Jill Goulder, TTL, August 2018.

Litter-picking in Lewes, and on beaches, definitely makes for a better place to live – but it doesn’t jolt the big polluters into action against the polluting of our oceans with plastic bottles, wetwipes and so on. Not only the supermarkets etc, but the big manufacturers and also the organisations responsible for organising our waste: the Government, the local councils, the water companies and – out at sea – the fishing and shipping industries.

We live 7 miles from the sea. For the last 25 years the Marine Conservation Society charity (MCS) has been quietly organising an annual volunteer-based recording of all the rubbish on our beaches nationwide, resulting in serious statistical data which it uses to attack these large organisations. Every year in mid-September the MCS organises the Great British Beach Clean, which is much more than it says: on hundreds of beaches nationwide, a rubbish-recording operation takes place, with thousands of volunteers noting (and of course picking up) every last tiny piece of plastic etc on a detailed recording-form. Then all those incredibly detailed figures are accumulated into really solid statistical data on what is being deposited on our beaches all round Britain (and being ingested and damaging ocean-life). The MCS collate all the data into large categories – the biggest are:

  • public (packaging/ disposable cutlery etc)
  • fishing (cut-up nets, angling line)
  • sewage (wetwipes, cotton-buds, panty-liners etc).

They then use these stats to get their teeth into the organisations responsible – the Government, the local councils (more signage, more bins), the fishing industry (stop cutting tangled nets and line) and the water companies (the MCS were partly responsible for the ‘Bin it don’t flush it’ campaign) as well as manufacturers of wetwipes etc. The MCS say

‘The Great British Beach Clean is the biggest beach-clean and survey in the UK. The information our volunteers have collected over the last 25 years has helped make some of the most significant impacts on beach litter ever – the plastic bag charge, microplastics banned in personal care products, better wetwipe labelling, and massive support for a tax on ‘on the go’ plastic single use items.’

The MCS beach-rubbish recording survey attracts sponsorship every year from a range of sources – M&S, Waitrose, the People’s Postcode Lottery, ferry companies, and donations from the public. But vitally, it needs us to get to a beach once a year in mid-September to take part.




The Great British Beach Clean happens annually in mid-September. The timing depends on the tide, so the start times change every year. The East Sussex (and nearby) beaches signed up so far this year (check the website nearer the time for more beaches) are:

Fri 14 Sept: Holywell, Eastbourne (10 am)

Sat 15 Sept: Birling Gap (10 am), Brighton [W. Sussex] 11 am

Sun 16 Sept: Ovingdean (10 am), Peacehaven (10.30), Rottingdean (1 pm)

Mon 17 Sept: Pett Level, Hastings (10 am)

There are plenty more beaches nationwide if you’re further afield.

(Some of the local beaches also have regular litter-picking sessions, but to me the really vital event is the annual September one where we record them and help to make a real difference.)



You choose a beach listed on the website and sign up for it. (You can turn up ad hoc, but it really helps the organiser if you can sign up in advance) You check out the event-joining details (when, where – almost always somewhere with parking), and turn up in good time – you’ll be there for around 2 hours in total. Bring good footwear for shingle and damp sand.

     The local organiser gives everyone a short briefing: basically, you sort yourselves (or are helped) informally into teams of c.3 and are given a clipboard with a recording form, bin-liners, gloves and litter-picking grabs. You’re shown the beach area to be covered, and you spread out to cover the whole area. You pick up and record on the form every last tiny bit of plastic and other rubbish, using the 5-bar gate recording system to note the sometimes dozens of ‘plastic pieces 0-2.5cm’ etc. You work for an hour, and then return to base with your form and bag. The bags go for weighing and then disposing of appropriately, and the forms go back to the MCS for analysis. Sometimes the organiser even provides tea and biscuits at the end! but at any rate you get a huge thank-you, and a glow of satisfaction at a really important job done.

Last year nearly 7,000 volunteers took part, working on 339 beaches and recording more than a quarter of a million items of litter. Some beaches have quite a big event, attracting large numbers of volunteers (including groups of young people), while on others it’s just a few volunteers enjoying making a difference working on a beautiful remote beach. Sensible children old enough to be helpful are welcomed – there’s a parental consent form for under-18s.



Over the last 8 years I’ve recorded at Rottingdean, Newhaven, Exceat, Birling Gap, Eastbourne and Rye, and there are others within reach.

Filling in all those details sounds a pain, but doing it ‘live’ makes it huge fun – you’re with friends or new people you’ve just met, and the pickers are rushing back to the recorder with their finds and you’re puzzling together about what some mysterious object is or goggling at some amazing ones, or giggling at for example the socks commonly found on Rottingdean beach (apparently Brightonians go skinny-dipping there at night and can then find most of their clothes but not their socks…..). A beach can look pretty clean, but you’ll be amazed how many tiny bits of plastic (lethal to wildlife) lurk there; and you find huge pieces of industrial components, and packaging from Holland or France (probably dropped off ships).

On the safety front, if you find anything dodgy that you really don’t want to pick up, you just record it, leave a marker (e.g. piled-up stones) and let the organiser know. At the other end of the spectrum, the MCS ask you to record but leave all natural debris such as driftwood.



The MCS website isn’t 100% easy to navigate, but here are some key pages. The website has more general beach-clean events listed, but ‘Beachwatch’ is more focused. There’s a list by county, and you can also search by date (look for 14-17 September)


See you there!

Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, 2013.


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