Justin Whitehouse, National Trust Ranger on the Lizard is one of the ‘Clean Cornwall’ inspiring people of Cornwall who are all playing a role in helping to stop litter spoiling the landscape and causing harm to wildlife.
‘When thousands of pink bottles washed up on Poldhu Cove on the Lizard Peninsula at the beginning of January, this beautiful Cornish beach was suddenly in the media spotlight. It wasn’t just the local media which covered the story, broadcasters from across the UK, Europe and beyond scrambled to cover the story of the infamous pink bottles coming ashore.
Neon pink bottles scattered across our otherwise pristine beaches made for great photo opportunities and excuses for some creative headlines. Teams of volunteers were photographed, filmed and interviewed as they worked tirelessly to clear up the pink tide
But as the bottles started to disperse, so did the world’s media, but in many ways these bottles are a mere drop in the ocean compared to the thousands of plastic bottles, food wrappers, bags, fishing waste and other plastic waste washing up on our beaches every day.
Would there have been such media interest had the bottles been regular clear plastic bottles, pieces of fishing net, plastic bags or just millions of tiny fragments of unidentifiable plastic debris? These items wash up on our beaches every day, and the National Trust works with teams of volunteers in clearing our beaches of plastic waste every day, whether the film crews are there or not. If you visit any beach and there’s no evidence of plastic litter, it’s more than likely because somebody, usually a volunteer, has been there already and cleaned it.
The litter found per kilometre of UK beaches over the last 20 years has doubled, and this is continuing to increase year on year. The vast majority of this litter is sea-borne plastic.
Plastic never biodegrades – it breaks down into small pieces but doesn’t disappear. A whole plastic bottle actually poses little risk to wildlife, but as it breaks down, it becomes more and more of a threat. Seabirds and other marine life mistake floating plastic litter for food, and over 90% of fulmars found dead around the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs. Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and the bags block their stomachs, often leading to death from starvation. The same is true of whales, porpoises and seals from accidentally ingesting plastic litter. As the plastic continues to break down they become microplastic particles and become more toxic at this molecular level. Microplastics are now found inside filter feeding plankton and other animals and amongst sand grains on our beaches. Plastic is now in the food chain; it is arguably within the fish we eat.
Sea birds, turtles, seals and other large marine mammals get entangled in litter, particularly discarded fishing nets and line, known as ‘ghost gear’.
Marine litter is an increasing problem on our beaches. As well as being important sites for coast and marine wildlife, our beautiful coves, bays and dunes underpin the tourist economy, and are much loved and used by local communities.
Whenever I visit my local beach, I grab a bag (there’s usually a suitable one washed up!) and some gloves and spend a few minutes litter picking. Alternatively, anyone can join an organised beach clean and help make our beaches better for wildlife and people.
Of course, long term much more needs to be done to protect our beaches and tackle this problem. But if everyone takes a little more collective responsibility, together we can start to tackle the growing problem of marine litter.
I’m proud to be part of the ‘Clean Cornwall’ campaign and believe if we all do our bit we can reduce this threat to our landscape and wildlife.
National Trust Ranger