Marine anthropogenic litter on British beaches: A 10-year nationwide assessment using citizen science data

Growing evidence suggests that anthropogenic litter, particularly plastic, represents a highly pervasive and persistent threat to global marine ecosystems. Multinational research is progressing to characterise its sources, distribution and abundance so that interventions aimed at reducing future inputs and clearing extant litter can be developed. Citizen science projects, whereby members of the public gather information, offer a low-cost method of collecting large volumes of data with considerable temporal and spatial coverage. Furthermore, such projects raise awareness of environmental issues and can lead to positive changes in behaviours and attitudes. We present data collected over a decade (2005–2014 inclusive) by Marine Conservation Society (MCS) volunteers during beach litter surveys carried along the British coastline, with the aim of increasing knowledge on the composition, spatial distribution and temporal trends of coastal debris. Unlike many citizen science projects, the MCS beach litter survey programme gathers information on the number of volunteers, duration of surveys and distances covered. This comprehensive information provides an opportunity to standardise data for variation in sampling effort among surveys, enhancing the value of outputs and robustness of findings. We found that plastic is the main constituent of anthropogenic litter on British beaches and the majority of traceable items originate from land-based sources, such as public littering. We identify the coast of the Western English Channel and Celtic Sea as experiencing the highest relative litter levels. Increasing trends over the 10-year time period were detected for a number of individual item categories, yet no statistically significant change in total (effort-corrected) litter was detected. We discuss the limitations of the dataset and make recommendations for future work. The study demonstrates the value of citizen science data in providing insights that would otherwise not be possible due to logistical and financial constraints of running government-funded sampling programmes on such large scales.

SE Nelms, C Coombes, LC Foster, TS Galloway, BJ Godley, PK Lindeque, MJ Witt, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 579, 1 February 2017, Pages 1399–1409

The article

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