Why I’ve joined the fight to save Britain’s beaches
sand, some no bigger than a grain of rice. Fast-forward a few hours and her glass jar was almost full of nurdles. Not familiar with this modern-day spawn? Nurdles are the pre-production pellets that form the building blocks of “tastic” or, as it’s more commonly known, plastic. It was a crashing insight into what a trip to the beach will likely mean for future generations.
Scientists and campaign groups have been highlighting the risks to the world’s oceans from plastic pollution for a number of years. However, it was the broadcast of Blue Planet II in autumn 2017, with a stark warning from Sir David Attenborough, that made the biggest global splash and in doing so propelled the plastic waste issue into the world’s consciousness. It has been a hot topic at this week’s meeting of Commonwealth heads of government in London. Globally, more than eight million tons of plastic – equivalent to 381,000 whale sharks – is reportedly tossed into the oceans each year at the rate of one dustbin lorry load per minute. The Marine Conservation Society estimates that more than 70 per cent of rubbish washed up on Britain’s beaches is plastic. On Earth Day, which is marked today across the world, our coastline needs protecting like never before.
Having grown up by the sea and at the urging of my sister, a marine biologist, I had travelled to the Cornish resort of Perranporth to take part in an organised clean and to see the scale of the problem for myself – its beach was described by locals as a “plastic war zone” after Storm Eleanor barrelled through in January.
Arriving late afternoon the day before the clean, I made straight for the town’s glorious two-mile strip of golden sand. I set out expecting to net a haul of plastic, but all I managed to find as I strolled along the length of the beach and back was a food packaging lid (best before: Jan 2017). I naively left the beach that evening thinking there would be very little to do at the clean the following day.
A shark-shaped kite fluttered overhead the next afternoon as more than 150 volunteers, aged from three to 73, gathered for the event organised by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), a marine conservation charity based in nearby St Agnes. The work of SAS recently received the Royal seal of approval after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle named it one of just seven charities to benefit from donations to mark their wedding next month.
Lizzi Larbalestier, a volunteer member of the SAS team, explained at the pre-clean briefing that we should collect all rubbish found but keep “avoidable” single-use plastic items such as bottles, straws, cups, lids, stirrers and bags, which are used for a moment before being discarded, separate from other waste. This would enable us to assess the extent of what SAS describes as the “scourge of the seas”.
I introduced myself to Dom Ferris, head of community engagement at SAS, who was also there to take part in the clean, and mentioned that the beach had appeared largely plasticfree the previous evening. Dom asked me about the route I had taken – down by the waves and then back along the middle of the beach – and tactfully advised that I’d been looking in the wrong place.
Equipped with bags and durable gloves, a group of us headed down the beach to Penhale Sands, its furthest point and where rubbish from the ocean is known to accumulate. “The best place to look for plastic and other waste is along the strandline,” advised Dom, pointing to clumps of seaweed at the rear of the wide beach that marked the earlier high tide. The group fell silent and I inwardly reeled as we approached to find countless pieces of brightly coloured microplastics, small pieces of plastic measuring less than 5mm in diameter, dotted throughout the seaweed and strewn across the sand. It was an overwhelming sight.
Plastic tossed into the world’s oceans is broken down into microplastics by waves and UV light. Owing to their small size, these fragments are then mistaken for food by seabirds and other marine life, resulting in injury or death. With scientists predicting that, by weight, there could be more plastic than fish
To get involved at a Surfers Against Sewage beach clean at locations nationwide or donate, visit sas.org.uk
To take part in a Marine Conservation Society (MCS) beach clean, visit mcsuk.org/ beachwatch/ events
To learn more about A Plastic Planet, visit aplasticplanet. com or follow on Twitter @aplastic_planet.
which Sir David Attenborough described as “one of the most important documentaries of our time”, is available on Netflix. For further information, visit plastic oceans.org
For further information on Earth Day, visit earthday.org
For a guide to the 40 best beaches in Britain, see: telegraph.co.uk/ tt-40bestbeaches