Marine Conservation Society Calls for More to be Done to Halt Plastic Pollution

mcs beach clean results 2021 title

(Photo: MCS UK)

The Marine Conservation Society’s annual Great British Beach Clean results have been published, with a mixture of good and bad news from the UK-wide collections.

Between 17 and 26 September this year, 6,176 volunteers cleared litter from their local streets, parks and more than 55,000 metres of UK beaches, collecting and recording a total of 5,064.8kg between them.

In positive news, the average amount of litter recorded fell in 2021 to 385 per 100 metres of beach, dropping from an average of 425 in 2020, and 558 in 2019. Cotton bud sticks moved out of the UK’s top ten most common rubbish items this year, with an average of six plastic cotton bud sticks per 100m of beach, down from 15 in 2020 and the lowest number in the Great British Beach Clean’s 28-year history. The number of single-use plastic bags found on beaches has also continued to drop, from a high of 13 per 100m in 2013, down to just three in 2021.

Scotland was the first UK country to ban the manufacture and sale of plastic cotton bud sticks in October 2019. England followed suit in 2020 with a ban on single-use plastic straws, cotton bud sticks and stirrers, but the Welsh Government has yet to implement a similar ban. Single-use plastic bags have been subject to a nationwide charge for use since 2015, and such policies are thought likely to be responsible for the overall reduction of single-use plastics found during beach cleans.3 in 2021.

Plastic pieces remain the most prevalent form of litter on UK beaches, however, with 75 per cent of all litter collected made from plastic or polystyrene, with an average of 112 pieces found for every 100 metres of UK beach surveyed. 

mcs beach clean volunteers 2021

MCS volunteers clearing litter from Cramond Beach (Photo: MCS UK)

Top five most common litter items on UK beaches (average per 100m)

  1. Plastic and polystyrene pieces (111.7)
  2. Cigarette stubs (27.8)
  3. Crisp and sweet packets, lolly sticks etc (25.9)
  4. Plastic caps and lids (15.5)
  5. String/cord (15.3)

'The ongoing downward trend we’re seeing in litter levels on UK beaches is a positive sign that the actions we’re taking at a personal, local and national level are working,' said Lizzie Prior, Beachwatch Manager at the Marine Conservation Society. 'But we can’t sit back and relax, now is the time for even more ambitious action.'

The Marine Conservation Society included items of PPE on its survey form this year, providing a baseline from which to understand the impact and presence of face masks and gloves in the future. Levels of PPE found this year were similar to 2020, when masks were made mandatory across the UK. 32 per cent of UK beaches cleaned found PPE litter – masks ranked  59 out of 121 for most common litter items.  Inland, for the charity’s Source to Sea Litter Quest, 80 per cent of litter picks found PPE in 2021, in comparison to 69 per cent found in 2020.

With so much beach litter being made from plastic, the Marine Conservation Society is continuing to campaign for ambitious single-use plastics policies which would phase out the manufacture and sale of plastic products in the UK. Dr Laura Foster, Head of Clean Seas at the Marine Conservation Society said that not enough is being done to combat plastic pollution.

'UK governments’ current piecemeal approach to single-use plastics policy just won’t cut it anymore. While we’re seeing a downward trend in litter on beaches, we’re still seeing huge volumes of plastic washing up on our shores,' said Dr Foster. 'A shocking 75 per cent of all the litter we collected from UK beaches this year was made of plastic or polystyrene, so it’s clear what we need to focus our attention on. Comprehensive and ambitious single-use plastics policies which reduce the manufacture and sale of items is the quickest way of phasing out plastic from our environment.'


Read more about the Great British Beach Clean, and the Marine Conservation Society’s year-round Beachwatch programme on the charity’s website:



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