As any keen beachcomber knows, for every sea-hewn gem of driftwood and shiny shell, there’s at least an equal amount of trash thrown up on the sand.

Last year’s International Coastal Cleanup collected more than 20 million items of rubbish, from plastic bags to bottle caps, with this chart illustrating the top 10 items found.

 The top 10 items collected in the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup.
Image: Statista

Why it matters

But what we can actually see on the shore is just, well, a drop in the ocean in terms of our plastic problem. Scientists estimate as much as 99.99% of ocean plastic lies below the surface, with millions of tons of waste buried or lying on the seabed, or just floating in the water.

We know this plastic chokes and entangles sea creatures. Now, the Ocean Conservancy’s chief scientist Dr George Leonard says a connection has been found between plastic and disease destroying coral reefs, while microplastics are impacting on the population of zooplankton, a crucial part of the ocean food chain.

The good news is there’s a groundswell of global initiatives to tackle the problem, including the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. For more than 30 years, the third Saturday in September has been dedicated to fighting the growing tide of plastic that washes up on our shores.

Coastal cleanup

 Rubbish strewn on a beach in Malaga, Spain, after the Summer Solstice.
Image: REUTERS/Jon Nazca

What began as a small movement in Texas now sees volunteers from more than 100 countries take part in a day of trash collecting along the world’s coastlines and waterways.

Oceanographer and climate scientist Dr Erik van Sebille told Sky News beach cleans were a “very effective way of cleaning up the ocean”.

"If you see plastic along the strand-line, that means the next high tide or the next storm might pick up that plastic and put it back into the ocean.

"So by taking the plastic when it's on the beach, you remove it from the marine system."

In 2017, an anti-plastic army of almost 800,000 Cleanup volunteers picked up more than 20 million items of rubbish, from the more mundane bottles and straws to Christmas lights on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, a six-seater golf cart in Bermuda and even a clown wig in the USA.

The Ocean Conservancy also reckon they’d found enough balloons to lift a great white shark into the air and enough cigarette butts to line the distance of five marathons - and that’s just in 24 hours.

Making big waves

From Coca-Cola to the Queen of England, the ocean plastic problem is now recognised by powerful people and companies throughout the world, as the director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program, Nicholas Mallos explains:

“The ocean plastic crisis is resonating with the public in far-reaching ways. Last year, BBC’s Blue Planet II series [which featured marine debris] was the most-watched show in all of the UK, and led the British government to take on plastic pollution as a policy issue, with the Queen banning straws and plastic bottles on royal estates.

“In April 2017, Kenya banned plastic bags; and Vanuatu became the first country to ban straws in May 2018.

“At the World Economic Forum in January 2018, longtime Ocean Conservancy partner The Coca-Cola Company announced the ambitious goal of collecting one can or bottle for every such item sold.”

There’s hope for the world’s oceans yet, but we all need to do our bit, starting with taking our rubbish home with us from the beach.