Earlier this month, over 3,000 volunteers participated in Surfers Against Sewage’s Autumn Beach Clean at various locations throughout the UK. Over the course of a weekend, they removed nearly 2,000 bags of litter, totalling some 10 tonnes of marine plastics, which are no longer threatening the environment.

Surfers against Sewage (not just surfers, not just sewage) arranges beach cleans across the UK; its members work tirelessly all year round reporting on and campaigning for water quality, pollution control and endangered marine life.

During the recent beach clean up in St Andrews, 45 people turned up to participate in a beach clean organized by two local surfers, Steve and Saana Balfour. Together, they removed 60 bags of rubbish and 80 metres of fishing rope, plus creels, bits of fishing buoys, and nets. The Fife Coastal and Countryside Trust also contributed, providing trucks to haul away the collected litter as well as teams of litter pickers who had donated their free time to help.

The beauty of organized beach cleans like this one is in the collaboration. It is much more motivating to pick up litter in the company of others. And with the help of organizations like Surfers Against Sewage and the Fife Coastal and Countryside Trust, the day is much more likely to go smoothly and (almost) effortlessly for those volunteering.

However, although this was a very positive experience with fun moments amidst the pick-up, there is still sad news to report. The previous weekend, a student group had run a clean up at West Sands, and by the time we arrived just a week later, there was a fresh crop of litter to be collected.

Very few people will consider removing other people’s little from the beach in an act of goodwill, though they are much more likely to do so if trash appears in their own gardens. Additionally, a shocking number of people are very casual about littering themselves, despite the consequences of such careless behavior being widely known.

Cigarette butts can kill marine mammals if ingested. Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and then die after trying to eat them. Beer cans trap sea animals and also pose a threat the people and dogs on the beach, who may cut their feet on their sharp edges.

Furthermore, plastic degrading in the sea causes toxicity. According to National Geographic, the decomposition of polystyrene, a type of plastic most often found in the water in its foam form, has led to the lowering of water temperatures. Bisphenol A, a chemical used in plastic water bottles and aluminum can linings, interferes with certain sea animals’ reproductive systems. And styrene, a monomer found in synthetic rubber, is a suspected carcinogen.

Helium balloons, which look so great when launched at parties, are often found around the St Andrews beaches, strings tangled in seaweed and deflated plastic drifting towards the sea. It’s a real shame that many people still fail to recognize the ecological consequences of their behavior. And it falls on each of us to help keep the shores tidy. While around 20 per cent of litter originates off shore, most of the rubbish on the beaches is blown there from surrounding areas or is the product of intentional garbage dumping, which is certainly distressing.

In addition to threatening the water quality and to endangering the lives of sea animals, all this litter is also depleting fish stocks. The entire fishing industry is thus being negatively affected, and people’s livelihoods are being put at risk.

I believe that everyone needs to consider what he or she can do to help alleviate this crisis. Every little bit helps. When I start feeling despondent that my efforts might amount to just a drop in the ocean, to use a fitting metaphor, I like to remember the fable of the man who went up and down the beach, rescuing beached crabs by returning them – one by one – to the water. When he was asked why he would bother with this task when he certainly could never save all of them, he said he was doing it for the crabs he could save, who would surely benefit.

Every piece of litter removed from the beach may mean one more creature is saved from a premature death and is the equivalent of one more step taken towards diminishing the toxicity of our seas. This, I believe, makes all the hard work well worth it.

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