Do Beach Cleanups Actually Help?

Littering at beaches is a big no-no, but we can’t ignore how much garbage still accumulates on beaches, whether sandy, rocky, or a mix of the two.

Beach cleanups tackle this garbage and try to clear beaches of any waste, whether it’s been left by tourists, locals, or illegal dumpers. It’s hard to see the impact of this work when garbage is continually replenished or added to our coastal areas.

Beach cleanups really do help remove waste from beaches and prevent that waste from being washed out to sea. Every year, millions of waste – plastic or not – is removed by beach cleanups and properly disposed of. Without beach cleanups, more microplastics would enter our oceans and harm marine ecosystems.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to measure how much beach cleanups actually help, but we do know that without volunteers across the world litter-picking our beaches would be completely covered in garbage.

Do beach cleanups make a difference?

Beach cleanups make a difference to marine life and ecosystems, even if we might not be able to see the difference ourselves.

By mitigating the amount of plastic or litter, beach cleanups spread awareness of the problem and reduce water pollution in coastal areas. This has a massive effect on the cleanliness of beaches, awareness of littering, and the health of ecosystems like reefs.

Why do we need beach cleanups?

We need beach cleanups to help remove littered waste and reduce environmental harm to coastal areas. Simply clearing beaches of plastics helps protect local wildlife.

While most people see the beach as a getaway or summer vacation spot, beaches are overlooked for their role in the fight against climate change. Beaches are a buffer against high winds rolling over the water, waves from powerful storms, and the threat of coastal erosion.

As a major marine habitat, beaches are also a permanent home for numerous plants both underwater and near water, as well as the animals, fish, and other life that sustain themselves using the beach ecosystem. Most of the life dependent on beaches isn’t visible to the human eye, but their role includes seawater filtration and nutrient recycling.

Beaches are often used to nest and nurse young. This makes them an essential area for starting and sustaining life. Without beaches, many species – including turtles and birds – wouldn’t have a safe place to nest, and predator species would be affected by the loss of feeding grounds.

There are six types of beach pollution and beach cleanups can help with two of them:

  • Plastics pollution
  • Litter pollution

Not all types of beach pollution can be handled just by cleaning up with volunteers, but beach cleanups can help recognize, cordon off, reduce, and alert authorities to other forms of pollution.

Beach cleanup volunteers can alert authorities to sewage pollution and oil spills simply by spotting the signs of waste. While there are many groups and organizations who also monitor for these, the more eyes the better.

Algae pollution might not necessarily be a bad thing for ecosystems, but it can be an identifier for underlying issues. A study on the occurrence of algae on the Sopot Beach in the Baltic Sea found that algae accumulation can be linked to cyanobacteria, high solar radiation, and high-strength winds.

Cyanobacteria are blue-green algae that can be toxic to humans and animals. Fertilizer runoff and septic tank overflows can cause blue-green algae to grow very quickly in man-made blooms, which could disrupt ecosystems by introducing synthetic chemicals.

While algae pollution isn’t a priority for beach cleanups, plastic pollution could affect cyanobacteria levels. More importantly, plastic pollution is directly tied to environmental harm, whether it’s the plastic we can see and pick up or the microplastics entering the water.

Beach cleanups are essential for supporting efforts to protect and sustain coastal areas.

Why are beach cleanups important?

Beach cleanups are important in preventing plastic waste from polluting the oceans. It’s just one area where plastic waste can enter the water and be dragged out to deep water where it sinks and collects in marine environments.

Over 80% of annual plastic pollution in marine environments can be sourced back to land. The biggest contributor of plastic pollution is large plastic litter like drinks bottles and plastic bags. The remaining 20% of annual plastic pollution can be attributed to sources like fishing activities.

Of all the plastic entering the ocean, 94% sinks to the sea floor, joining around 70kg of plastic per square kilometer of sea bed.

By preventing even 50% of those land-based sources by cleaning up beaches, we can stop more plastic settling on sea beds and reduce the harm done to important ecosystems that rely on sea beds.

We can also reduce the amount of microplastics collected in the oceans, which reduces the amount of microplastics cycled back into our water systems. Microplastics – especially nanoplastics – can’t be filtered out of all water sources, so stopping plastic from breaking down in our oceans is essential to our own health.

According to a 2014 study, European consumers of mollusks – including mussels and oysters – could be exposed to up to 11,000 microplastics each year. The more we clean up our beaches, the fewer microplastics we’ll be exposed to.

While not all parts of fish are eaten, which reduces how many microplastics are consumed, shellfish are often eaten whole, including stomachs and guts where microplastics have been detected.

What are the benefits of cleanup?

The benefits of beach cleanups include:

  • Reducing plastic pollution
  • Protecting marine ecosystems, wildlife, and plants
  • Preventing toxic chemicals from contaminating water
  • Creating safer environments
  • Properly disposing of waste
  • Protecting future generations

Are beach cleanups effective at tackling the growing problem of plastic pollution in our oceans?

Beach cleanups are effective at tackling plastic pollution by preventing Measuring the total impact of beach cleanups on plastic pollution is almost impossible when we’re still learning more about the pollution itself.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, international coastal cleanup efforts in 2020 involved 221,589 people who removed over 8 million items from beaches and waterways. 964,521 items were cigarettes, with 627,014 plastic bottles coming second in the top ten items recorded.

Just two cigarette butts littering waterways can be responsible for contaminating water enough to kill off algae and poison other organisms.

The Ocean Conservancy’s annual September cleanups show us how much waste is generated on beaches and allow us to effectively tackle plastic pollution. The type of waste found is also indicative of the problem – tires and large items are more likely to be done by illegal dumpers, while cigarette butts and bottle caps are littered by masses of people.

How does plastic affect beaches?

Plastic affects beaches in multiple ways – it can trap and choke wildlife, harm beach-goers and surfers, ruin the attraction of the beach and thus lower tourism, and even raise temperatures.

A study in 2021 found that piled up plastic can create an insulation layer that increases the temperature, making the beach less ideal as a habitat. This can impact wildlife on the beach and marine life, especially animals like crabs and sea turtles that rely on optimal temperatures.

As ectotherms, these creatures rely on outside temperature to regulate their body heat. Warmer temperatures are linked to an increase in female offspring in sea turtles, so prolonged warm temperatures could dramatically affect populations.

How can coastal cleanliness be improved?

Beach cleanups should really be one of the last defenses against ocean pollution. Heal the Bay in California has multiple programs to take part in to promote beach cleanups and educate people on how best to make an impact.

The more people that get involved in organized coastal cleanups, the more plastic and rubbish can be removed from the beach. You can even start up your own cleanup initiatives in your local area by organizing local volunteers and encouraging people to get involved.

Contacting your local government to provide more bins and protect the coast is essential for making sure representatives know what matters to you most. While reducing waste is essential, there’s always going to be a need for throwing away litter.

Make sure to sign and share petitions from organizations like Greenpeace to tackle plastic pollution. More signatures equal more support, and support is vital for raising awareness and bringing issues to government.

Do your part by ensuring you don’t leave any waste behind when you visit the beach or coast too. If you participate in any cleanup schemes or have litter-picking gear available, why not consider taking it with you on coastal trips and doing a little to help while you’re out?

Why should you not leave rubbish at the beach?

Leaving behind rubbish at beaches and coastal areas directly harms the local and migrating wildlife.

Plastic can get lodged in the throats of birds and mammals on the ground, causing them to choke or suffer for the rest of their lives.

Anyone walking on a beach could be harmed by stepping on sharp objects, including glass and plastic.

Cigarette butts and other sources of toxic chemicals can contaminate water and potentially spread carcinogens to swimmers and marine life. Of 6 trillion cigarettes smoked worldwide each year, around 4.5 trillion cigarettes litter the environment.

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