What lies beneath: Plastics threat to UK beaches

A tide of hidden filth has contributed to a huge decline in coastal areas fit for swimming

A A A

At first glance Porthtowan beach looks like an advert for British Tourism. With white sand and turquoise sea bathed in bright sunshine, it appears to be the best seaside Cornwall has to offer. But just below the surface of this picture-postcard perfection is a darker and, at times, dangerously toxic scene.

Porthtowan is one of many beaches whose hidden filth contributed to the staggering drop in the number of beaches classed as fit for swimming in a recent survey by the Marine Conservation Society. And now campaigners have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Later this month, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) will launch a grass-roots attempt to improve the state of the nation's beaches. Their beach-cleaning tour, launched to coincide with the start of the summer holidays, will use local volunteers at beaches around the country to collect as much waste as they can in a single day. It is hoped that the tour of England and Wales, which begins in Newquay on 29 July and finishes in Brighton on 3 August, will prompt further marine litter clean-ups around the country.

As the summer holidays approach, the cleanliness of our beaches has never been more important, but as picturesque Porthtowan illustrates, the problems are often hard to see.

This beach is home to more than half of the South-west's sewage-related debris (SRD). In fact, it is largely because of it that the South-west has the highest density of public, fishing and shipping litter, as well as SRD, in England. Despite this, however, Porthtowan continues to hold blue flag status – the hallmark of a supposedly clean and litter-free beach.

A closer inspection of one patch of seaweed along the tide line revealed more than 100 cotton-bud sticks. "This is not a good sign," said SAS campaigns manager Andy Cummins, throwing them into a bin bag. "People often assume our beaches are fine now, because you can't see the problems so easily. Small things like cotton-bud sticks are harder to see, but they're an indication that raw sewage is getting on to the beach, because people flush them down the loo."

Two storm drains, which overflow with sewage after wet weather, run into a river that comes out on the beach. After a rainy period, the spot can be positively toxic.

The latest beach survey by the Marine Conservation Society showed a decline of nearly 17 per cent in the number of beaches fit for swimming – the biggest year-on-year fall in the 22 years the MCS has been producing its annual guide – and the lowest level for seven years. The main problem is seawater contaminated with sewage, which can cause everything from ear, throat, skin and eye infections to gastroenteritis.

But of equal concern to environmentalists is plastics. Microscopic plastic pieces are contaminating our shores: from industrial waste, as well as rubbish dropped by the public.

The worst of these are the raw materials left from injection moulding, dubbed "mermaids' tears". Thousands of these plastic pellets lie hidden in sand on beaches around the UK. They are not picked up in more cosmetic beach inspections, but as with all plastics, they introduce potentially harmful chemicals into the marine food chain – and by extension to humans.

Fishing rope is another offender. In an hour's sweep of Porthtowan beach last week, more than 95 pieces of orange net were uncovered, a third of which were more than half a metre in length. Formerly made of hemp, which biodegrades more quickly, the nets were mended and cared for by fishermen because of the greater expense. Now netting is more commonly made from cheap plastic fibres which, when they break, are often tossed into the sea, where they take hundreds of years to decompose.

Despite the beach having had its daily clean by the council, SAS found 26 crisp and chocolate wrappers, as well as an armful of plastic bottles. All those with labels that can be read will be sent to their companies' headquarters as part of SAS's "return to offender" campaign. Cummins takes a two-litre Coke bottle, puts it in an envelope and takes it to post to Coca-Cola's UK offices in Hammersmith.

"We're aware that it's not the companies themselves that are dropping the litter, but we need to remind them that it's their responsibility to encourage people to dispose of them properly, as well as making them from packaging that breaks down more easily," he explained. "Plastic bottles take 450 years to decompose. Just think about that – it means that if Henry VIII had used plastic bottles at his last wedding party, then they would still be around now."

Return to offender

Surfers Against Sewage sends rubbish back to companies where it originated. Litter, picked up by volunteers and posted back, includes beer cans, sweet wrappers, cartons and bottles. Here are a few of the firms who got some of their own junk back last month: Tesco Stores Ltd; ASDA Stores Ltd; The Coca Cola Company; Innocent Ltd; Walkers Snack Foods Ltd; Nestle UK Ltd; Lidl UK GmbH; Budweiser Stag Brewing Company Ltd; Cadburys Plc; Unilever Plc; Carlsberg Group; and Bavaria Brouweri NV.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
News
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
news
Life and Style
love + sex
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United 1 player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - Managed Services Provider

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Eng...

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot