Life’s a beach

Materials World magazine
3 Sep 2010

Apparently more and more of us are taking a summer break at home this year. If so, a traditional holiday by the sea will no doubt appeal to many. You may even be reading your Materials World while sitting on a stretch of beach around Britain’s 12,500km of extraordinarily beautiful coastline.

You might like to think about what gets washed up on our shores. I recently took part in a beach clean as part of the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS’s) ‘Adopt a Beach’ programme, and in just a few hours a dozen volunteers recovered a small skip load of rubbish from less than a two kilometre stretch of Aberdeen’s beach.

What does this litter comprise, and where does it come from? According to the results of the MCS 2009 Beachwatch survey it is mostly ‘plastics, plastic and more plastic’. The 2009 survey collected 342,151 pieces of litter from 397 beaches covering 185km of UK coastline, a staggering 1,849 pieces of litter for every kilometre surveyed. The 10 most common items accounted for almost 62% of the total and all these items were entirely or partially made of plastic. Worryingly, the MCS data shows that plastic litter has increased by 121% since Beachwatch started in 1994. Plastics are extremely durable, lightweight, cheap and versatile – features which mean they have replaced traditional materials such as metal, glass and wood. Unfortunately, it also makes them the most pervasive and hazardous form of litter in the marine environment. The problem with petroleumbased plastic is its disposal. It breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces but never completely disappears, and these plastic particles are then ingested by fish, seabirds and mammals, or consumed by filter feeding animals such as molluscs.

Fortunately, IOM3 has several technical communities leading the way on recycling and biodegradable alternatives. The Polymer Society is involved with the Renewable Plastics 2010 conference with its focus on biodegradable and durable plastics from renewable (ie plant-based) raw materials, while The Packaging Society has developed the Global Standard for Packaging and Packaging Materials, although this does not yet cover recycling. Meanwhile the Sustainable Development Group promotes whole lifecycle thinking across the professional interests of Institute members.

But what about action at a more direct and personal level? The MCS has several practical campaigns that most of us can support with little or no detrimental impact to our lives. These include the ‘No Butts on the Beach’ campaign to eliminate smoking related litter, mainly toxic cigarette butts, or the ‘Don’t Let Go’ programme to end the practice of mass helium filled balloon releases, and the ‘Go Plastic Bag Free’ scheme that is already supported by many supermarkets. If you are reading this magazine on the beach, do not forget to take the plastic wrapper home with you. Which begs the question, what alternatives to plastic magazine wrappers are there? Answers on a postcard please.

You can find out more about the work of the MCS and where to take part in the Beachwatch Big Weekend survey on 18-19 September 2010 at