Latest beach litter figures strengthen case for bottle deposit return schemes around UK
Over 8,000 plastic bottles were found on UK beaches during just one weekend, according to the latest beach litter figures from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) published on 23 March.
On average, 99 bottles were picked up along every kilometre cleaned at 340 beaches from Orkney to the Channel Islands during the MCS Great British Beach Clean last September. It’s estimated that plastic bottles could take up to 500 years to break down once in our seas.
The charity’s report, also reveals a shocking 34% rise in beach litter overall between 2014 and 2015, a record breaking number of volunteers taking part – just over 6,000, and the largest amount of litter found per kilometre – a staggering 3,298 pieces.
MCS’ beachcleaning work is supported by players of the Peoples Postcode Lottery, enabling teams of volunteers to clean up huge swathes of the beaches, and carefully record the litter they collect from a 100 metre stretch during each clean. This allows MCS to build up a picture of the state of our beaches by comparing those 100metre litter levels year on year.
Results for this year
All the home countries saw an increase in litter, except Wales, where litter levels dropped after a record rise last year – however in the last decade, average litter levels on Welsh beaches have increased by 51%.
There was a big percentage rise in most drinks containers, found on beaches between 2014 and 2015 – plastic drinks bottles increased by over 43%, metal drinks cans by almost 29%, and – drinks container caps and lids were up by over 41%. Only glass bottles went down and that was only by less than 1%.
The figures highlight an issue that UK and devolved governments are now being asked to consider – deposit return systems.
“There have been increases in the number of plastic bottles found on beaches in England, Scotland, Channel Islands, and Northern Ireland”, says Lauren Eyles, MCS Beachwatch Manager. “Only Wales has bucked the trend in 2015 but that’s almost certainly as a result of very high levels in 2014, where more bottles were found on Welsh beaches than anywhere else. The bottles we find on beaches are either dropped directly onto the beach, blown from land or sea, or end up there via rivers. The more we use as a nation, the more we’ll see ending up on our shores.”
Plastic bottles on beaches rose by 6.3% in the Channel Islands, 57.2% in England,
21.3% in Scotland and a whopping 235.3% in Northern Ireland. In Wales they dropped by 39.4 % but that’s in line with the overall drop in the country’s litter levels – even so, there were still 103 plastic bottles found per km cleaned, which is higher than the national average.
In recent years plastic bottles have become a lifestyle accessory. As the need to keep hydrated has been acknowledged as one of the keys to good health, more and more of us are buying bottles of water on the go, resulting in more needing to be binned. But is there a better way of ensuring they don’t reach our beaches?
Returning drinks containers
Lauren Eyles says: “Deposit Return Systems (DRS) are nothing new. Lots of people will remember taking pop bottles back to the shop and up until last year the makers of Irn-Bru were returning 30p on glass bottles. Currently DRS schemes run successfully in Germany, Denmark, and some states in Australia and the USA. Studies have shown that a scheme can reduce the amount of littered drink containers, lead to more recycling and contribute to the circular economy – where resources are used again and again to extract maximum value. The schemes put a surcharge on drinks containers and when they’re returned – avoiding pollution – the surcharge is refunded.”
MCS says the introduction of DRS on all single use drinks containers – plastic, aluminium and glass – will see a massive increase in recycling and a change in people’s behaviour from simply throwing items away. Deposit Return Systems give value to items often regarded as having zero worth and so are disposed of irresponsibly.
In Scotland, MCS is a founding partner of the ‘Have you got the bottle’ campaign led by the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland (APRS). “We’re confident that evidence from other countries and a successful trial at Heriot-Watt University shows that a Scotland-wide roll-out of a DRS would lead to reduction in the number of drinks containers that blight our beaches,” says Calum Duncan, MCS Head of Conservation in Scotland. “A survey for APRS showed that 78.8% backed a DRS for Scotland. With countries like Germany, where DRS was introduced a decade ago, recycling near to 99% of drinks containers, it’s not difficult to see why support is growing for this proven system.”
In Wales, MCS is fully behind the introduction of a DRS for the country. “People in Wales have shown they support environmental initiatives such as the carrier bag charge and general recycling. We think they’ll also get behind a deposit return system for drinks containers, given the high number of bottles we found on Welsh beaches – 875 bottles from 8.5km of coastline. We want to see an action on DRS in forthcoming election manifestos.” says Gill Bell, MCS Head of Conservation Wales.
MCS says it would like to see Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government come into line with Scotland and explore the potential benefits of introducing a DRS system. “A coordinated UK-wide system would have an even greater impact on litter levels. There’s clearly an appetite for it in Wales and Scotland, but it seems Westminster is hanging fire – just like it did with the single use carrier bag charge,” says Lauren Eyles.
Head of Charities for People’s Postcode Lottery, Clara Govier, said: “Players of People’s Postcode Lottery will be glad to know the money they raise is helping to make our beaches cleaner.”
Selfridges kindly provided support for the Great British Beach Clean through Project Ocean, its long-term partnership with the Zoological Society of London. Last year, Selfridges removed all single-use plastic water bottles from its stores, amounting to approximately 400,000 bottles a year.