Great British Beach Clean finds PPE littering the UK’s shorelines

Single-use PPE is quickly finding its way to the ocean, showing that the global coronavirus pandemic is having a damaging impact on the environment.

PPE Litter, Cornwall, Great British Beach clean/Credit: Natasha Ewins

Although much attention has been given to how the novel coronavirus pandemic can impact society and the economy, its affects upon the environment are only just starting to be understood.

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But results from this year’s Great British Beach Clean, run by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), suggest that PPE is becoming a more regular sight on beaches up and down the country.

During this year’s beach clean, which took place from 18th and 25th of September, volunteers were asked to record any face masks and gloves they found for the first time.

“The amount of PPE our volunteers found on beaches and inland this year is certainly of concern,” said Lizzie Prior, Great British Beach Clean Coordinator at MCS.

“Considering mask wearing was only made mandatory in shops in England in late July, little more than three months before the Great British Beach Clean, the sharp increase in PPE litter should be a word of warning for what could be a new form of litter polluting our beaches in the future.”  

Now in its 26th year, the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) Great British Beach Clean helps to tackle ocean pollution, collecting crucial data that provides an insight into the most common forms of litter on UK shores. With the help of their volunteers, MCS’s beach cleans have helped to bring about the plastic bag charge, and the banning of microplastics in personal care products.

Top five most common litter items on UK beaches 2020 (average per 100m of beach surveyed):

  1. Plastic and polystyrene pieces (0-50cm) – 167.2
  2. Plastic and polystyrene caps and lids – 19.7
  3. Wet wipes – 17.7
  4. Cigarette stubs – 16.2
  5. Plastic string – 15.8

This year, volunteers’ data on PPE items are supported by data collected inland by volunteers working on MCS’s Source to Sea Litter Quest, which revealed that PPE litter was found on more than 69% of litter picks away from the seashore.

Abandoned face mask, Great British Beach clean
Abandoned face mask found during the Great British Beach clean

As around 80% of the litter found on beaches in the UK comes from inlands areas, such as towns, parks, and rivers, the Source to Sea Litter Quest asks volunteers to collect litter from their local areas to prevent it entering the sea, and to add to the body of data on litter that is creating an environmental hazard.

Along with other single-use items, disposable face masks and gloves can pose a threat to wildlife both on land and at sea.

Seabirds have recently been pictured with their feet tangled in the elastic straps of face masks, and masks and gloves that end up in the sea could be mistaken for prey by marine animals, which could be fatal if ingested.

Although PPE litter is on the rise, the beach clean revealed that drinks litter was the most commonly found rubbish item on UK beaches.

An average of 30 drinks containers, caps, and lids were found per 100m of beach surveyed during the most recent clean.

Inland, a staggering 99% of litter picks recovered drinks litter.

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at MCS argues that this data shows that Wales, England and Northern Ireland should act with urgency in introducing an all-inclusive Deposit Return Scheme, as has already happened in Scotland. 

“Despite lockdown, with many of us spending more time at home, littering in public spaces has continued unabated,” said Dr Foster.

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“Almost every single local litter pick found at least one drinks container, which is incredibly concerning. An effective Deposit Return Scheme would take the UK one step closer to a circular economy model and drastically reduce the volume of single-use pollution in the UK’s streets, parks and on our beaches.”