UK beach clean: disco ball and pink pants among oddest items found

By Rebecca Smithers

A full-size disco ball, a plastic Christmas tree and a double mattress were among the more unusual objects found by volunteers cleaning up the UK’s beaches this autumn.

The most common polluting items retrieved in the Marine Conservation Society’s annual clean of coastal areas were pieces of plastic or polystyrene, plastic takeaway cup lids and wet wipes.

Crisp packets – some of the most commonly littered objects – can remain in the environment for decades, as proven by the presence of a 20-year-old, largely intact example picked up by one volunteer. A fridge door was also retrieved, as were a wig and a single wedding shoe, as well as a pair of pink underwear, gathered on the beach at Chichester by the astronaut Tim Peake.

Pink underwear found by Tim Peake during a Marine Conservation Society litter pick in September
Pink underwear found by Tim Peake during a Marine Conservation Society litter pick in September. Photograph: Tim Peake/PA

The Marine Conservation Society’s year-round Beachwatch programme is supported by financial contributions from the People’s Postcode Lottery . Its dedicated volunteers clear litter from the UK’s coast and analyse what they find.

Despite the challenges posed by coronavirus restrictions, volunteers carried out beach cleans in 385 coastal areas in September, covering 43,958 metres (145,000 feet) of beach. This year, personal protective equipment featured heavily on the beaches surveyed, with discarded masks and gloves washed up on about 30% of all UK beaches.

Huge volumes of masks and gloves were also found by volunteers in 69% of inland litter picks. Disposable masks shed microplastics that can be ingested by marine life, while sea birds can become entangled in the straps.

Data gathered during previous beach cleans played a key role in the introduction of a 5p single-use carrier bag charge, a ban on microbeads in personal cleaning products such as shower gels and toothpastes, a commitment to a deposit return scheme in Scotland and a consultation on one in England and Wales, and a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds in England.

This year litter from drinks continued to spill on to UK beaches, with an average of 30 drinks containers, caps and lids found for every 100 metres of beach surveyed. Inland, 99% of litter picks found such items.