Kate Simon: Prevention rather than cure will keep our beaches clean

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Bad news for litterbugs. The good citizens of Cinque Terre in Italy have banned visitors from using plastic bottles in an effort to stop the place becoming a rubbish dump.

Apparently, two million plastic bottles a year are discarded by the three million tourists who visit this chain of pretty villages along the Ligurian coast, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Now, anyone arriving in the area will be asked to pay €1 to hire a reusable metal flask, which they can then fill up at new public fountains offering still and sparkling water.

This will be a welcome relief to my big brother, Peter, who lives in Italy. He has taken it upon himself to clean his favourite stretch of sand in Puglia every year for the past three – clearing the path through the pine woods to the free beach at Punta della Suina, and then going on to tidy the area between two beach bars.

His efforts are now attracting attention. "People have seen me doing it and have asked me if I've got more plastic gloves and bin bags and then joined in," he tells me. And his actions have also spurred on local users to do a big clean-up once a year at the end of the summer season.

Of course, my big brother is not alone in his enthusiasm for the environment. In Britain, thousands of us volunteer to clean up our landscape every year, with organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society bringing together tidy-minded individuals through initiatives such as MCS Beachwatch.

For the past 18 years, the UK charity has attracted volunteers to a national clear-up of our beaches – today around 5,000 of us turn out on more than 400 areas of the coast. But it's not just about picking up rubbish, volunteers are also asked to collect data to help the organisation turn the tide on the kind of litter found on our sands, which not only spoils the view but also threatens wildlife. The worst offenders are plastic bags, fast-food containers, fishing equipment and bathroom and shipping waste.

Individuals can also roll up their sleeves on one of the MCS's Adopt-a-Beach surveys, done four times during a 12-month period to chart seasonal changes in litter type and volume. The next will be held in January and details of your nearest beach clean can be found on the MCS website (mcsuk.org). The really enthusiastic can even elect to "adopt" a beach and run one of the surveys with the MCS's support. Meanwhile, divers are encouraged to get involved in an "underwater clean-up".

The MCS aims to halve the amount of beach litter by 2015. It has just got the agreement of all the major political parties and the Scottish government to produce the first marine litter action plan, which it hopes will be in place by the end of 2011. But the latest published results, from the 2009 survey, reveals that litter on our shores has increased by 75 per cent since the MCS began collecting data in earnest back in 1994. With so many of us keen to keep our beaches clean, why is the amount of rubbish continuing to spiral?

"One of the main reasons is the amount of plastic we're using," says Sue Kinsey, MCS litter policy officer. "Things that were once made of natural materials, which would eventually break down, are now made from plastic – such as the cotton bud sticks that people throw down the toilet, which used to be made of cardboard."

We may be more aware of the impact of rubbish on our environment, but the real problem lies in how our goods are manufactured and marketed. To remedy that will need a real sea change.

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