At the worst beach, Porthpean in Cornwall, an average of 52 items of rubbish were found per metre of sand, including 225 sanitary items in a 25-metre area. Most of the rubbish was left behind by beachgoers who now make 10 million day-trips to the coast a year. Other waste came from shipping, fishing and sewage.
The litter had an international aspect with rubbish from 16 countries found on the 210 beaches surveyed, presumably dropped from boats.
Among the debris were an oven cleaner from China, a carton of apple juice from Poland and an energy drink from New Zealand. There were also fridges, a glass eye and medical waste including a drip feed bag.
Beachwatch `97 was carried out by nearly 2,500 volunteers. Altogether they found 17,053 crisp and sweet packets, 8,064 drink cans and 8,124 cigarette stubs.
Medical and sanitary waste were a prominent feature. They included 215 syringes, 458 condoms and 16,467 cotton bud sticks. Cotton buds, which are too small to be filtered out during sewage treatment, formed the bulk of sanitary waste.
The volunteers also found 538 balloons, 478 shoes and 26 dead animals.
More than 50 per cent of the litter was plastic. Susannah Hickling, Reader's Digest environment editor, said: "Plastic is cheap to produce, easy to use and easy to throw away. But what people don't realise is that it ends up bobbing on our seas and washed up on our beaches - an appalling non- biodegradable legacy for future generations."
Samantha Pollard, conservation officer at the Marine Conservation Society, said: "Ships must stop dumping overboard and individuals must not drop litter, or flush away plastic bathroom waste."
Rubbish, particularly fishing lines and ropes can cause animals and birds to become entangled. Wildlife can also be poisoned or choked by eating litter such as plastic.
Beachwatch `97 revealed that Wales had the dirtiest beaches in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland the best. Scotland and the Channel Islands were slightly better than average.