Beaches in Britain are at their dirtiest for more than a decade, a survey claims.
Researchers from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), who carried out the survey published yesterday, said beachgoers were largely to blame for a 29 per cent rise in rubbish density in 2003 compared with the previous year.
A regional breakdown of the survey revealed that the dirtiest beaches were in the South-west of England, where 3,362 items were found per kilometre.
The findings of the survey have serious implications for the environment and the tourist industry, according to the researchers.
The general public was found to be the biggest source of littering, contributing 36.7 per cent of rubbish, followed by fishing debris (14.6) sewage-related debris (7.8) and shipping litter (2). The annual survey, begun 11 years ago, was carried out last September by 2,500 volunteers on 135 kilometres of coastline covering 244 beaches.
Rubbish from beach visitors, fishing debris and plastic litter were at a record and sewage-related debris had increased for the first time in five years.
The MCS urged the Government to introduce a stricter system of fines for littering, and the survey renewed calls among environmentalists to follow the example of Ireland by introducing a tax on plastic bags. The 5,831 plastic bags recovered during the survey represented 43 for every kilometre.
Andrea Crump, MCS litter projects co-ordinator, said: "The public needs to understand the link between creating litter and the consequences of their actions. Plastic bags and balloons are eaten by marine turtles, which mistake them for jellyfish, which can result in a turtle starving to death or drowning."
She added: "Tourists will choose a beach because of its beautiful scenery and clean sands, then spoil the beach for other users by leaving their rubbish behind."
The rise in sewage-related debris was due largely to the discharge of cotton bud sticks, which washed up on beaches having survived tertiary sewage treatment. On one beach in Dumbartonshire, volunteers found 17,981 of the sticks. There was also a 34 per cent increase in the number of balloons found on beaches.
Researchers blamed rubbish left by visitors as the main cause of pollution. England recorded the highest volume of beach litter with 2,655 items per kilometre surveyed, followed by Wales (2,455), Scotland (1,535), the Channel Islands (1,125) and Northern Ireland (805).
The findings of the MCS survey contrast with a report published last summer by the environmental group Encams, which runs the Blue Flag award for Britain's resort beaches as well as the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign.
Last year, an additional 21 resorts in Britain were awarded the Blue Flag for cleanliness, taking the total to a record 105. A spokesman for Encams said that drastic improvements had been made since the 1980s in terms of beach cleanliness, water quality and general facilities.
The Encams survey is carried out at the height of the summer season and takes account of water quality judged by figures provided by the Environment Agency. It concentrates on resort beaches rather than the whole coastline.
The Blue Flag, launched in 1967, has become the internationally recognised standard for good beaches. The flag will be flown by 2,161 resorts in Europe this year, the highest numbers in Spain, Greece and France, where warmer climates help to keep water germ-free and where the tourist industry demands high standards.
An Encams spokesman said yesterday: "This latest survey seems to show that the good are getting better and the bad are getting worse."
TOP 10 LITTER ITEMS
1 Plastic pieces, sized from 1cm to 50cm
2 Rope/cord/ net
3 Crisp/sweet wrappers
4 Cotton bud sticks
5 Plastic pieces
7 Cigarette stubs
8 Polystyrene pieces
9 Plastic drink bottles
10 Pieces of broken glassReuse content