After my first beach clean in the Philippines, I became a lot more aware of our consumption of plastic, in particular, single-use plastic. Just over a year later, I got a job for the Marine Conservation Society in the UK, working in their beach clean programme. It was here that I began to learn more about citizen science, and the valuable scientific data that can be collected by passionate volunteers across the UK.
We now have almost three decades of beach litter data, which we use to try and stop litter getting into our environment in the first place. As well as informing our public awareness campaigns, our data is used in government consultation responses and it provides evidence to manufacturers, retailers and other businesses.
There are many ways we can all make small, positive change. One way you can help is by becoming a citizen scientist and getting involved in a Beachwatch.
What is Beachwatch?
The Marine Conservation Society has been running its beach clean and litter survey programme, Beachwatch, since 1994! We knew back then that beach litter was a problem, but there was no data on the type of litter being found or whether the situation was getting better or worse.
To fight our litter problem, we need a two-pronged approach:
- Remove the litter so it won’t harm marine life
- Collect data of what was found so we can campaign for change.
How the data is gathered
The Marine Conservation Society has a standardised litter form for everyone to use, and a set methodology so we can accurately compare the litter found in different locations around the UK.
We also work with other European countries and the Ocean Conservancy in America. We time our Great British Beach Clean to tie in with their International Coastal Clean-up in September. The Great British Beach Clean also coincides with National GetOutside Day and presents the perfect opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors whilst helping to protect the environment.
How our data helps tackle litter at source
The information we gather from beach cleans really does help to bring about change. Here are some ways our data has helped tackle litter at source:
- Plastic bag charge – our data was used as supportive evidence to introduce a charge on plastic bags. We have recorded over 50% decrease of plastic bags on our beaches since the charge was introduced.
- Wet wipes – our campaign encouraged businesses to remove plastic from their own-brand wet wipes.
- Deposit return schemes – In Scotland, our data helped get agreement for a Deposit Return Scheme to reduce the number of cans and bottles littering our environment. The scheme is due to start in 2022 and we are pushing for the rest of the UK to follow.
Since the COVID pandemic, we have been responding to a new litter problem: PPE. While single-use face masks and gloves provide important protection from the virus, unfortunately not all of it is disposed of properly, which is causing a problem for marine life. PPE has now been added to our recording forms so we can gather data on this new type of litter.
Taking part in a beach clean
If you would like to get involved in Beachwatch, you can find out more at www.mcsuk.org.beachwatch.
Beach cleans are organised throughout the year by local volunteers. Check to see if any events are running in your local area.
Organising your own event
If you would like to run your own beach clean and litter survey, here’s how to get started.
1. Register online
Register online and find lots of helpful information about making your beach clean as safe and enjoyable as possible.
2. Choose a 100m section of beach
Once you have created your organiser account, choose a 100m section of beach. This will be the area that your group cleans and surveys.
By removing the litter and recording your findings, you will not only be helping to keep the ocean clean but you’ll be helping the Marine Conservation Society gather vital research data.
3. Select a date and time for your beach clean
After selecting your location, do some research about the tidal activity and think carefully about what time you choose to visit.
It’s a good idea to start your beach clean just before low tide, when the litter is deposited by the retreating waves. You can check tide times here.
4. Upload your risk assessment
In order to keep everyone safe, it is important to complete a brief risk assessment. Don’t worry, it’s very simple! A template is available on our website.
When completing your risk assessment, you should also refer to our updated COVID health and safety advice. Don’t forget to take the form with you on the day of your beach clean and check over the risks.
Maintaining water repellency on my favourite Fjallraven trousers
5. Let the landowner know what’s going on
In most cases, the landowner will be the council. By alerting them to your beach clean plans, you can make sure that the litter you collect will be properly disposed of.
Leave the rubbish you collect at the agreed drop-off point, in bin bags which have been properly tied shut. If any of the litter can be recycled, make sure it is separated from the bags which have to go to landfill.
6. Register your event via the Beachwatch website
When you register your beach clean on our website, you can choose to make it public (so other volunteers can sign up to help you on the day) or private.
If you log your event as private, the information will only be seen by the Beachwatch team so we know it when and where it’s happening to avoid potential beach clean clashes.
7. Print off survey forms or download the app
Collecting data about your beach clean is just as important as the litter you pick up.
Volunteers record the litter that they find on the volunteer survey form or they can download the Beachwatch app and enter the litter data straight onto their phone
On the day
Now that all the paperwork is done, it’s time to head to the beach. Here’s a checklist of items to make sure your day runs smoothly:
- A copy of your completed risk assessment
- Volunteer survey forms (one for each volunteer) or email your volunteers and ask them to download the app
- Organiser survey summary sheet
- Bin bags
- Thick gardening gloves to protect your hands
- Specialist equipment, such as litter grabbers or bag hoops
- Clipboards to lean on when filling in the survey forms
- A plastic container for any needles
- A bucket for other sharps items, like glass
- A first aid kit
- A copy of our public liability insurance
- A delicious packed lunch, plus lots of snacks and drinks – this goes without saying!
My carved spoon
At the beach
Once you’ve arrived at the beach, give your volunteers a quick briefing. This should include a bit of info about Beachwatch, how to record the data and the all-important health and safety guidelines. There is a suggested briefing on our website, available to download.
Allow time to answer any questions that your volunteers might have. Then ask them to get into teams and equip each group with a recording form, bag and litter picker. Please take lots of pictures, particularly of any weird and wonderful beach clean finds!
At the end of the clean, make a note of the number and weight of collected bin bags before leaving them at the agreed disposal point.
Remember to collect in any survey forms before everyone heads home for a well-deserved cup of tea.
Submitting your beach litter results
If you are using paper forms, collate the information on the summary sheet before submitting your data on our website via your Beachwatch account.
If using the app, volunteers can submit their data straight onto their phones. If there’s no mobile reception at the beach, the information will be stored. Volunteers just need to remember to open the app again once they have connectivity so their data will upload.
Share your beach clean experience
The more people that take part in beach cleans, the more litter data we have to hold governments and corporations accountable for their actions.
By sharing your beach clean experience on social media, you can help inspire other people to do their bit for our beaches and oceans.
Please also tag us in your beach clean photos to help spread the message further:
Twitter: @mcsuk Facebook: @mcsuk Instagram: @mcs_uk
Images can also be emailed to our social media team at email@example.com, along with the person to credit.
These next few years are going to be crucial in tackling plastic pollution, but positive changes are happening and we will continue to use our volunteers’ beach litter data to keep the change coming. Litter has no boundaries. It is a global issue that we all need to work together to fix.