PPE litter washing up on British beaches due to coronavirus pandemic

A concerning amount of PPE litter was found during this year’s Great British Beach Clean.

Face masks are increasingly being washed up on British beaches.

The damaging effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic to us as individuals, to society and the economy are well known, but its impact on the environment is only just starting to be understood.

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During this year’s Great British Beach Clean, run by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), volunteers were asked to record any face masks and gloves they found for the first time.

Volunteers found PPE items on almost 30% of beaches during the week-long event, which took place from 18th to 25th September.

“The amount of PPE our volunteers found on beaches and inland this year is certainly of concern,” says Lizzie Prior, Great British Beach Clean Coordinator at MCS.

“Considering mask wearing was only made mandatory in shops in England in late July, little more than three months before the Great British Beach Clean, the sharp increase in PPE litter should be a word of warning for what could be a new form of litter polluting our beaches in the future.”  

Now in its 26th year, the Marine Conservation Society’s (MCS) Great British Beach Clean helps to tackle ocean pollution, collecting crucial data that provides an insight into the most common forms of litter on UK shores. With the help of their volunteers, MCS’s beach cleans have helped to bring about the plastic bag charge, and the banning of microplastics in personal care products.

Top 5 most common litter items on UK beaches 2020 (average per 100m of beach surveyed):

  1. Plastic and polystyrene pieces (0-50cm) – 167.2
  2. Plastic and polystyrene caps and lids – 19.7
  3. Wet wipes – 17.7
  4. Cigarette stubs – 16.2
  5. Plastic string – 15.8

This year, volunteers’ data on PPE are supported by data collected inland by volunteers working on MCS’s Source to Sea Litter Quest, which revealed that PPE was found on more than 69% of litter picks away from the seashore.

As around 80% of the litter found on beaches in the UK comes from inlands areas, such as towns, parks, and rivers, the Source to Sea Litter Quest asks volunteers to collect litter from their local areas to prevent it entering the sea, and to add to the body of data on litter that is creating an environmental hazard.

Along with other single-use items, disposable face masks and gloves can pose a threat to wildlife both on land and at sea.

Seabirds have recently been pictured with their feet tangled in the elastic straps of face masks, and masks and gloves that end up in the sea could be mistaken for prey by marine animals, which could be fatal if ingested.

MCS volunteers kept a safe distance from one another during the beach clean, in line with Government guidelines.
MCS volunteers kept a safe distance from one another during the beach clean, in line with Government guidelines. © MCS

Although PPE litter is on the rise, the beach clean revealed that drinks litter was the most commonly found rubbish item on UK beaches.

An average of 30 drinks containers, caps, and lids were found per 100m of beach surveyed during the most recent clean.

Inland, a staggering 99% of litter picks recovered drinks litter.

Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at MCS argues that this data shows that Wales, England and Northern Ireland should act with urgency in introducing an all-inclusive Deposit Return Scheme, as has already happened in Scotland. 

“Despite lockdown, with many of us spending more time at home, littering in public spaces has continued unabated,” says Dr Foster.

“Almost every single local litter pick found at least one drinks container, which is incredibly concerning. An effective Deposit Return Scheme would take the UK one step closer to a circular economy model and drastically reduce the volume of single-use pollution in the UK’s streets, parks and on our beaches.”   


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Main image credit: MCS