Pick up the pieces: the battle to clean up Cornwall’s beaches

When eight-year-old Harriet Orme saw a dead hawksbill turtle in her Cornwall village’s harbour three years ago, the image haunted her. Not because the huge, critically endangered turtle had crossed the seas from the tropics to a defunct fishing harbour on the north coast of Cornwall, but because it had most probably died after ingesting thousands of tiny pieces of plastic.

“Harriet is a womble,” her mother, Sophie Orme, says. “Now, wherever she goes, she automatically picks up litter and hands it to me.” The two are spending their morning, like countless mornings before, litter-picking on their nearest beach. In their home town of Portreath, with a population of around 1,400 permanent residents, environmental custodianship is catching on. “It’s becoming the culture of the whole village. From the village elders right down to the youngest kids. Even the local pub runs nightly beach cleans in the summer,” Orme says. The area’s social values, she believes, are changing, much like when smoking became taboo. “You become a pariah if you litter,” she says.

Across Cornwall, community beach cleans have gathered momentum as a year-round activity appealing to all ages. Unlike surfing, dog-walking or cold-water swimming, beach cleans require little equipment or hardiness – just a common goal to keep treasured outdoor spaces litter-free.

“Litter was always a part of my childhood in north Cornwall,” says 24-year-old Emily Stevenson. “We would build sandcastles out of plastic.” Although she and her father, Rob Stevenson, often carried out impromptu beach cleans, it was not until 2017 that they held their first community clean. But after a serendipitous moment made headlines – when Emily unearthed an empty packet of crisps from 1997, the same year she was born, it led to her wearing a graduation dress made from crisp packets that was widely reported – numbers of volunteers “exploded”. The duo formed the social enterprise Beach Guardian, and have since spent thousands of hours scouring various cliffs and coves in more than 200 beach cleans.

Beach Guardian focuses its efforts on the seven bays between Newquay and Padstow, two of the county’s most well-trodden holiday destinations. This stretch of coastline is Rick Stein territory – the whimsical Cornwall of foraging in hedgerows, steaming mussels and stargazy pie – or at least as television would have you believe. But in the dead of winter, when country lanes are quiet and the long swathes of sand are no longer cluttered by windbreakers, beach towels and body boards, bands of locals come to the beach on the hunt for rubbish.

The new face of pollution: Emily Stevenson found 171 items of PPE in a one-hour litter pick in Cornwall.
The new face of pollution: Emily Stevenson found 171 items of PPE in a one-hour litter pick in Cornwall. Photograph: Alex Stevenson/SWNS

On a winter morning around 50 people, armed with litter pickers and recycling sacks, have come out on a Sunday to offer a hand. Stormy weather and high spring tides have made rich pickings for them, as buried plastics, hidden for decades at the bottom of the sea bed, have churned up to the surface. Most volunteers crouch over tangles of seaweed, fishing plastic from burrows, but a small group leaves to remove a plastic pontoon wedged into a cliff before it breaks up into minuscule pieces of polystyrene.

Around 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution exist for each mile of beach in the UK, according to the Marine Conservation Society. And, living in the county with the largest coastline (422 miles), it is no surprise that the Cornish are deeply invested in their surroundings. Fishermen’s kisses, nurdles and biobeads – special names for fragments of fishing nets and small plastic pellets – are part of the vernacular, recognised by locals as devastating to marine life. It can be an uphill battle when you realise the “unquantifiable” amount of microplastics in the ocean, Stevenson acknowledges. This doesn’t deter the most dedicated volunteers, who pass kitchen sieves over the sand, scouting for plastic flecks of colour.

On the beach, a mother holds open a bag for her child, who runs back and forth, gleefully adding “juicy bits of plastic” to a bulging pile. “Once you start seeing it, you can’t not see it again,” Zoe Collis says. “By coming here you see the scale and complexity of the problem. It means when you go home you then start thinking, right, what do I not need? Do I need that plastic bottle of water? Probably not.”

Beach cleans became a vital way for her family to integrate after they relocated from Staffordshire to Cornwall six years ago. “You start seeing the same faces. And you find out other things going on. It’s been a great way of finding a group of buddies and building a community,” she says. During the long days of the pandemic, regular cleans were a lifeline for families like hers. Especially at Christmas, as Omicron torpedoed festive plans, beach cleans provided a welcome escape. “We had hot chocolate and mince pies afterwards. It was something to do to get out of the house that felt safe,” Collis adds.

After spending his childhood summers in north Cornwall and working on a nearby campsite as a student, Mark Pendlebury retired to the county late last year. At his first beach clean, he wants to give back to the beaches he has spent over five decades enjoying.

Christmas presents: activists prevent dune erosion on Cornwall’s beaches by reusing old Christmas trees.
Christmas presents: activists prevent dune erosion on Cornwall’s beaches by reusing old Christmas trees. Photograph: Simon Maycock/Apex

Opening his palm, Pendlebury reveals four pieces of Lego, salvaged from a cargo spill. In 1997 more than 4.8m pieces of Lego bound for New York were lost at sea and are still washing up on Cornish beaches today. Among the pieces Pendlebury finds are a canary-yellow surfboard and a teal, thumb-sized figurine, which vaguely resembles an elephant, or perhaps a hippo. It’s tricky to tell as the bricks are slightly misshapen, their trademark bumps licked by waves until rounded. Such items are considered collectibles by avid beachcombers: the rare bits of junk that find their way to the shores from exotic places or decades past.

“I have folders and folders of stuff that I refuse to give up,” says Emily Stevenson. “Each one tells you a story of a particular beach clean.” Her big thing is crisp packets. “I’ll remember this clean in 10 years’ time by this packet. Memories just seem to cling on to it.”

Of course, front rooms and garden sheds can’t hold everything the cleaners find. Instead, Beach Guardian’s plastic bounty is used for educational purposes – as art activism. A statement from the group says: “Everything from our beach cleans is brought up to our Beach Guardian Lab. Volunteers sort through what we have. The large items like nets and rope are used for large art installations like our whale, giant puppets and our Plastic Age stone circle. The smaller items are used for school resources so that pupils can see first-hand what we are finding on our beach cleans and watch our Tune In Tuesday videos on YouTube.”

Nets, ropes and large plastic items are shredded down and turned into kayaks to help recover more items at remote coves while other plastics are recycled into beach-cleaning stations. As a last resort, all waste in Cornwall is incinerated to generate electricity, so it’s very unlikely that anything will end up back in the ocean, the environment or in landfill.

Beach Guardian is also pushing for policy change, starting with local authorities and businesses, through to politicians and multinational corporations. The team has met decision-makers from parliament and PepsiCo, to present the dangers of plastic in our ecosystem. Stevenson uses an analogy: “If you have a leaky sink in your bathroom, you wouldn’t spend year after year mopping up the floor; you’d fix the tap. Beach cleaning is mopping up the floor, but we’ll do that forever unless we turn off the plastic tap.”

-Buried treasure: one of Emily Stevenson’s lovely crisp packets, the use-by date on this one was 1984.
Buried treasure: one of Emily Stevenson’s lovely crisp packets, the use-by date on this one was 1984. Photograph: Beach Guardian/Apex

However, when the tourist season strikes, Cornwall tackles a very different litter crisis. Kevin Wood, who works in maintenance in Watergate Bay, is tasked with cleaning the beach every morning, mopping up the residue of picnics, barbecues and late-night beach parties.

“​​It’s horrendous in the summer. We literally fill up black bags with barbecue rubbish, crisp packets, plastic spades, all sorts. When the bins are full, people just throw rubbish on the floor,” he says. According to Wood, fires cause some of the worst damage. Last year was particularly dire, with wooden chairs and tables stolen from the forecourt of a hotel used as fuel in the name of a good time. “I wish they could see it now when we’re picking mainly old stuff and fishing gear, so they could see the difference in the summer,” he says.

One solution has been the rollout of individual beach-cleaning stations. The concept is amazingly simple – place a board, a litter picker and a bag at the entry point to each beach. In bright blue and yellow, the stations are hard to miss, serving as a constant reminder of environmental responsibility. The scheme, run by Cornish charity The 2 Minute Foundation, piloted in 2014 and now there are over 1,000 stations, one in every continent of the world.

“The stations don’t discriminate. Lots of tourists will come along and take part, especially those who aren’t clued in about the organised beach cleans,” says Martin Dorey, the charity’s founder. He collaborates with tour operators that run summer beach cleans for holidaymakers, as well as artists selling jewellery and trinkets made from marine debris. “It appeals to people’s sense of giving back and feeling like they belong to the community by doing something positive,” Dorey says.

Beach cleaners are encouraged to share photos under the hashtag 2minutebeachclean. After the first station was installed in Bude, Cornwall, Dorey measured a 68% drop in litter left on the beach that year. Fifteen years later, with hashtags registered as far as Antarctica, the scale of the charity’s work is harder to track. “It’s the key that unlocks laziness. Two minutes is nothing; everybody’s got two minutes,” says Dorey. By setting an achievable goal people are inspired to make incremental changes. “We don’t need 100 perfect people – we need everybody to be imperfect, but at least trying,” he adds.

Top pick: Emily Stevenson received a Diana award for her work cleaning up the beaches.
Top pick: Emily Stevenson received a Diana award for her work cleaning up the beaches. Photograph: SWNS

For Dorey, beach cleaning offered respite after a difficult divorce. But he has also heard testimonies from others who have used the ritual to silence anxious or even suicidal thoughts. Now, The 2 Minute Foundation has an employee trained as a mental-health first aider, in the hope of spotting signs of struggle early on.

The benefits of beach cleaning on mental health are still relatively anecdotal, although recognition of nature’s restorative qualities is becoming more mainstream. In lockdown, savouring time spent in open spaces became a crutch for many of us, to such an extent that in July 2020, the Environment Secretary dedicated £4m to “green social prescribing”. GPs and other healthcare practitioners can refer patients with mental health concerns to nature-based activities, such as local walking schemes and community gardening projects.

This opens the door to exploring our relationship to aquatic environments, ponds, lakes, rivers and oceans. At the forefront is BlueHealth, a pan-European research project led by a University of Exeter department based in Truro. In a 2019 study, experts found that people living less than 1km from the UK coast had “significantly lower” odds of being at a high risk of “common mental disorders”, such as anxiety or depression, compared to those living further than 50km away. The link was stronger within socioeconomically deprived communities, indicating that access to blue spaces could reduce health inequalities.

“The doctors of yesteryear had the right idea when they would prescribe the coastline as a type of medicine,” says Jolyon Sharpe, a countryside officer at Cornwall Council. “Beach cleaning can be done beautifully in isolation; it can be very therapeutic, almost meditative,” says Sharpe. The melange of sounds – crashing waves, blustering wind and seagulls crooning – is pivotal. “Everything you hear is a sensory overload, and that’s incredibly good for your mental wellbeing.” And, when you add an altruistic element, such as cleaning, the satisfaction is twofold.

“One thing that brings everyone together is that the coastline of Cornwall is beautiful,” says Sharpe. “The key thing is the beach is for everyone to enjoy, but we’ve got to protect it. Litter picking is one really simple way that everybody can give back to the environment that they love.”