Staycations, beaches – and millions of pieces of plastic

28 Jul 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 28 Jul 2020

A seal tangled with plastic near Rathlin Island
A seal tangled with plastic near Rathlin Island

Northern Ireland’s coastlines are beautiful. They are also strewn with litter. We all need to think about plastic waste.


It’s the middle of the most unusual summer in a lifetime.

The pandemic has changed our lives at every level. One adjustment – a minor adjustment, in the grand scheme – is how we go on holiday. Or not go on holiday, as it may be.

Staycations are set to be very popular this year. Caravan trips, a week or two in a cottage, days at the beach. Luckily, here in Northern Ireland we have stunning coastlines and lovely beaches.

But they could be lovelier.

Earlier this month, Keep NI Beautiful released its annual Marine Litter Report (which is supported by the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).

It makes for grim reading. The amount of litter on our beaches is staggering. Most of it is plastic.

Plastic is immensely durable and, as a result, plastic waste on local beaches could conceivably have come from anywhere. However, that offers no mitigation to a responsibility we all share to clean up after ourselves – and to work individually and collectively to reduce the amount of plastic we use, as far as is feasible.

Not only could our beaches see more local visitors than usual this year, they might even leave more waste than normal – specifically, PPE.

Let’s hope not. Our beaches are a shared asset and something we should all want to protect. The state they are in is regrettable. This problem also shines a light on the broader issue of single-use plastics.

While Stormont was on hiatus, moves to restrict or ban single-use plastics moved forward in other jurisdictions. Since the Assembly returned, its mind has (understandably) been elsewhere. Perhaps it should play catch up.

Keep NI Beautiful

Since 2012, Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful has run a programme collecting information about marine litter washing up on ten beaches around Northern Ireland, including four surveys carried out each year. The data contributes to the NI Marine Litter Strategy.

The latest findings show there are an estimated 3.3 million items of litter on our coastlines at any one time.

That is 508 pieces of litter per 100m of beach.

Around 78% of all this rubbish is plastic, much of which is single use.

Per the report: “This year there is a focus on the emerging issue of microplastics, in particular their origins, impacts and harm to both marine wildlife and ourselves. Annually it has been estimated between 5–13 million tonnes of plastic waste is entering our oceans with approximately 80% of this originating from land-based sources.

“In 2018 there were 359 million tonnes of plastic produced globally (up from 348 million in 2017). In Europe alone in 2018 there was 61.8 million tonnes of plastics produced of which around 9.4 million tonnes were collected for recycling according to Plastics Europe.

“Plastic was designed for its long lasting durability. Although it can breakdown into smaller pieces when exposed to certain conditions in the environment, it never truly degrades completely. Ironically it is this useful quality that poses such a threat to the environment. 

“This year single use plastics were among the most commonly recorded items. On average 20 drinks containers and 27 caps and lids were found per 100 metres surveyed.

“Additionally short pieces of string, cord and rope were found across the beaches with an average of 67 lengths of string (<1cm diameter) and 24 lengths of rope (>1cm diameter) counted per survey. These are most commonly associated with fishing gear.”

Bigger picture

Jamie Miller, Local Environmental Quality Manager for Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful said: “Removing these items from beaches is a small step towards tackling a very large problem in our seas, which we are only just beginning to understand.

“We all have a role to play in tackling this hugely concerning environmental issue and can start by making small positive changes to our behaviours, such as avoiding single use plastic where possible, and always putting our rubbish in a bin.”

Reducing or eliminating use of single-use plastics is a modern policy aim. Keep NI Beautiful has a policy paper that explains the issue succinctly (it’s not straightforward, given how dependent the modern world is on plastics – and how useful and difficult to replaces plastics are).

While Stormont was on hiatus, political moves were being made elsewhere:

Starting next year, the EU is set to ban a range of single-use plastics, including plastic cutlery and plates, cotton buds, straws, drink-stirrers and balloon sticks.

As this comes into force after the end of the transition period, these rules will not apply to the UK. However, England was due to see similar laws come into force in April (this has since been delayed until October), while Wales is also preparing legislation in this area.

It all comes down to a simple question: what sort of place do we want to live in?

Stormont – and the private sector, third sector, indeed everyone who lives here – has plenty to chew on.

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