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The Gap Year Blog

Why beach clean-ups make a difference

9 May 2019 11:40 AM

Photo Credit: Flickr | Union Europea en Peru 

Edited with Permission by Frontier

This beach could be a paradise. In Indonesia one white sandy beach lines up to the net one as far as your eyes can see. You can just barely see any sand. It is buried under piles of trash – food wrappings, plastic bags, discarded clothes, cans and bottles and unloved toys. All around the globe people get together in organized beach cleanups to get rid of the unwanted pollution. 

The crucial question is: Do beach cleanups really make any difference? It does but sadly not in the way we wish it would.  

Beach clean-ups do not make a huge physical difference to the overall health of the ecosystem. A study in Cyprus revealed that beach clean-ups only have a limited effect because people often miss small things like cigarette butts and small plastics. Collecting trash from the beaches and the marine debris can save a handful animals for the day. But the sick reality is that when you return to the beach a week or a month later, there will be peppered with rubbish again. The only clean beaches you will find in Indonesia, will be around the tourist resorts because there people are paid to actively clean them. 

The problem of plastic pollution is rooted much deeper. It is not solved by just tiding up the visible plastic debris. It would be as if you try to fix a leaking shower head by scooping out the water in your shower with a spoon. It will just become more and more and overflow you, once you stop scooping.  You must replace the leaking shower head or fix a leak in the tube to stop the water from running.  It is the same with plastic pollution, we must change our waste management systems, overconsumption, way of thinking and overreliance on plastic.  

An estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year. Some calculations even predict that there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish by 2050.

So, why do people then organize, volunteer and get together for beach cleanups? 

Because even for that day they might not make a huge difference to the health of the beach, they make a visual mental difference and a change in spirit. It allows us to show the world what pollutes our beaches and that we do not just stand back and watch. We act and we are furious. 

By showing people the effects of their actions, beach cleanups can inspire them to change their habits or their overall behavior.  Many communities or NGOs use that opportunity to raise awareness of the trash problem on social media which again is often dismissed as ‘greenwashing’ campaigns by cynical people. Although social media is one of the best ways in our modern society to spread the message and to reach as many people as possible. 

Photo Credit: Frontier

Beach clean-ups raise public awareness to the threat of (plastic) debris more effectively than mere educational programs that are less participatory. Volunteers say that clean-ups make them more mindful of their own behaviour. 

They also add knowledge to the slowly growing research into plastic pollution – where and how plastic travels the oceans and where they end up. That again helps to understand the complexity of the problems and to identify ways to tackle it.  

Greenpeace and Break Free From Plastic, for example, have begun to catalogue the trash gathered by beach clean-ups by brand names. Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle were the top three offenders – all big, multinational companies.  

To sum it up: Beach clean-ups may not solve the problem plastic pollution as such, but it reliefs the situation and is the right thing to do. The picked-up debris will not further break down into microplastics that can be washed into the sea. It will not be consumed by animals or poison the marine life. Each volunteers’s contribution, however small it is, helps towards achieving a bigger overall goal and a greater change for good.

By Desiree Schneider - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservationcommunityteaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!