“You couldn’t have picked a better day,” I tell Imogen.
The sun is shining and the sky is blue as far as the eye can see, with only a wisp of cloud here and there. It is the first week of March and the first hint of spring is in the air; sitting in the car and looking out, it could easily be the height of summer, the illusion only broken by the cool air when you step outside. I am here on Fistral Beach in Newquay, surfer’s paradise, to take part in my first official beach clean.
The short stretch of straight road that leads to the car park has been inlaid with some sort of mineral that sparkles in the sunlight as you drive down it, creating a mesmerising approach. As I pull into the sand-blown car park, I am looking for anyone that looks as if they may be preparing to collect rubbish, but see no-one so decide to sit and wait to see who appears. In the distance there are one or two specks in the sea that could be surfers, and there are three shivering dudes wrapped in fleeces, standing with sandy surfboards just across from me. Soon, three girls emerge from a nearby car, each wearing a black fleece advertising Cornwall College. These must be the people I’m looking for.
Imogen is older than I was expecting – her college email address suggested student status – though she is no older than I am. She is a teacher at the Newquay college, and leader of the Newquay branch of team green. Until today we have only exchanged emails regarding meeting times for the clean-up parade. She looks very young to be a teacher, but I have to remind myself that I am certainly old enough to be one, even if I don’t feel like it, perhaps because teaching is such a grown-up job.
The long, crescent moon shape of the beach is exaggerated by the low tide, washing away at a distance. The surf is calm, flat, quietly breaking in the background. Four or five people are walking their dogs or enjoying the sunshine, but generally the beach is quiet and peaceful, with just the gentle swish of the sea. I am surprised to note a complete absence of seagulls. This is a very different beach to the tourist packed Fistral of high summer with screeching and giggling children, teenagers playing Frisbee, cricket, or football, and radios blaring.
Imogen hands me a plethora of bits and bobs: a pen, a record sheet, a clip-board, plastic gloves, and a bin bag. Because the information collected today will be passed to MCS (The Marine Conservation Society), it’s important to record everything we pick up. The record sheet is a form, detailing all the possible different items that might be found today, from plastic bottles and bottle tops to packaging, rope, nails, wire and – heaven forbid – condoms and tampons. Despite the fact that plastic items take up almost half of the form, I’m interested to note that plastic bags aren’t included. I wonder what this means: is it rare to find plastic bags in these cleans, or is it some strange oversight?
“Don’t touch dog poo,” she tells us. “And don’t touch anything biological.”
Most of the other people here seem to have come in twos or threes and know each other. There are several of Imogen’s students, and I am introduced to Amy, Cornwall College’s environmental manager. A chap from Serco is also here, and shortly after we start litter picking Dom from the SAS (Surfers Against Sewage) arrives, accompanied by his very boisterous Springer spaniel, Bob. Bob likes to bark and to run around, trying to convince everyone to play with him; he seems very excited to be here. We make 12 people altogether.
Imogen pairs me with Amy; Amy writes down on the form what we are collecting as I pick it up and put it in the bag. She is nice, easy to talk to, and I feel comfortable working with her and with my surroundings. I was worried I wouldn’t be. We find an easy rhythm, although we soon get bored of calling out the same things - plastic lid, foamy stuff, nylon string - and soon there’s a small competition developing between us and her two friends who are picking nearby. Who can find the most interesting items?
As well as the expected plastic and polystyrene, we find nails, barbed wire, and a pair of nail clippers. Even though Amy discovers an abandoned barbecue buried in the sand, complete with discarded food tins and beer cans, her friends win hands down with their shoe, light bulb, and half-decayed fish, complete with enormous teeth.
The sun stays with us, and it’s almost like a leisurely stroll along the beach, chatting and joking with everyone. As I pull a long stretch of orange string from the sand, Bob spies it and grabs it; we have a wresting match, much to his enjoyment. We find a lot of broken glass, but only one nurdle, perhaps because I’m not looking close enough, or perhaps because there are no rocks for them to shelter against in the area where we’re picking.
Two and a half hours later we take our black plastic bin bags back to the car-park to be weighed. Between us we have collected 42kg of mixed rubbish, plus an extra 15kg that is just metal and glass. The 42kg is contained in a half dozen bin bags while the glass and metal takes up just one small bowling bag.
This is interesting. Plastic is generally quite light, so even if there are more pieces of plastic, the weight compared to the same amount of glass or paper can be less. Commercial packaging waste is often discussed in terms of tonnage: making things with plastic reduces waste in terms of weight, which seems like a good thing when you see the numbers. Except for the part where plastic never returns to the natural environment, never breaks down, never disappears.
This is one small beach on one day, with just one dozen people picking a small area. Multiply that and it gets scary. Why are we doing this to ourselves and our world?