Keeping our coastline clean

Litter has always been a big problem on beaches and in the countryside, and is hugely damaging to the wildlife and environment. As one of the largest conservation charities in Europe the National Trust relies on public support to help care for special places for ever, for everyone. We are encouraging visitors to get involved with beach cleans and litter picks at places across the country.

Ranger Dave does regular beach cleans at Woolacombe
A ranger doing a beach clean at Woolacombe Beach
Ranger Dave does regular beach cleans at Woolacombe

A beach in North Devon

From the vast golden sands of Woolacombe to remote rocky beaches near Hartland, the National Trust looks after over 50 miles of coastline in beautiful North Devon.

For years the National Trust has employed seasonal beach rangers to help care for Woolacombe beach in the busy summer months. The beach rangers not only carry out essential maintenance work and daily beach cleans, but also engage visitors and the local community with the conservation work that goes into keeping a beach such as Woolacombe clean and healthy.

However the Woolacombe team are now keen to expand this initiative throughout the entire year. Surprisingly little waste actually comes from visitors to the beach – the majority of litter comes from the sea itself. Indeed, winter is often one of the worst times of year for beach litter as a lot of debris is washed up in winter storms.

Unsurprisingly, plastic is the most common material washed ashore – last year a staggering 90% of beach rubbish collected on Woolacombe was plastic or polystyrene, with the other 10% being made up of a mixture of materials including metal, glass, cardboard and ceramics.

Dave Jolley, a ranger at Woolacombe, is keen to raise the awareness of issues surrounding marine litter and hopes to engage locals and visitors all year round.   

‘I am really lucky to look after some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the country, including Woolacombe, Croyde and Mortehoe’, say Dave. ‘However, I am always shocked by the amount on marine litter on our shores.’ 

" It doesn’t matter if you do two minutes or thirty – every piece of litter removed from the coast and countryside matters."
- Dave Jolley

‘Whilst a beach clean might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, every piece of plastic that’s removed from the environment is no longer a danger to the animals that live there. They won’t break down into micro plastics, strangle birds or mammals or end up being ingested. It’s also a great way to get outside, get to know your local patch and feel good about taking care of nature.'

Tiny plastic nurdles are a real danger to wildlife
Plastic nurdles on Woolacombe beach
Tiny plastic nurdles are a real danger to wildlife

Nurdles – the plastics you may never have heard of

‘Nurdles and cotton bud sticks are my pet peeves!’ says Dave. ‘Even walking along what seems like a relatively clean stretch of beach I always manage to pick up at least a handful of these annoying plastics.’

Nurdles are small plastic pellets that are used by industry to make nearly all our plastic products. Tiny and often overlooked, they are actually one of the most harmful and prevalent pieces of plastic accumulating on beaches across the globe. Nurdles are dangerous for a number of reasons, primarily:

  • Their similarity to fish eggs and small crustaceans means they are often mistaken for food by seabirds and marine animals and subsequently enter the food chain
  • Like all other plastics, they do not go away - just break down into smaller plastic particles
  • They attract and concentrate environmental pollutants to highly toxic levels

It is now alarmingly common to find plastic in the stomachs of seabirds – a recent study by the environmental charity Fidra revealed that over 95% of fulmars in the North Sea contained plastic; one fulmar even had 273 nurdles in its stomach. Shocking statistics like this really hit home the real and dangerous effect of plastics in our seas.

Therefore, this year the team at Woolacombe are focusing a lot of their efforts on removing these harmful pieces of plastic.

‘Because they are small, lightweight and hard to spot, nurdles often get overlooked by even the most avid of beach cleaners’, says Dave. ‘They blend into the ground and get covered up by sand, or else are blown into small nooks and crannies. Therefore at our beach cleans this year we will dedicate time and attention to carefully searching for and removing as many nurdles as possible.’

" It may seem like an endless battle, yet if everyone does their little bit to pick up litter when they see it or, even better, reduces the amount of plastic they use in their day to day lives, we can start to tackle this problem a tiny bit at a time."
- Dave Jolley
Join in with a beach clean near you
Family doing a beach clean at Woolacombe Beach
Join in with a beach clean near you

Find a beach clean near you

The National Trust team in North Devon have also been working closely with partner organisations such as Keep Britain Tidy, 2 Minute Beach Clean, Beach Care and the Marine Conservation Society.

For example the ranger team at Hartland work with the Beach Care programme to recycle as much beach rubbish as possible. This goes to a recycling plant in Devon, supports art projects and is used for products such as plastic kayaks developed by Fathoms Free.

Despite the enormity of the problem, it’s great to know that there are so many passionate and dedicated people already making a positive change with projects such as these.

‘We have noticed a steady increase of visitors who take the time out to stop and remove litter from the beach’, says Justin Seedhouse, lead ranger at Hartland. ‘It is great that people are keen to take their own initiative, however we’d also encourage them to come along to organised beach cleans too.’

The data gathered from organised beach cleans run by the National Trust can be used to make a real difference – providing evidence to petition for change. Check the website of your local coast or countryside site to see when your nearest beach clean is taking place.