New marine litter report reveals extent of plastic pollution on our beaches

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A dead leatherback turtle that washed ashore at Portaferry in 2008, which was found to have a plastic bag and length of fishing line in its stomach. Credit: DAERA Marine & Fisheries

The 2017 Marine Litter Report, published today by Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, has laid bare the state of our beaches in Northern Ireland when it comes to the litter landing on our shores.

The organisation began these surveys in 2012, with an average of 510 items of litter being found per 100m of beach between then and now. An astonishing 79% of this litter was made of plastic, a figure that rises to 82% when you look at the 2017 data in isolation. Incredibly, 30% of the litter was a ‘single use plastic’, so called because the item is used once and then thrown away.

Much has been made of the plastic problem in the media recently, with shows like ‘Blue Planet II’ and the ‘Sky Ocean Rescue’ campaign shining the spotlight on what is a global issue and requires a global response. The Marine Litter Report also lends some insight into the matter, looking at the specific harm that plastic poses to some of our most beloved and protected marine animals. From leatherback turtles to the iconic Atlantic puffin, it seems that no creature is immune from the ubiquitous material and it is estimated that up to 99% of all seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050 if no fundamental changes to plastic and waste consumption occurs. Furthermore, tiny fragments of plastic known as ‘microplastics’ have been found in 83% of tap water samples taken all around the world. This, combined with the plastics being found in our seafood, is a clear pathway for entry into the human body.

A Cuvier’s beaked whale found stranded on the Isle of Skye with over four kilograms of plastic bags in its stomach. Credit: Scottish Marine Animals Stranding Scheme

Dr Ian Humphries from Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful thinks the tide is starting to turn on marine litter, saying, “The damaging effects of littering, particularly of single use plastics that end up polluting our oceans, is clearly highlighted in this year’s report, which shows four items of litter for every step that we take along our coast. Thankfully, most people don’t litter, and growing awareness and calls for action spell the beginning of the end for this highly anti-social behaviour.”

The report also highlights the fantastic work being done by groups of volunteers from a range of different organisations. Over the course of 1,345 hours, 461 volunteers lifted 850 bags of rubbish across the ten beaches surveyed. This is just one form of environmental leadership outlined in the publication, which also draws attention to Ards and North Down Borough Council, who recently passed a motion to promote eco-friendly alternatives to single use plastics such as coffee cups and plastic straws. Schools have also been getting involved, with Mill Strand Integrated Primary School banning all plastic straws after one of their pupils saw a disturbing image of a turtle with a straw up its nose on social media.

The full report can now be downloaded from the Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful website.

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