FOR thousands of volunteers hooked on removing litter and marine plastics from Ireland’s shoreline, easing lockdown restrictions means getting back to the beaches they love to care for.
Mark McCarthy, founder of Schull’s Clean Coasts group, is no exception: although there are several small coves dotted around the picturesque West Cork town that have been accessible to him while exercise zones have been restricted, it’s the broader expanses of beach on his beat further west, including the spectacular Barleycove, that he’s worrying about.
“I’m actually deliriously missing it at the moment,” he says with a laugh.
Acting as custodian for the ocean is second nature to Mark; he’s a Search and Rescue Instructor for the Irish Coastguard, and his father was a lighthouse keeper.
But for the past four years, Mark and his wife, Roisin, have been instrumental in organising the area’s Clean Coasts campaign. A nationwide initiative run by At Taisce, Clean Coasts involves thousands of Irish volunteers and numerous campaigns, including the ‘Two Minute Beach Clean’, roadshows, photography competitions and their annual Ocean Hero award.
Like so many other community-led activities, Clean Coasts beach cleans were postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Now, An Taisce is working to ensure that their regular activities can be slowly re-introduced in full accordance with government social distancing guidelines.
Mark, who was nominated for an Ocean Hero award last year, says up to 60 participants who regularly take part in the Schull area cleans, are looking forward to getting back out to the beaches.
In part, this is because they’re worried about the impacts of their absence on the amount of waste that may have accumulated, but it’s also just down to the positive impacts on mental health and wellbeing, he believes.
“People are really looking forward to going and cleaning the beaches again,” he says. “They’re just really looking forward to going back and picking up some plastic. It’s a normal routine for so many people here, and it’s the one thing, for head space, that people are really missing, more on a mental health level than as an environmental thing.”
Mark organises several large seasonal beach cleans each year, and also arranges groups from local primary schools. He also promotes An Taisce’s Two Minute Beach Clean, which enlists all walkers and recreational beach visitors to spend two minutes taking a few items of marine waste with them on each visit.
An Taisce opted to cancel all beach cleaning events in a bid to stop attracting people to them. However Clean Coasts are now encouraging people to do a two minute beach clean-up, while keeping within the recommended 5km of their home and also respecting social distancing - there’s a lovely video on their Instagram account encouraging people to send them their photographs.
The impacts of lockdown on beaches is still unclear: while those accessible to Cork city, such as Myrtleville, can suffer heavy onshore littering when the weather is fine, and it might be reasonable to expect that this littering would have reduced with the introduction of the 2km then 5km exercise zones.
But Mark says the far-flung beaches of West Cork are more prone to marine plastics than littering.
“There’s definitely different types of stuff being found, geographically,” he says.
“I would say 80% of what I find is marine plastic, even though that’s a vague term; I would consider a bottle top that’s been floating around in the sea for two decades to be marine plastic.
“It’s different from if someone goes to the beach, eats a packet of crisps and drops it on the ground.
“There’s very little of that sort of littering going on here, but there’s a lot of discarded fishing waste like tiny pieces of ghost net: you’ll find blue or green plastic twine.”
Overall, 10% of the plastic pollution found in the sea is abandoned fishing gear, according to research by Ecowatch, while a further 10% is from other marine industries.
The bulk of plastic waste in the sea is actually plastic packaging from land-based use, including disposable bottles and bags. An Taisce spend between €4,000 and €5,000 each year on branded single-use plastic bags to distribute to Clean Coasts groups, according to a spokeswoman. Isn’t Mark concerned about using single-use plastic to tackle the single-use plastic problem?
“I’ve always been aware organising beach cleans that you have this big roll of plastic bags,” he says.
“In a way, you’re generating plastic while trying to take care of the plastic. I would love to see a real solution.”
Cork County Council ties in with Clean Coasts groups and will collect the rubbish gathered by volunteers, Mark explains: “I try to recycle as much of it as I can, but obviously some is just landfill.
“The council will come and take the bags if I call them to tell them where they are, but I don’t think they do much more than landfill after that.”
Mark, his wife Roisín and their two children, aged nine and seven, are all very much looking forward to getting back to the beaches.
“The sea is very important to me and passing that love on to the kids is too,” Mark says.
In the east of the county, Clean Coasts Ballynamona founder Proinsias O Tuama says 280 volunteers look after a “40 kilometre stretch of coastline,” taking in not just Ballynamona but Ardnahinch, Garryvoe, Ballinwilling and other beaches and coves.
Proinsias, a home-school community liaison officer in St Colman’s Community College in Midleton, founded the beach clean group in 2015, and has since founded East Cork Biodiversity Networking Programme and won the Clean Coasts Ocean Hero award in 2019.
Through his role in St Colman’s, he’s arranged for over 1,000 students to participate in beach cleans, and St. Colman’s have won Ocean Hero School of the Year for the last four years.
Like Mark, Proinsias says the mental health and wellbeing impacts of beach cleaning are a really important factor in their popularity.
“People get great enjoyment from connecting to the sea, and getting out into nature and into their environment,” he says.
“The sea is the common factor, but everyone gets to go and make a difference.”
With ocean gyres like the North Atlantic garbage patch, a floating island thousands of kilometres long made from predominantly plastic waste, and more waste purposefully dumped at sea or washed out through rivers each day, Proinsias acknowledges that cleaning beaches is an endeavour without end.
“We’ll go and do a beach clean and on the next tide, the beach is starting to get dirty again,” he says.
“And we’re certainly not getting the microplastics. We could pick any beach and spend the whole day with 500 people and get it to a really high level of cleanliness, but the tide isn’t going to stop.”
In the longer term, Proinsias believes that “behavioural change so vast that it needs legislative change” is the only real solution to stopping the marine plastic problem at source.
But in the meantime, he has a heartening message for those who have been missing their beach cleans under lockdown: taking care of the planet starts closer to home.
“If you want to see where the sea starts, you don’t have to drive to the beach, just look out your window,” he says.
“Wherever there’s a shore at the side of the road, that’s where the sea starts. Any piece of litter that ends up in a stream, it flows into a river and ends up in the sea. We can all start making a change today, even while we’re waiting to get back to the beaches.”
Keep an eye on https://cleancoasts.org/our-events/ for more updates