The numbers of wet wipes found on UK beaches increased by over 50% last year, reports the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). The amount of rubbish littering our beaches also rose by 6.4% between 2013 and 2014.
Last September over 5,000 volunteers took part in the Great British Beach Clean of more than 300 beaches. 2,457 bits of litter were collected for every kilometre cleaned and surveyed in 2014 compared with 2,309 in 2013.
The MCS says that its annual beach litter report has shown a rising trend in rubbish on UK shores over 20 years. It puts the rise in wet wipes down to more people using them to remove make-up, replace traditional toilet paper and apply fake tan. Thirty-five wet wipes were found for every kilometre of beach surveyed.
Wet wipes are often sold as ‘flushable’, but our sewerage systems are not designed to cope with them. Says Charlotte Coombes, MCS beachwatch officer: “When flushed they don’t disintegrate like toilet paper, and they typically contain plastic so once they reach the sea, they last for a very long time.”
The problem has already been highlighted by a number of UK water companies. Wet wipes and other non-flushable items combine with cooking oil to create ‘fatbergs’, huge accumulations of solidified fat that block sewer pipes. Earlier this year Southern Water revealed more than 2,000 tons of wet wipes were playing havoc with sewers in Kent. And in Denver, Colorado, fatbergs have blocked thousands of miles of pipework under the streets.
The government asserts that no new action is needed on marine litter and claims it’s doing all it can. But the MCS says a national marine litter action plan is needed to address the key sources of marine litter: public, fishing, shipping and sewage related debris (which includes wet wipes). The charity is calling for a nationwide deposit scheme for plastic drinks bottles and aluminium cans and better disposal and recycling facilities for fishermen.
Litter on beaches in the south west saw a rise of 89% in 2014, and rubbish on Welsh beaches rose by 46%. But it was a cleaner picture in the north of England, where litter levels dropped on both the east and west coasts. Less rubbish was also found on beaches in Scotland than in the 2013 survey.
Bits of plastic were once again the most frequently found litter on UK beaches. Says Charlotte Coombes: “Mostly these can’t be identified so will almost certainly have been in the marine environment for years, starting off as something much bigger and then slowly breaking down – the problem is they will never disappear completely and research is underway to look at the impact these microplastics could be having on the food chain.”
Get involved at www.mcsuk.org