Plastic waste: the last straw?

A visit to the coast is the perfect way to blow away the winter blues, and if you are planning to take in the sea air on a spring coastal walk, you can look forward to plenty of spectacular sights. Increasingly, however, you may also spot things that are neither pleasant nor natural.

Walks in iconic areas such as Old Harry Rocks in Dorset and the Seven Sisters in East Sussex, or perhaps along the Norfolk or Pembrokeshire Coast Paths showcase a wide variety of habitats and wildlife. You’re likely to see nesting birds, spring wildflowers and a host of insects, on which many coastal plants depend for pollination. Some of the most spectacular sights are the seabird colonies that will be reassembling in the coming months. If you encounter a colony, the sounds – and sometimes, the smell – of the birds is a sensory experience that can be overpowering! Be sure to keep your distance so as not to disturb ground or clifftop nests.

As well as providing a spectacle for coastal walkers and birdwatchers, however, the return of these seabirds highlights a problem that has rightly gained significant media attention recently. That problem is plastic pollution, particularly the prevalence of plastics in our seas and on our coastline, as well as inland.

As a result of winter storms, floating plastic flotsam is often washed onto the shoreline. With (it is estimated) a million plastic bottles being sold globally per minute, there is the potential for an awful lot of flotsam to wash up. Of course, it’s not all plastic drinks bottles, and it’s not even plastic that is always visible to the eye. We now know that microscopic plastic fragments are ending up in the food chain. Animals can be confused by plastic rubbish, which they end up eating – a diet that can prove fatal to many species.

Sadly some young birds and mammals encounter plastic from the very start of their lives, as plastic rubbish such as pieces of netting are often utilised in nests. It is little wonder that the young of many species begin to look upon plastic waste as something to eat, given its abundance.

And it’s not just juvenile birds on craggy, rocky nests that are at risk. Gales blowing in off the sea often carry some of this waste into the trees and dunes that line the coast. This isn’t just unsightly; it can also cause problems for wildlife that live in these habitats. When the leaves cover the trees again, this problem isn’t as obvious, but at this time of year, plastic waste caught in vegetation is all too noticeable.

But what can coastal walkers do to turn the tide on the problem of waste plastics, not only on our coastlines, but in the countryside in general? Well, one thing we can all consider doing is to try to pick up the plastic rubbish that we encounter. It’s not always a pleasant chore and not always practicable, but if there is plastic waste close by, and you can remove it safely, why not do so? ‘Every little helps’, as the saying goes. You (and other members of your walking group) might also join an organised litter pick, which combines spending time in the outdoors with meeting like-minded people and making a real difference to the environment. On a single morning in early February, for example, Ramblers group Surrey Young Walkers collected 10 bags of litter from a spot near Walton Bridge. They’re keen to encourage other walking groups to undertake similar litter-picks.


Eildon Ramblers in the Scottish Borders also recently cleared rubbish from a path near Bogleburn, including beer cans, bottles and plastic rubbish:

Of course, it’s not just down to volunteers to address this problem. In the South West, the Environment Agency has pledged £750,000 to set up a Plastics and Sustainability team across Devon and Cornwall. This, combined with the Bude Cleaner Seas Project, “aims to reduce the amount of plastic pollution across land, rivers and the coastline.” And there are other local groups and events around the country too. A key awareness initiative is World Oceans Day on 8 June. Check out the informative website, which provides lots of background on the problem of plastic pollution and the events that are being organised, around the country, on that day.

Spring is a time of renewal, with new life beginning to appear all around us and new opportunities for us to engage with nature and enjoy the environment. As such, maybe it’s time to make a resolution to help combat plastic waste? Why not ditch single-use plastics, like the bottled water that many walkers carry. Add your voice to put pressure on retailers to reduce their use of plastic packaging and, as we’ve all heard, support the campaigns to ban use of plastic drinking straws and cotton buds – both of which are some of the most common forms of beach litter found in surveys by the Marine Conservation Society. 

Magazine of the Ramblers