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Plastic beach. Will you leave no trace?

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 10:09 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

Guest blog: Maya Plass, marine biologist and Autumntwatch guest presenter, blogs about the problems caused by plastics to our marine life.

Plastic is durable, lightweight and versatile. It has fantastic properties which means it has the potential for reducing environmental damage. However this useful commodity can also be a hindrance when it comes to its disposal.

The problem of plastic is complex and certainly not easy to resolve. I am sure that back in the 1950s when we produced 5 million tonnes of plastic per year we had no concept of the future implications on our environment. Today we produce an estimated 230 million tonnes per year.

Part of the issue with plastic is the way in which we use it as a product rarely maximising its potential. 8% of global oil production is used to produce plastic and 37% of that plastic is disposed of within a year. That is a large proportion of our dwindling oil resource. Where we once used peach kernels in exfoliants we now use plastic, where we used to sand blast we now blast with plastic fragments; all of which can end up in our rivers, seas and ultimately in the food chain.

The amount of plastic on our beaches is concerning and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) national beach cleaning event in September demonstrated this.The most common items of litter found were small plastic pieces with 64% of all the rubbish  found made of plastic. Since Beachwatch started in 1994 plastic litter has increased by an enormous 121%.

The impact on our coastal and oceanic environment is still being researched but we know that there is evidence of death by plastics in birds, dolphins, seals, whales and turtles through both entanglement and ingestion. But it's not only the larger animals and larger plastic that is an issue.

Katsuhiko Saido is the lead researcher studying the small (3mm) easily transported spherical plastic nurdles, also known as mermaid’s tears. These pre-production plastic pellets are used in injection moulded plastics such as ice cream tubs.   I am yet to find a beach where these are not found on the strandline. They are very similar looking to fish eggs and there is concern that they will be ingested by birds, fish and potentially even mammals that feed there.

Plastic nurdles copyright Richard Harrington, MCS

The nurdles are also very good at sticking PCBs, DDTs and other damaging chemicals on their surface. The implications of this on animals that have eaten them is a concern and needs further research.

Ultimately, there are a multitude of things we can do to help – get involved in voluntary beach cleans, think before we buy and recycle. It is encouraging to see that there are increased recycling rates & less plastic hitting the landfill within a year of its production and the MCS had an incredible 4,665 volunteers in 2009.

MCS Beachwatch event copyright Richard Harrington, MCS

If you'd like to discover more about MCS annual Beachwatch then check out their website for details of beach cleans near you.


  • Comment number 1.

    Maybe the people who transport these plastics should be made to pay a clean-up premium. This may persuade them to be more careful in their transportation. Obviously any money raised would be used to clean up the beaches and protect wildlife.



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