Beachwatch UK

Phil Houghton

Phil Houghton

The problem

Beach litter across the United Kingdom is at its highest ever level. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) reported in 2014 that plastic litter on beaches has increased by 140% since 1994. There are nearly 2,500 items of rubbish for every kilometre of beach across the UK. Around 80% of marine litter on beaches originates from terrestrial sources but fishing litter (e.g. line, net, crab pots, fish boxes, weights, lures and hooks) is also a regular find. Not only is it a public health risk and extremely expensive to clean up, it is also a hazard to marine wildlife through entanglement and ingestion. Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them. The bags block their stomachs, often leading to death from starvation. Seabirds mistake floating plastic litter for food. Over 90% of fulmars found dead around the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs.

Beach litter across the United Kingdom is at its highest ever level.

The solution

The MCS started Beachwatch in 1994, a UK-wide beach cleaning programme and beach litter survey, involving local communities and volunteers. Beachwatch is a year-round initiative that now covers over 400 beaches. The Beachwatch programme culminates in the Great British Beach Clean on the third weekend of September every year. Beachwatch is part of the MCS campaign for Clean Seas and Beaches. The survey data is used to raise awareness of the impacts of litter, to campaign at a national level on marine litter issues and to promote measures to reduce litter at source. 

MCS, together with the British Plastics Federation and others, have formed a Marine Litter Action Network (MLAN). MLAN was established to bring together people and their organisations from across different sectors to tackle the issue of marine litter. MLAN is working on practical solutions to reduce marine litter now, as well as securing commitments for long term actions from key players in the commercial, public and environmental sectors.

The outcomes

Over its 21years, Beachwatch has collected 5.3 million pieces of litter, weighing over 150 tonnes from nearly 3,000 kilometres of beach. During the Great British Beach Clean in September 2014, 5,349 volunteers participated in clean ups and surveys. The data collected by MCS have been used to advocate for policy changes and provided opportunities for collaboration with industry to address the problem. For example, MCS and Keep Scotland Beautiful have received funding from Zero Waste Scotland for a pilot project to tackle sewage-related debris through education in schools. MCS has introduced a ‘Hang on to your Tackle’ campaign for recreational fishers, and a national campaign to eliminate microplastics from face/body scrubs and other beauty products. MCS were also part of 'Break the Bag Habit', a campaign to achieve levies on single use carrier bags throughout the UK. The MCS is also advocating for strengthened marine litter strategies across the UK.

The lessons

  • Having accurate data and consistent survey and clean up methods across the UK has been critical to ensure the suitability of the data for national and regional monitoring.

  • Collaborative approaches to solving marine litter problems are fundamental to developing shared solutions to more effectively influence government policy and regulation.

Key contacts

Participant Projectpb+j