount of waste washing up on the UK’s beaches is falling year by year, according to the results of the 2021 Great British Beach Clean, organised by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

Volunteers found 385 pieces of litter for every 100 metres of beach on average, down from 425 in 2020 and 558 in 2019. Single-use plastic bags have fallen from a high of 13 for every 100 metres in 2013 to just three in 2021. The plastic bag charge introduced in 2015 has cut their use in supermarkets by 95%.

Plastic cotton bud sticks dropped out of the top 10 most common types of rubbish following a ban in Scotland in 2019 and in England in 2020. The average of six per 100 metres in 2021 was the lowest since the beach cleans began 28 years ago and was down from 15 in 2020.

The MCS said the results were positive and showed that actions being taken at a personal, local and national level were having an impact. But it said 75% of beach litter was still plastic or polystyrene and that the government’s “piecemeal” approach to phasing out single-use plastic was not good enough.

The beach clean took place from 17-26 September and more than 6,000 volunteers cleared five tonnes of litter from 34 miles (55km) of UK beaches. The most common items were pieces of plastic and polystyrene, followed by cigarette butts, crisp and sweet packets, and plastic caps and lids.

Recent research showed plastic items from takeaway food and drink dominated the litter in the world’s oceans. A study in 2020 found the UK and US produced more plastic waste per person than any other major countries.

The UK government took its latest step towards banning single-use plastic plates, cutlery and cups on Saturday, when it launched a consultation along with a call for evidence on how to cut litter from wet wipes, cigarette filters and plastic sachets.

The consultation had been trailed in August when campaigners said progress on cutting plastic waste was “snail-paced”, with the EU having banned many items in July. A deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles will not be in place in England until late 2024 at the earliest, six years after being proposed by the government. A Scottish DRS scheme has also been delayed until 2023.

Dr Laura Foster, the head of clean seas at the MCS, said: “The UK governments’ current piecemeal approach to single-use plastics policy just won’t cut it any more. While we’re seeing a downward trend in litter on beaches, we’re still seeing huge volumes of plastic washing up on our shores. Comprehensive and ambitious single-use plastics policies are the quickest way of phasing out plastic from our environment.”

Lizzie Prior, beachwatch officer at MCS, said it was difficult to say how much changes in people’s behaviour during the pandemic had influenced litter trends: “There were changes in lunchtime eating habits, with fewer people in the office and therefore a reduction in single-use lunchtime plastic. But some of the downward trends, such as plastic bags, were occurring before the pandemic.”

She said PPE waste was found on one in three beaches, though masks were only the 59th most common item.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “We’re pleased to see the amount of litter being found on our beaches dropping and the positive impact of our policies such as the single-use carrier bag charge. However we know there is more to be done.”

Environment, pollution and climate change is now the British public’s top concern, according to a poll by Ipsos Mori published on Wednesday. Twice as many people named climate and environment as a top issue than cited the economy, a result the pollsters had not seen before. As in previous surveys, green concerns were found to be high across age, social class and the political spectrum.

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