Plastic litter on beaches could be poisoning wildlife

The high level of plastic on UK beaches could be exposing wildlife to toxic substances, according to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) at the publication of the results of last year’s beach survey.

In the eighth nation-wide survey of beach litter, over 1,300 volunteers braved the fuel crisis in September last year, and over one weekend surveyed 150 beaches, collecting a total of 185,482 pieces of litter, including over 9,000 small plastic pieces.

New scientific evidence, says MCS, has shown that raw industrial plastic pellets can act as magnets for toxic chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDE. MCS are expressing concern that as plastic litter breaks down, the small pieces have a strong resemblance to the natural foodstuffs of wildlife, leading to mistaken ingestion and increasing exposure to toxic substances.

“The good news is that we’ve recorded an overall reduction of 7% in the amount of litter found over the 1999 figures, and this is the second year in succession that recorded beach litter levels have declined,” said Amy Hinks, MCS Beachwatch Co-ordinator. “However, levels are still unacceptably high and over 55% of litter recorded during Beachwatch 2000 is made of plastic.”

Reflecting the results of previous Beachwatch surveys, four sources of litter were identified as the main culprits: tourist/recreational inputs (35%), fishing (12%), sewage related debris (7%), and shipping/galley waste (2%). The tourist and shipping litter were found to have decreased in 2000, but fishing litter had increased on previous years, and was particularly predominant on the Welsh coast. The level of sewage related litter was unchanged, with Scotland recording twice the average reported for the rest if the UK (see related story).

Stressing that, local authorities, water authorities and Government must indeed play their part in reducing litter, MCS pointed out that every member of the public should accept individual responsibility for minimising their impact on the marine and coastal environment. A considerable amount of litter, said MCS, would have been flushed down the toilet or left on the beach through sheer carelessness.

“The Marine Conservation Society is pleased to see that the levels of litter have decreased for a second consecutive year and we hope that this trend continues – but we as individuals must safeguard the environment and wildlife by taking care with our litter,” said Sam Pollard, MCS Director of Conservation.

As usual, the MCS recorded some unusual items of litter found during the Beachwatch survey, which included a fridge door, a purple inflatable dinosaur, a lottery ball (number 49), and two plastic bottles made before decimalization.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) has stressed its concern at the results of the survey, particularly in respect to the high level of sewage related debris found on Scottish beaches. “This figure is clear evidence of the need for major investment in sewers in waste water treatment works in line with the Quality and Standards II consultation,” said Colin Bayes, Head of Water Policy for SEPA. “SEPA has long advocated this need for investment and is working closely with all three water authorities (who are responsible for sewerage services and public water supply) in Scotland to work towards achieving full compliance with European bathing water standards. Most importantly, the message must be that people should not flush sanitary or other plastic objects down the toilet. What goes down the toilet doesn’t vanish without trace.”

SEPA also expressed concern over litter and flytipping taking place on Scottish beaches, and urges members of the public witnessing such activities to phone SEPA on 0800 807060.

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