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Environment

‘I’m concerned for the future’: Beach cleaners on their battle to sort out Britain’s coastline

The Big Issue speaks to Britain’s dedicated beach cleaners about clearing coastlines, sewage, plastic pollution and saving the environment.

When 59-year-old Lianne Havell is carrying out one of her volunteer beach cleans, it’s usually the soiled nappies and used sanitary towels that make her the angriest. This summer, though, there’s a new offender. “The bottles of urine were really horrible,” she says. “We’ve never had that before.”

Havell is the co-founder of Sutton On Sea Beachcare, a group that spends hours each month litter-picking along the Lincolnshire coastline. Every year, they collect around 300 bags of rubbish. This year, they’re at 310 bags already.

Lianne Havell and Sutton On Sea BeachCare have collected 310 bags of rubbish in 2022. Image: provided

“Once everything started opening up [after Covid], it was like people had lost their head. It was like it was suddenly alright to leave stuff everywhere,” Havell says. The string of heatwaves this summer is likely to have played a part in increasing rubbish too, with tens of thousands flocking to Britain’s shores. Alongside nappies and urine-filled bottles, Havell often finds brand new beach blankets and children’s toys, used once by families visiting the seaside and then left behind.

For an increasing number of communities along the coastline, regular beach cleans are becoming part of everyday life. When Havell first started picking up litter alongside her now 20-year-old son, Jordan, in 2016, locals would come up to them and ask what they were doing.

“People would say it was the council’s job,” she says. Now, they phone her to tell her what they’ve collected during their own beach cleans. “It’s rubbed off on people. We’ve had more people actually take part as individuals this year for the first year,” she says. “We feel we’ve made a heck of a difference.”

Abandoned toys are one of the biggest offenders, Lianne Havell says. Image: provided

The need for these groups has become increasingly apparent. Last year, during the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) annual Great British Beach Clean, a staggering 5,065kg of litter was collected by volunteers, across approximately 34 miles of coastland. While this was actually a decrease on the amount recorded in 2019, it’s still an unfathomable amount of unnecessary pollution. Plus, 75 per cent of the litter collected was non-biodegradable plastics.

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It’s not just bottles and crisp packets, either. “We are often absolutely flabbergasted by what we find,” says 60-year-old Norman Warm, who runs BHASSEXPLORE, a project which aims to remove debris from the sea along the East Sussex Coast. “I knew there was a lot of plastic there. I didn’t realise how much.” 

BHASSEXPLORE was started during the first lockdown as “something to do”, and since then, over 200 volunteers have joined in. The group works along the bottom of cliffs from Cuckmere Haven through to Holywell, clearing untamed and often treacherous areas where rubbish has built up over decades. This week, the group hit a milestone: 30 tonnes of rubbish collected.

Norman Warm and his volunteers have bagged 30 tonnes of fishing industry waste. Image: provided

They’ve discovered phones dating back to the Eighties and packaging for brands that no longer exist, while they could practically create a museum from all the shoes they’ve bagged. Given the remote location they scour, the vast majority is fishing industry debris pulled from the sea, like netting and ropes. So many ropes.

Then there’s the common offenders. “At Cuckmere Haven, which is a river estuary, there is a pumping station just up the river, and we find sanitary products, sanctuary towels, the applicators for tampons, no end of cotton bud sticks,” says Warm.

It’s an issue that has captured headlines over the past week, when beaches across the south east, including in East Sussex, were closed after sewage was discharged into the sea. Raw sewage often contains sanitary products, along with wet wipes and everything else that goes down the toilet. Due to poor infrastructure, when the UK faces extreme weather such as heavy rain, water companies dump the sewage into the sea to prevent it backing up into homes and businesses. However, sewage is frequently discharged into the sea during normal conditions, too.

Following last week’s sewage spills, Southern Water, one of the companies responsible, said that while the majority of the matter disposed of via storm releases was rainwater, it was “pioneering a new approach”.

People are told to avoid the sea during sewage dumps, but that doesn’t stop Warm and his team from getting their hands dirty. “We just get stuck in and scoop it all up into bags,” he says. “It’s not pleasant, obviously. But it makes me think — how do they get away with it? How could they legally flush this stuff into our coastlines?”

Around 200 volunteers have joined BHASSEXPLORE since 2020. Image: provided

It’s the “iconic” coastline and the wildlife that exists along it that keeps Warm doing what he’s doing, but he knows he’s got a battle on his hands.

“My motivation is for marine life, birds, wildlife — to clean up those habitats that we share these places with. You see continuously about birds being found with stomachs full of plastic,” he says. “At Cuckmere Haven, we found goose poo and swan poo full of bright coloured plastic. The swans are ingesting it.”

More and more people like Warm are starting to take note of our beaches’ plight. Joseph Hogg, a 20-year-old based in Folkestone, founded Folkestone Cleanup last month, just weeks after his son was born. “I want him to grow up in a place where it feels like people care, and it’s not an absolute tip,” he says.

He was shocked at the state of Folkestone’s beach following the heatwave, watching the embers of disposal barbecues left in bags, melting plastic into the sand. He founded the group by accident, after heading out for an evening walk and coming home four hours later with bags filled with rubbish. “It’s not a very nice place to live when there’s litter all over the floor and all over the beaches.”

Despite taking his own action and planning to expand his group, Hogg isn’t optimistic about the future. As the cost of living crisis bites this winter, he’s worried that people won’t have the capacity to care.

“It’s going to start a negative feedback loop of people going out and stopping caring, because they’ve got no money in their pockets, they’ve got no incentive to look after the environment, and they’ve got no incentive to look after anything,” he says. “I’m not an ecological warrior, but I’m quite concerned for the future. Not just for my son, but the next generation. We’re not leaving a good legacy.”

There are reasons to remain hopeful, though. This September, the MCS’s Great British Beach Clean is back, with 201 events happening nationwide and 1,350 volunteers already signed up — including 300 in the last week alone. Other groups, like Warm’s, have no intention of slowing down.

“We’ve got plans to continue doing extreme coastal clearances, and trying to encourage other people to do the same,” he says. “It’s kept me going for the last three years, kept me out of trouble.

“When you have a group of people and you’ve done all that clearing, at the end of the day, you just sit down and have a cider or something and you just think to yourself: well, that was a good day.”

The Marine Conservation Society beach clean will take place around the country from Friday 16 September to Sunday 25 September.

“The Great British Beach Clean is a great way to get involved, get that litter off the beaches and remove that threat directly, but also to record what you find,” says Lizzie Prior, MCS’s beachwatch programme manager. “You’re involved in something where you are collecting meaningful data that is used to push for change and stop litter getting there in the first place.”

Find a beach clean near you or organise your own.

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