A story of collaboration, volunteers and beach cleans; a guest blog by Catherine Gemmell, Marine Conservation Society (MCS) Scotland

We are coming to the end of 2018 and across the country the question on everyone’s lips is how to #STOPtheplastictide. This year has been the year of single-use plastic and some big moments for those working on the issue of plastic pollution. So, with the need to respond to the UK Government’s consultation on banning plastic cotton buds, straws and drink stirrers[1] and the publication of The Marine Conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean 2018 survey results[2], we wanted to bring you a story of collaboration, volunteers and beach cleans.  MCS Scotland Conservation Officer, Catherine Gemmell explains the importance of the data gathered and how it has influenced projects, people and Government resulting in some important change. 

The Marine Conservation Society works on three main areas across the UK including Ocean Recovery, Sustainable Sea Food and Clean Seas and Beaches by working with governments, public and statutory bodies, industry and business and last, but certainly not least, through a fantastic network of volunteers and organisations. One of these organisations is Fidra with whom we have formed a brilliant working partnership over the years. 

25 years of beach cleans

This year we hit a milestone at MCS in completing the 25th year of our citizen science project Beachwatch with the flagship Great British Beach Clean event in September.  The project involves hundreds of volunteers all over Scotland (including the awesome Fidra team!) and the rest of the UK adopting a 100m stretch of beach to not only clean but also survey the amount and type of litter washing up. One of the items that is recorded by volunteers caught the attention of Fidra and helped start a project to rid them from our seas: plastic stemmed cotton buds. 

Beach cleans remove rubbish and adds evidence Cath Gem 2

As Scotland Conservation Officer in MCS, I have worked on promoting our amazing Beachwatch project by engaging with amazing organisations like Fidra, the public, communities and schools across Scotland to help gather as much data from our beaches as possible. The data we collect is crucial not only to MCS marine litter campaign and policy work but also to organisations like Fidra with whom we share the data. Together we use it to identify trends in litter over the years and present it as evidence to governments and industry for policy changes to stop these items getting into our seas and onto our beaches in the first place.  

Such evidence helped secure the 5p carrier bag charges across the UK which has seen a nearly 50% drop in the amount of carrier bags our volunteers are picking up on beaches since the first charge was implemented. More recently in Scotland we used our data to support the 'Have You Got The Bottle?' Campaign. Volunteers had recorded a rise in plastic drinks bottles and cans on the beach during their surveys. So, alongside Fidra and other partners, we asked the Scottish Government to implement a deposit return system for these items as a matter of priority. This means a small value is added to plastic, glass or metal drinks bottles and cans, which can be redeemed when you return it. We were therefore delighted when, in September last year, the Scottish Government committed to implementing a deposit return system and followed up with a public consultation on its design earlier this year; we responded and hope it will be a world leading system that includes all sizes of plastic, glass and metal drinks containers.

Volunteers’ data demonstrate scale of cotton bud pollution

In January 2018, GBBC data proved useful once again and the Scottish Government announced the proposal to ban plastic stemmed cotton buds. This time, Fidra used our Beachwatch data on cotton buds to support the case for a ban on plastic being used as the material for these single-use plastic items. Using the Beachwatch data collected by volunteers across the UK Fidra’s Cotton Bud Project engaged with major cotton bud retailers and manufacturers. By showing industry the widespread issue and providing clear science based supporting evidence for the negative impacts marine plastic pollution has on our environment and wildlife, they were able to persuade industry to change from plastic to paper[3] – a key element helping Scottish Government make this announcement.

 The power of partnership

It has been incredible to work with Fidra on their brilliant Cotton Bud Project and it highlights the power of partnership working. However, we would not have had the evidence we needed to make these policy changes happen without the support of our fantastic volunteers over the past 25 years. 

Both MCS and Fidra recognise that it’s the actions and inspiration from our volunteers around the entire country which truly influences the changes that our seas need. So, whether you can join a beach clean to collect vital data, reduce the amount of single use plastic you use or ask your politicians or businesses to act, together we can stop the plastic tide.

The UK Government’s consultation on banning the sale and distribution on single-use plastic items closes on 3rd December 2018. Please respond at https://consult.defra.gov.uk/waste-and-recycling/plastic-straws-stirrers-and-buds/ (closes 03/12)


[1] https://consult.defra.gov.uk/waste-and-recycling/plastic-straws-stirrers-and-buds/

[2] https://www.mcsuk.org/clean-seas/great-british-beach-clean-2018-report

[3] https://www.cottonbudproject.org.uk/news/item/23-best-buddies-help-marine-life.html

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