We’ve all seen the courageous individuals, selflessly dedicating their time to trawling coastal paths picking up after those who see the floor as the final resting place of used packaging, and the escapees of the waste collection system. Huge community drives to clean up their share of the shoreline in order to protect marine life from plastic invaders threatening to take up more space than fish, and humans from the repulsive eyesore that is the accumulation of our wasteful lifestyles.
Plastic bags, bottles, cigarette stubs and lighters, toothbrushes, six-pack rings, beach buckets and spades, polystyrene cups, abandoned fishing line and nets, broken up plastic waste from cruise liners, and the infamous plastic straws are among the flotsam and jetsam that now plague our oceans and beachfronts. Images of marine animals caught up in plastic traps of our making; a turtle with a straw through it’s nose, an albatross with the contents of its stomach spilled out – a horrific collection of bottle caps and plastic cups, have all become part of the drive for these beach cleans.
These people are the land bound angels that saintly anecdotes profess of; those who take the responsibility upon themselves to clean up after the careless nature of their own species. They have spawned in massive groups, charity campaigns and weekly meet ups that spend back-breaking hours collecting swathes human-made detritus. But like the unsung heroes that collect a similar form of debris from our hedgerows, pavements, and fields, does this really make a difference?
While alleviating some form of personal guilt for our kind, and recovering an eyesore into the uncontaminated natural space it should be, removing our detritus from natures bounty will not stop it arriving the next day. In one day of beach cleans across the world in 2014, volunteers for the International Coastal Cleanup collected over 5000 tonnes of waste from shorelines across the world, with more than two million cigarette ends and hundreds of thousands of plastic wrappers, bottles and bags. But with a yearly influx of plastic waste at 8 millions tonnes, 1600 global beach cleans would have to be conducted a year just to keep on top of our wastage, equivalent to 4 a day across the world.
While beach cleans are a wonderful way to bring together a community for the good of the local area, they will not bring about the level of removal or change needed to mitigate the risk from waste pollution. Rather than cleaning up after the fact, marine pollution from our lifestyles should not be able to occur. Perhaps these reactionary groups would fair better in their goal of cleaner shorelines if they spent their time lobbying government to implement stricter regulations against waste, or volunteered to help innovating companies find funding for waste removal systems from within the ocean.
The individuals and groups that dedicate their time to undoing the wrongs that their neighbours have committed are incredibly self-sacrificing and deserve more credit than they are afforded. But perhaps if their time was spent solving the cause, they wouldn’t have to clean up the problem.