Every year the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) recruits volunteers and supporters to conduct a survey of the litter on the UK’s beaches.

Today, Friday, the organisation published the results of its 2006 litter count which found that since the beginning of the campaign in 1994 the quantity of rubbish has gone up by over 90%, from 1,045 pieces per kilometre to 1,989 pieces.

The results appear to fly in the face of rising public awareness of waste issues but the charity’s adopt-a-beach officer, Sue Kinsey, told edie that the problem was really one of accumulation rather than simply worsening habits.

“Litter has been getting worse year on year,” she said.

“The main problem is that plastic litter is not going to biodegrade in the natural environment so that is accumulating over time. Over the past 12 years most of the items in the top ten have been plastic-based and this year I think they all are.”

Anonymous plastic fragments top the list as the most commonly found beach litter, confounding attempts to source the rubbish.

“They might once have been a bottle or a box but they’ve broken down into smaller pieces,” said Ms Kinsey.

“So it’s impossible for us to know where it originated.”

Around a third of the litter counted came from individuals, with cotton buds flushed down the loo at the top of the list and wrappers from crisps and sweets also ranking high, reflecting a casual attitude to disposing of packaging.

“People are being much better at disposing of their litter properly but it is still a problem,” said Ms Kinsey.

“The message we’d like to get across is don’t drop litter on beaches or the ground, and don’t use your toilet as a wet bin.”

Cotton buds have overtaken larger objects which are still being flushed down the loo.

“Sewage treatment plants on waterworks have improved dramatically over the past few years, button cotton buds are so small that they still get through most of the filters.

Cigarette butts are also a problem – culturally they’re not seen as litter in the same way as, say a crisp packet, but plastics in the filter mean they take a long time to break down and also the toxins that accumulate there leach out into the seawater, contributing in a small way to marine pollution.

With the workplace smoking ban coming into effect this summer, the MCS fears that with smokers forced outdoors, that problem is likely to grow.

The MCS Beachwatch 2006 report is based on data collected by over 4,000 volunteers on 358 UK beaches during September.

187 km of the UK’s coastline was surveyed and over 370,000 litter items removed as part of the anti-litter campaign.

The report identifies four key sources of beach litter: beach visitors (33.9%), fishing debris (11.2%), sewage related debris/sanitary waste (10.4%) and shipping litter (2.0%).

Sam Bond

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