What I Learned From My First Beach Clean
Yesterday I joined the Edinburgh Surfers Against Sewage chapter in their Autumn Beach Clean on Portobello Beach. It was part of over 600 similar events they organised around the UK last week, a push they do for Spring and Autumn every year. And while most of us were just cleaning the beach, they had also set out a forensic patch of sand for several volunteers to sift and catalogue what they found there, as part of a formal beach survey to help quantify the extent of the pollution problem in our area.
I'd never done an organised beach clean before, just picked up obvious bits of rubbish on the few occasions I was walking on a beach anyway; beaches have never been a huge part of my life, as I've never lived close to one (nor am I much of a swimmer). But it was a perfect day for it yesterday - gloriously sunny, though Edinburgh's usual icy wind still cut through my best efforts at wrapping up warm! And I'd wanted to get involved in plastic cleanup efforts for a while, so this seemed like an excellent place to start.
Portobello has always seemed quite clean and didn't strike me as a particularly littered beach, so I wasn't sure what to expect: how many people would show up? What if there wasn't enough litter to pick up? Would it all be a bit pointless if we didn't transform the beach from being knee-deep in trash to being pristine again, like all those before-and-after photos on Instagram?
It turns out, I needn't have worried.
There were about 30 of us in all, including many families with children of all ages and a few dogs. The friendly SAS organisers provided sacks, gloves and litter picking sticks and pointed us in the right direction, so I set out in my Big Coat with my new gear to Make A Difference.
Here's what I discovered:
1. There is no shortage of plastic on a "clean" beach.
I didn't find any plastic bottles or old tyres or cigarette butts or big pieces of plastic of any kind. Not one. But that doesn't mean there was nothing there. The closer you look at any point on the beach, the more tiny pieces of plastic and debris you will find. I fossicked for 2 hours along a pretty short patch of coastline with 30 other people and I'm not even sure we made a dent in what was to be found.
2. Multiple people can go over the same piece of beach after one another and still find plenty to pick up.
We all have different skills and notice different things. Tiny bits of plastic are difficult to spot amongst the shells, seaweed, rocks, plants, wood, and other ocean debris on a beach, so there is absolutely no failure in missing things. At first I felt like I'd been clever if I spotted something that someone else had missed, or at fault if someone found something on a bit of beach I'd already gone over, but then I realised that it really doesn't matter. There was so much on the beach once you started looking that it was impossible for one person to notice it all, so the more people combing each section of beach, the better.
3. Picking up litter on a beach is incredibly relaxing.
I loved it. The sounds of the ocean, the gentle pace, being alone with my thoughts, the focus on a simple task, the feeling that I was making the world a teeny bit better, and the company of other people nearby doing a similar thing, and then coffee and cake afterwards...it all added up to a really great experience that I enjoyed far more than I expected to. I'm hooked!
4. I didn't find the types of trash I thought I would.
I thought I would mostly be picking up plastic bottles and straws and old fishing nets - what I actually found were:
- Many many tiny plastic sticks (at first I thought they were lollypop sticks - and there were a couple with the Chuppa Chup notch at one end - but it turned out most of them were from cotton buds, without the cotton on either end),
- A lot of small styrofoam pieces (both smooth, thin pieces from cups/burger clamshells and also many small chunks of bobbled styrofoam bricks, like the kind you get around appliances),
- Little bits of dense yellow foam (possibly from marine floats?),
- Plastic bottle tops, especially the clear caps that come on pump water bottles,
- Old (flushable??!) wet-wipes,
- Synthetic stuffing material, and
- A few little strands of old fishing nets, plus
- Miscellaneous hard plastic bits.
I also spoke to some people afterwards who had been sifting through a tiny patch of sand in great depth and found a large quantity of nurdles, which are tiny plastic pellets used in plastic manufacturing that are fast becoming a huge problem in marine environments. I had found one bright blue one on my hunt, while they had found a whole handful in under five minutes of sifting a random patch of beach...which means you'd almost have to assume there's that many in every patch of the beach...
5. On a "clean" beach, where the rubbish is small, a litter picking stick was almost useless.
I tried it twice at the beginning and then spent the rest of the time just carrying it because it was much easier to just pick the tiny pieces up with my fingers. Might still be good if you have trouble bending down, but next time I'll be leaving it behind and sticking with the gloves.
6. Most of the rubbish I found was at the very edge of the beach, at the highest tide line.
At first I tried walking along the most recent tide line but the sand was packed down and there wasn't much to see. Eventually I made my way up to the top edge, where beach starts to become land, and found the majority of my rubbish amongst the pebbles and rocks and caught in the bushes on the bank.
If, like me, you've been thinking about doing a beach clean for quite a while but somehow never managed to get around to it, then I urge you to go for it. I really enjoyed myself, it was completely worth it, and I will definitely be doing it again!
And I wasn't the only one: there were many cheery faces of all ages in the cafe afterwards, consuming tea, coffee, hot chocolates and cake with the air of people who had earned it!