For the past four years Coast magazine’s editor-in-chief, Alex Fisher, has gathered with her readers and the Marine Conservation Society at Watergate Bay to study the impact of the modern world on our marine ecosystems. We asked her to tell us more about their beach cleans, the tide of dreaded ‘nurdles’, the power of data and how looking closer can inspire action.
The tide has ebbed away, revealing the golden sands of Watergate Bay. The pale blue morning sky welcomes our team of nearly 80 coast-loving beach cleaners, who, clad in bright orange jerkins, snake down onto the beach. Heads turn, surfers glance up, children stare, curious as to what this unusual group, wearing gloves and grasping clipboards, might be doing in their beautiful bay.
At first glance the beach appears pristine. This gorgeous stretch of the North Cornwall coast does not generally attract those who leave litter; it’s frequented by swimmers, surfers, kite-flyers, body-boarders and walkers who are naturally passionate about the seascape they love to immerse themselves in. When we first gather on the sands, there’s always a number of my party who turn to me and say, “But there’s no rubbish to pick up…there’s nothing for us to do!”
“Just wait,” I answer, as we hand out metal sieves (the precursor to the now sadly necessary ‘trommel’).
“When we first gather on the sands, there’s always a number of my party who turn to me and say, “But there’s no rubbish to pick up…there’s nothing for us to do!”
Fully equipped, the participants are shown the boundaries of area they are going to ‘clean’. The beach cleans Coast readers conduct follow the Marine Conservation Society’s requirements of creating both a limited time period, and a limited area, to be scanned. This way, the data gathered with each clean can be compared over the years, creating a body of reliable information documenting increased pollution of specific items, which is then used to lobby the government for better regulations to decrease the biggest offenders. The data gathered by the Marine Conservation Society over the past 25 years played a key role in the crucial banning of single-use plastic bags.
Unlike many beaches in the UK, at Watergate Bay we don’t find crisp packets, we don’t find coffee cups, we don’t find abandoned polystyrene body boards. But, like all beaches in the UK, what we do find is thousands of tiny pieces of plastic. It doesn’t matter how tidy the beach is kept on land, pollution is a global problem and can’t just be dealt with at a local level. If you are on the west coast of the UK, you will always have plastic washed onto your shores from the Atlantic Ocean. It might have travelled all the way from the States, it might have come from a container fallen from a cargo ship, but – after a heavy storm in particular – you will find multi-coloured lines of tiny plastic pieces patterning the shoreline as the tide retreats: an unwanted ‘gift’ from global industry.
As our readers kneel to the ground and look closer, they begin to find and count them. They largely fall into two categories; firstly, as plastic is not biodegradable, it just breaks down into smaller pieces, so there are many unidentifiable pieces that may have been degrading in our oceans for over 30 years. And secondly, we now teach people to look for ‘nurdles’. Nurdles are the tiny plastic pellets from which plastic products are made. Globally, billions are used every year and, having leached out of industrial zones, they’re now found on all our wild and natural beaches. That is what the sieves are for, and that is what a ‘trommel’ is for. We are literally sieving the sand on our beaches in order to remove the almost invisible ‘nurdles’ from our oceans.
“We are literally sieving the sand on our beaches in order to remove the almost invisible ‘nurdles’ from our oceans.”
Why take on this seemingly insurmountable task? Nurdles and tiny plastic pieces look like fish food, and in the lower end of the marine food chain, they are being eaten, filling a fish’s belly until it can no longer absorb real nutrients and dies. These fish move up the food chain, killing more creatures as they go.
In 2019 during our one-hour data gathering beach clean at Watergate Bay we found over 3,000 tiny pieces of plastic. In 2018, there had been a big swell the previous night, bringing what usually lies on the ocean floor up to the beach – and in the same amount of time, we picked up 8,371 miniscule pieces of plastic. Our readers and participants are always amazed by the quantity of plastic pieces they end up removing from seemingly spotless beaches.
We always spend a bit of time rockpooling after our beach cleans. As a seasoned environmental protester, I have learnt that we must always balance the negative with the positive, the anger at the desecration with a top-up of the love and joy that happens when we connect to the natural world. It’s a such a pleasure to discover the crabs, sea anemones, fish and colourful seaweeds in the myriad rockpools at both ends of the bay, and sometimes we’re even lucky enough to see dolphins amongst the waves.
Before we part company and leave the bay, we always discuss our findings and what we can do at home. It’s great to recycle, but it’s also good to choose products that last, made from natural materials. When heading to the beach, take your own stainless-steel refillable drinking water container. Don’t buy the polystyrene bodyboards, but invest in a beautiful wooden belly board and keep it all your life. Re-use, share or borrow buckets and spades, rather than picking a new one up each year on the beach. And join a beach clean when you can.
As anthropologist Margret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”