Better news on UK beach litter but plastics remain a massive pollution problem

The latest survey of litter on the UK’s beaches includes some positive news — the amount of litter on beaches seems to be falling — but there remain significant causes for concern, not least the huge amount of plastic washing up on shores. According to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which organises the annual survey and clean-up of beaches, “UK governments’ current piecemeal approach to single-use plastics policy” is not enough and more needs to be done. Dealing with plastics pollution obviously requires action at governmental level but there is also much that individuals, families, schools and communities can do to make a difference. We can be reactive — helping to clean up the mess, for example. But we also need to be proactive — changing our behaviour and encouraging others to do the same — if we are to bring about fundamental long-term improvement.

The Great British Beach Clean took place during the third week of September, involving 6,176 volunteers. A total of 5064.8kg of litter was collected and recorded.

First the good news:

  • The average litter recorded per 100 metres is dropping year on year across the UK. An average of 385 items were found, compared to averages of 425 in 2020 and 558 in 2019
  • Cotton bud sticks moved out of the UK’s top ten most common rubbish items
  • Numbers of single-use plastic bags on beaches have continued to drop, from a high of 13 on average in 2013, to just three in 2021

According to the MCS, the drop in litter levels “can at least in part be attributed to single-use plastics bans and charges put in place across the UK”.


  • Plastic remains the most prevalent form of litter across all the UK’s beaches
  • Levels of PPE found this year were similar to 2020, when masks were made mandatory across the UK – 32% of UK beaches cleaned found PPE litter
  • Wet wipes have consistently featured as a common litter item. This form of litter, including other sewage-related items (like sanitary towels and nappies) “isn’t a pandemic-related problem, but a chronic, long-term issue”

A shocking 75% of all the litter we collected from UK beaches this year was made of plastic or polystyrene, so it’s clear what we need to focus our attention on. Comprehensive and ambitious single-use plastics policies which reduce the manufacture and sale of items is the quickest way of phasing out plastic from our environment.

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society

In our blog Reducing plastics use helps with learning about the need to live sustainably, we highlighted the estimate that, unless action is taken, an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic is destined to end up in the environment (on land and in the ocean) by 2040.

Life-Based Learning seeks to embed what children and young people learn in real-world issues. Its nine life themes directly address the challenges that they — that all of us — face. Pollution is one such challenge. Young people need to be learning about the human footprint, including the damage to the world’s physical resources caused by human activity. They also need hands-on experience of what living sustainably means in practice.

We have highlighted the work of Kids Against Plastic, a charity “set up by kids, for kids”. Their excellent website mixes educational information and downloadable resources for use in schools with calls to action. A recent guest blog from one of their KAP Club members, for example, explains how she managed to get her school not to use harmful plastic decorations.

The Marine Conservation Society website is also packed with information, resources and ideas on how individuals, families, schools and community groups can get involved and help make a difference. There is relevant content for those who live nowhere near the sea as well as for those who do. As their website says, most litter that ends up on our beaches or in the sea starts its journey in villages, towns and cities miles from the coast.

The Fun and learning section of the MCS website includes:

  • teaching resources covering the full age range
  • ideas for beach activities for families
  • resources for youth groups like Scouts and Guides
  • ideas for the Volunteering element of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award
  • the John Muir Award — for participants make a positive difference to coasts around the UK
  • the Young Ocean Optimist of the Year Award, launched in 2020, “a celebration of young people who’ve done incredible things to protect, recover, and share appreciation of our ocean”
  • ideas for fundraising
  • information about how to get involved in MCS campaigns
  • ideas to engage and enthuse young citizen scientists

Marine Conservation Society Website

Kids Against Plastic Website

More Blogs about Sustainable Living

Image at the head of this article by Sergei Tokmakov Terms.Law from Pixabay.

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