Diary of a Litter Picker: Sea plastic and pick it up

A sample of sea plastic washed up on Solent shores, 2021

Plastic straws and cotton bud stalks, along with plastic tampon applicators and shot gun cartridges, have become a sad portrait of society: what the sea sees of us. Why do we come across so many short pieces of PVC rope and fishing net?

‘Sea kisses’ found washed up on the Solent 2021

I am told these ‘sea kisses’ are the result of trawlers shredding torn nets at sea and dumping this ‘waste’ overboard as it is cheaper and more convenient than bringing it ashore to be buried.

Will this ultimately poison fish and make them inedible?

All these micro-plastics have washed up on the shores of the New Forest National Park. I’ve been trying to make ‘beautiful pictures of horrible things’, as the broadcaster JJ Walsh describes my photographs and framed collages.

Cotton bud stalks indicate sewage is entering the Solent

Any throw-away plastic rings should be regarded as ‘wildlife crime’ – they strangle too many birds.

Do you know how much lead there is in a tennis ball? Despite the fact they they are not recommended as toys for dogs, huge numbers are washed up on our beaches. I find them all the time.

Tennis balls found on Solent beaches, 2021

One of my biggest hates are the plastic things used to sell six-pack drink cans as they easily get stuck around creatures’ necks. This four-pack plastic was washed up near a seabird breeding colony. I won’t even re-cycle one without cutting it apart.

Washed up near a major seabird breeding colony

The ear-loops on masks also need to be cut, along with PPE gloves. They are washed up on the shore every day.

PPE washing up on Solent shores daily

And there are always gloves –

The blob of blueish plastic in the palm of the large glove has already travelled through the digestive system of an animal.

Children tend to be good at finding micro-plastics on beaches once they catch the vision. We have begun classifying them by colour or type. This black party-popper was a favourite.

I’m assured that some councils need to check beaches for ‘sharps’ before volunteer litter-pickers are allowed to begin collecting in earnest. Can you spot the needle and syringe here?

Collecting all these tiny pieces takes time and one has to watch out for hazards – but if it is not collected children will no longer be able to play on our beaches. Some parts of the coast have so much broken glass that you can’t pick it up with a dog in tow. It remains sharp for decades where there is no wave action.

Broken glass collected on a beach where children play barefoot.

The Marine Conservation Society likes to classify sea plastic into Litter, Fishing by-products, and sewage-related finds such as cotton-bud stalks and plastic tampon applicators.

We counted 21 cotton-bud stalks collected with this haul

After collecting flotsam, it takes a different mind-set to do the sorting, but it’s important to analyse and report back on what the tide is bringing in.

Sea plastic littering the New Forest National Park

I began to collect fishing tackle in a crate that was washed up on the Solent. Let me know, in the comments below, if you ever need some of this for a talk on conservation or plastic pollution. I’m giving it away freely.

For a list of weird and elderly things found washed up on the Solent, please click here

Plastic detritus washed up on Solent shores where wild geese and New Forest ponies graze

Diary of a Litter Picker: We Will Fight on The Beaches

We are an island nation. Our coastline is precious. It speaks to us of freedom, holidays and relaxation. Those who live near beaches are well aware that they attract visitors who boost the local economy, and yet our shoreline is often covered in rubbish.

I find hundreds of small pieces of fishing net, plastic wrappers and cellophane, washed up on the Solent, along with glass bottles and rope. It’s been going on for years, threatening the environment and wildlife, if not our sanity.

This is historic litter found lodged in bushes along the Solent shore. Much of this is more than ten years old.

After a while it melds with the landscape, remaining a risk to animals. Below, you can see what is typically brought in on the tide.

There is often the remains of one shoe. Have we come to accept the phenomenon of an errant flip-flop? The lettering on this one amused me.

We have begun to accept society’s cast-offs, but why so many plastic pegs?

Metal fish, their hooks elsewhere.

There is often a lot of blue. Perhaps it’s the recent prevalence of masks.

This mask was worn over the eyes, rather than mouth, but she’s wearing protective gloves.

This is a battle we all need to fight. The bottom line is that we can’t even use beaches if there is too much broken glass.

Be a litter hero and turn the tide on plastic pollution. Day by day, we’ll get there.

My helpers on a Solent litter-pick

To see a collection of the weirdest this found on a Solent beach clean, please click here.

The charity Keep Britain Tidy is asking everyone to join their million mile litter picking mission #GBSpringclean – Please click here for details

Diary of a litter picker on Solent shores where I’m told, ‘There is no rubbish.’

‘I didn’t see any rubbish on the beach,’ I was told by a walker as I extracted plastic bottles and tins from the ditch leading down to it. I was glad. I’d cleaned it just before New Year.

Once by the sea I found a Christmas tree and collected half a bucketful of small pieces of PVC rope and elderly plastic that had been washed up on the shore.

Since this is an isolated beach, it shows how much plastic is floating around the Solent. Someone might like their plumb line returned.

While a few things are clearly dropped by mistake,

the amount of litter and ageing plastic on public beaches remains unacceptable. I cannot walk by without collecting it.

It takes a good hour to fill each of these buckets, which contain bags of dog poo and dangerous broken glass. They can end up weighing 4Kgs each.

What are helium balloons doing to the environment? I find one a day.

‘There’s no rubbish on the beach,’ I’m assured by walkers, the next week. I agree that it looks okay. It should be fine. I’ve cleared it a hundred times.

But, almost immediately, I find bottle ring and other items dangerous to wildlife. Then I come across fishing line, the fish hooks bound up in weed.

By the time I reach the end of the beach, I have filled my bucket, finding evidence of nitrous oxide canisters chucked into fires. The ghost rope alone could have caused havoc to shipping.

About this much plastic and glass washes up on a half-mile stretch of the Solent every twenty-four hours. It is not always easy to see it, but it’s there.

‘There is no litter,’ I’m told on approaching the foreshore with my dog-walking neighbour. We keep looking anyway. My friend spots this:

Before long, I had a filled my bucket. Again. Perhaps it’s only when you begin litter picking yourself that you appreciate how bad the problem is. Do join us!

And yet, we didn’t retrieve everything. Can you see what I see?

To see more photos of the odd things we find, please click here

Diary of a litter picker: what I take to collect marine rubbish from Solent shores

Rubbish - Beach clean 13th May

I found this heavy duty bucket, a pink feed bucket and an orange one, washed up on the Solent shore where I’ve been collecting #plasticpollution over the years. They are not that big but, since it is important to collect small pieces of plastic, each one often holds 250 pieces of marine rubbish by the time I head home. Two of these prove all I can carry when full, especially if I come across glass.

My aim is to collect litter every day rather than exhaust myself by doing too much at one time. I find buckets better than bags that blow about in the wind. I can collect broken glass, setting the bucket down to reach difficult pieces. A larger pannier with flip-up lids, might be good for windy beach-cleans but I use these feed buckets gifted to me by the sea. They make picking up bags of other people’s dog poo bearable.

Rubbish - white pony with litter

I usually put on Wellington boots, an old jacket with pockets for things I might keep and wear a hat suitable for getting under bushes. I take a mobile phone in case I get stuck in the mud or need help. This is used to photograph and record my findings. That’s it. The rubbish has been washed clean by the sea, so I only wear gloves when it’s cold.

Having said this, I am very careful how I pick up harmful waste. Batteries and old flares can leak caustic chemicals.

I find odd things that have grown into the landscape and require tools before they can be extracted. I needed to take a pair of secuteers to cut a polystyrene tray out of a black thorn bush on the coast. The vegetation had grown around it.

Rubbish - polysterene

At times, I find so much rubbish that my pink bucket is often not large enough but I can’t carry more back from remote areas. I return for glass bottles. They don’t blow away.

Rubbish - organge bucket with ground sheet

Traffic makes it dangerous to collect litter from roadside verges, even on country lanes. It can be terrifying. I have decided to avoid certain main roads. Do look up the Keep Britian Tidy website and gen-up on safety issues if you decide to go litter-picking. You need to wear a high-vis jacket of some kind. I take my orange bucket, wear rubberised gloves and barbecue tongs to reach into hedges. I prefer tongs to a litter grabber.

Litter-pickers working in groups along roadsides tell me it is essential to wear High Vis tabbards and have Men at Work signs put out if possible. Apart from offering safety, the jackets give you status, encourage PR chat and interaction with the public. The litter can be filthy. Some take a bottle of hand sanitiser.

Rubbish buckets at nature reserve

~Litter collected from a 100 meters along a lane in the New Forest National Park~ 

I sometimes take three buckets: one for tins, one for plastic and glass bottles and one for general waste. It cuts time when it comes to sorting the rubbish for recycling afterwards when I’m tired.

I re-use old plastic containers with decent lids to dispose of ‘sharps’ and keep a stock of plastic bags supplied by the council. I have hand-held luggage scales to weigh them. A full black plastic bag can weigh between 5kgs and 10 kgs.

I have just bought a small tally counter. Once you get used to clicking in with the same hand that is holding the bucket and the dog lead, it is a huge encouragement. See if you can guess how many items are in this bucket before looking at the counter, bottom right.

Problem items include road signs, bollards and sand bags that the council don’t regard as their property. They get left by contractors. I find a huge number of car parts that need to be taken to the dump. I would have loved to send all these things to build a stage at Glastonbury or something that would be of use.

Some councils are very well organised. Please click here for an example. They request that you ask permission before collecting rubbish. Whilst I have checked with my local nature reserve, my own council didn’t respond. Not with-standing this, I walk the pavements and pick up what is not meant to be there. I can’t think who would object.

Rubbish - litter heroes ambassadors logo (2)

It is good to survey an extreme area before you begin. There is one filthy bay on the Solent I still need to tackle. It requires a planned attack, removing the broken glass first.

Do record, what you find, keeping lists and a map of where you have been. We now have an informal network of people in our community who look after different roads in the area. Do register with Keep Britain Tidy, who will send you details of Health and Safety, posters and more info.

For details of how you can help or donate please see Keep Britian Tidy’s website here

Daily Mail Online

~Sophie Neville collecting plastic pollution from the Solent shore. Photo: Daily Mail~

Diary of a lone litter-picker: week 4 of the Great British Spring Clean 2019

~Things I’ve found on Solent shores, including the buckets~

Day 21 –

Our garden has become a retirement home for old buoys.  As the school holidays began small children arrived, intent on pestering them. While dear old Mr Puce tolerates being punched, kicked and swung on, Miss Black, a fender who I found washed up on the shore, has a new role as a swing seat. I’m growing quite fond of her.

‘Oh buoy, Oh buoy – Give us a wave!’

Mr White, an elderly buoy who had obviously been working on the Solent, was offered a new role on the Beaulieu River but has opted for a swinging job on a climbing frame in South London. Mr Pink, who had a career in the chemical industry before taking up life on the ocean wave, has passed on, along with an old buoy who sadly got cut up and split his sides open.

‘Where do you find them?’

‘In the New Forest National Park.’

The children are revolted.

The truth was that my dog and I returned home with a number of plastic drums and 5 litre containers I’d previously pulled out of a remote wetland area.

Time spent collecting this rubbish: 40 minutes.

Day 22 –

I sort the litter I’ve collected since the beginning of the Great British Spring Clean: 20 green glass bottles, 20 brown glass bottles and 20 clear glass bottles plus about 10 assorted glass receptacles. Most were so dirty I’ve had to soak them. My husband takes them to be recycled. This is important to him as he used to manufacture cut glass crystal and knows you can’t make glass without glass. A four year-old boy helps me count 137 squashed tins that once contained alcohol. They fill one recycling bag. I can’t bear the thought of counting the plastic bottles. This takes 20 minutes.

~137 tins which once held alcohol, found along one country lane~

I need to sneak off without the dog knowing. It’s too dangerous for him to come when I collect litter beside the main road. I work away for about 15 minutes deciding a lot of people must be drink-driving. Only drivers chuck litter into the verges here. They must have serious disassociation issues to chuck it out while negotiating the sharp bends.

One driver obviously wasn’t concentrating when coming down the hill. The car didn’t turn around the bend at all. It carried straight on, splitting a large black and white chevron sign in two and landing upside-down in the river. The lights were still on when I passed by on my usual litter-picking walk. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. The vehicle had been wrapped in police cordon tape by the time I returned but lay leaking oil into the river for six weeks. I extracted one half of the chevron sign at the start of the Great British Spring Clean. It’s going begging if anyone would like it to decorate their bedroom. The council couldn’t possibly use it.

Day 23 –

What I thought might be hay-fever turns out to be full-blown cold. I have no energy to expend sorting the carefully gathered rubbish piled up outside my back door. My husband returns from re-cycling the bottles saying that they don’t separate the coloured glass anymore.

~This section of the Solent foreshore was multi-coloured with mirco-plastics 15 years ago~

We have a Portuguese friend staying who also has a bad cold and wants to collect seawater to clear his sinuses. I take him down to the Solent. Here I collect micro-plastics including drinking straws, a balloon and 5kgs of rubbish from a wetland area. The whole exercise takes 90 minutes as the location is quite remote.

Day 24 –

My cold is pulling me down but I find a wheel-hub and spend 20 minutes gathering litter from the roadside going up a hill, amazed at how much old rubbish I didn’t spot the first time. New items infuriate me. Today a Costa coffee mug sits on a ledge overlooking the river like a hidden Easter egg. A banana skin has been carefully folded inside and the cap clipped back on. What does the person who purchased this assume will happen next? It’s madness. Costa give customers a 25p discount if they provide their own mug.

I’m told that nothing can be labelled ‘disposable’ anymore. Things don’t disappear, we simply move them to another place. I maintain that vegetables decompose and chuck the banana skin into the undergrowth but collect the cup with its plastic cap. I know Costa want to recycle this but I can’t walk into all the way into town especially.

Day 25 –

I’m ill in bed nursing my cold but get up in the evening determined to collect another bucketful of rubbish from the main road. I find a discarded ‘Bag for Life’ on the verge and return with quite a number of tins and empty bottles of alcohol.

Are glass bottles being flung out of moving vehicles? I spend a total of 40 minutes collecting and sorting as refuse is collected first thing tomorrow.

Day 26 –

I close my laptop at 6.00pm and spend 40 minutes in search of litter on footpath up to the pub and the main road on the way down. A number of cans have been shredded by a hedge trimmer that breaks glass bottles and makes everything more difficult. I fill a large bucket with cans and a black plastic bag with other rubbish before coming across a discarded road sign. The wheel hub I propped up for motorists to find is still in situ. I wonder how many have been collected by #litterheroes this month?

What do drivers think of me as I grub around at the side of the road? What would they think if I chucked the rubbish back into the road? I get upset when I find newly strewn litter but what can I do? Arrange a line of cans across the lane? String up plastic bottles like Christmas decorations? Would it stop anyone littering?

Day 27 –

I spend the evening walking along the Solent shore, alone with the dog, the sea birds and micro plastics. I photograph my catch before loading the hard stuff. It is clear that some pieces, including a balloon, must have already passed through the digestive tract of an animal, possibly a forest pony.

My aim is to collect bottles and ancient plastic containers lodged in the mud on a footpath running through a wood where I once found Mr-Pink-the-chemical-container in a down-and-out state. I recognise one turquoise bottle from the 1960s. The expedition takes 90 minutes.

Day 28 –

The lady whose stolen handbag I found contacts me to say she can pick it up on 24th April – the last day of the Great British Spring Clean. I still have so much to do.

I take my buckets down to the Solent beach I need to clean. Parking rules have suddenly changed. I’m required to pay £2.50 an hour. Thousands of pounds have obviously been spent on the terminal for the Isle of Wight ferry but this beach next to it, which could be a great asset, has been ignored.

I squeeze my car into a friend’s driveway and take my buckets down to the shore. It is like a rubbish dump. Every time I pull up a section of plastic, sand flies rise. I stuff as much as I can into a bag and gather bottles, plastic straws, fishing net, a yachting cap and other flotsam, and depart with as much as I can carry. The last thing I find is a fairy liquid bottle that must be 30 years old. It’s suddenly all too much. 40 minutes and I have hardly made any impression on the filth. I need to return with friends. As I write this, a neighbour messages me to say she’ll join me. If we work together it’ll be more amusing.

~Which is the oldest plastic bottle?~

What impact has this project had on my life? I have become more dedicated to recycling. Every milk bottle top gets saved for MENCAP. Every tin is crushed and recycled. The amount of domestic rubbish we produce has decreased – as has my waistline. All the walking and bending is keeping me fit. At this rate I might just gain the figure of a Fairy Liquid bottle.

Total for week: 395 minutes (nearly 7 hours)

To see a list of the things I’ve found on a beach clean please click here

Diary of a litter-picker: things found on a Solent beach clean

~ A remote section of the Solent shoreline: photo Michael Wells ~

When I first visited this shoreline seventeen years ago it was multi-coloured. Tiny pieces of plastic, bottle tops and PVC ropes littered the coast. There were huge pieces of refuse that were difficult to shift. Most of it had been washed up, rather than left by visitors. I would take a black plastic bag down to fill with rubbish, but often gave up in despair. Slowly, volunteers have cleared it.

I now try to go down every day to keep it clear of #plasticpollution. Although it looks clean at first glance, I usually fill a large bucket for every mile of Solent shoreline. This will normally contain about 250 items. Most are small ‘micro-plastics’. It involves a lot of bending-down. I sometimes return home weighed down by large items such as ten-gallon plastic drums. I then Tweet photos of my finds on #Solentbeachclean

Solent plastic

The usual things I find related to fishing:

Fishing net and PVC rope – often small pieces of green PVC cord, sometimes embedded in the mud.

Fishing line – one length extracted from the mouth of a wild pony.

Anglers’ floats, lures and hooks.

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PVC rope, fishing nets and floats.

Plastic grating and discs from crab traps.

Polystyrene in different stages of decay. Some pieces are huge.

Disposable rubber gloves and undisposable protective gloves.

Old buoys of all colours. One was too heavy for me to remove.

25 litre chemical containers used as buoys.

Plastic crates. One from Plymouth, one from the Clyde, one from Brittany. One made a good umbrella when a storm blew in as I walked home.

Solent Rubbish from France

The usual things I find relating to sewage:

Plentiful cotton-bud stalks and other lengths of plastic.

Tampon applicators and the back of panty liners.

Wet wipes and floss sticks.

Condom packs – some unopened. Bits of old condoms.

Rubbish - Solent beach clean Jan 2020

Items dropped or washed off boats:

Fenders

Old paintbrushes and cans of paint

Deck brushes and sponges, plastic buckets and cleaning materials

Cans of WD40, engine oil and lubricants

Plastic pegs – lots

Tea bags

Plastic tags

Plastic funnels and nozzles

Shower-curtain rings

Half-empty bottle of turpentine (disposed of responsibly)

Pieces of gaffer tape and insulation tape – lots

3 x Fluorescent light bulbs

Light bulbs

The usual things I find left by visitors to the shore or washed up:

PPE masks and homemade masks.

Hundreds of spent shotgun cartridges including the insides of paper cartridges.

Old underpants, socks, gloves, caps, t-shirts and other clothing.

Crisp wrappers – the sell-by date of one declared it to be more than 12 years old.

Broken glass – always collected for fear it will cut dogs’ paws or wild ponies.

Glass bottles and jars, recycled by my husband who used to manufacture cut glass crystal.

A sealed jar of Nescafe Gold Blend – which we used.

Hundreds of plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes, along with plastic drums. Many of these are washed up rather than dropped.

Babies dummies and children’s toys

Rubbish - Beach clean 13th May

The usual things I find that come in on the tide:

Old cigarette lighters of every colour and hue – about one a day.

Old flip-flops and shoes.

Tiling crosses/dividers

Plastic bags of every description, many buried in the mud.

Bottle tops and bottle rings of every shape and colour, usually plastic.

Plastic straws – about one a day – and cellophane covers to straws.

Plastic cups sometimes colonized by seaweed.

Sweet wrappers, cellophane, wrappers for packets of biscuits or other food.

Plastic hooks and tags of every kind including six-pack plastic.

Toothbrushes, nail files, make-up holders, ear plugs

Syringes and empty packs to tablets

Spray on aftershave and deodorants

Protective masks and PPE masks.

Helium balloons – one or two a day, usually with the string attached.

Solent beach clean 1 Jan 2020

Flower pots of different sizes.

Little plastic fish, which once contained soy sauce.

Bubble wrap, other packaging and lumps of insulation material.

Brushes of all description, mainly for cleaning boats.

Rigger’s mallet.

Heavy duty plastic bottles that once contained teak oil or engine oil, including 5 gallon containers.

Sponges and scourers of different types.

Micro-plastics: usually small pieces of blue, red, white or black plastic.

Party poppers.

Corks from bottles, some plastic

Plastic bubble making toys

Aerosol cans and drink tins of all kinds.

Dairylea spread cartons and other plastic tubs

Old pens of all descriptions and various plastic sticks.

Old sticking plasters

Plastic cable ties – originally manufactured by my father.

Broken toys including a purple revolver and old balls.

Sophie Neville on a #Solentbeachclean (photo: Octavia Pollock)

People ask if I wear gloves: sometimes. They ask if I take a grabber: usually. They want to know if I am addicted: possibly. I spend about 90 minutes a day or 30 hours a month on my #Solentbeachclean but it keeps me fit, exercises the dog and gets us out while doing something useful. We walk with a purpose. The wind can be brisk but I never get cold.

I go with friends or family. I can fit litter-picking in with my work, taking advantage of good weather. My only worry is getting stuck in the mud. I have to admit that my back gets sore if there is a big haul to lug home but my hunter-gatherer instincts have been awakened. There is treasure to be found.

Solent Rubbish

The unusual things I find:

3 x long fluorescent light bulbs – fully intact. They contain mercury. Both were washed up in the same place, years apart.

Intact domestic light bulb – haven’t had the guts to test it.

Star Wars mask

Rusty welding cylinder – I though it was an unexploded bomb and reported it to the police. Bit embarrassing.

Rusted depth charge – I was told this is a metal buoy but it has been identified as a WWII depth charge.

Old pair of binoculars.

~ Solent mudflats looking towards the Needles: photo Michael Wells ~

Useful things I have found:

2 x feed buckets, one pink, one orange, used to collect rubbish henceforth

Brand new rubber-inflatable ring, which made a good Christmas present for someone I know.

Life-belts and buoys

Lens cap, that was washed 800 yards down the coast – returned to grateful owner

Brand new carpenter’s saws.

Yellow whistles from life jackets.

Yachting caps x 5. One was labelled and returned to its owner.

Neoprene sun-glass holder – bit grotty

Sophie Neville collecting plastic from the sea 2019

New rope and cord.

Elastic boom-holder for a Scow dinghy

A boathook

Pencils

The number 5

A paddle

Paintbrush

Tent pegs

2 x children’s plastic beach spades

Beach toys

New garden hose attachments

Tennis balls

Wheels from two different dinghy launch trailers

A dinghy cushion akin to a garden kneeler

Sailing kit bag – unclaimed.

Can of WD40 still operable.

Unopened, sealed jar of Nescafe Gold, consumed at home.

Large fenders – some in pristine condition. I gather they cost about £60 each to buy new.

Turn the Tide on Plastic

Would you volunteer for the next Great British Spring Clean organised by Keep Britain Tidy? You can pledge your support here.

Sophie Neville at the House of Commons with the Director of Clean Up Britain and Heroes of the Great British Spring Clean 2019
Sophie Neville at the House of Commons with Heroes of the GBSC 2019

I officially volunteered 195 minutes of my time to clean the banks of the Lymington River, where litter gets chucked before being washed into the sea. This nature reserve belongs to Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust of which I am a member. I expect it will take me 1,950 minutes – about 33 hours, which is my average for a month.

Great British Beach Clean 2019

Or, think of joining the Marine conservation Society’s Great British Beach Clean in September

There can be rewards to Wombling, as my friend calls it. I was once filmed trudging along a beach for a Chanel 4 ident. We were given a fee, in cash. This is my black dog, my nephew and me on a beach in Wales: Sophie and the old buoys.