aerial view of beach

If you close your eyes, can you imagine a happy time at the beach?

What do you remember? Was it the warmth of the sand? The sound of the waves? The little critters you saw in rockpools? The times you played beach cricket, threw a frisbee, or played in the waves?

Beaches hold a special place in the heart of Australians, with many of us living near them or having spent holidays visiting them. We are a nation girt by sea, and our future is intertwined with the seas, beaches and the diverse life-forms which we share these shores with.

Have you noticed any changes the last time you went to the beach? How about if you looked closely at the sand?

Kid on beach with plastic

Sadly, our shores aren’t exempt from the growing global issue of litter in our seas. Almost everywhere around our coasts you can find some form of ocean litter washed ashore. Plastics have become ubiquitous in our lives- from the packaging on our food, the clothes we wear, to the toothbrush we use. It's no wonder so much plastic finds it way to sea when it is in most of the disposable products we use each day.

According to the 2016-17 data from the Australian Marine Debris Initiative database, plastics make up 75% of the rubbish collected and hauled off the beaches by volunteers around the country during beach cleanups. It is now estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic enter oceans annually.

In addition, a 2013 study from the University of Western Australia & CSIRO found that micro-plastics were present in high levels in the waters around our coasts. Micro-plastics are small fragments of plastic less - than 5mm in size - and are created from larger plastic products being broken down by the effects of sunlight, wind and ocean waves. Micro-plastics are of particular concern given they can be ingested by smaller organisms and carried up the food chain, causing harm to the health of many ocean species.

Micro plastics

So can collecting plastic during beach cleanups make a difference, or is it just a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of plastic that flows in each day?

There is a strong case for ongoing cleanup of plastic pollution, even if it can only provide a short-term environmental benefit. For every piece of plastic that is removed from the beach, there is one less dangerous item floating around that could degrade further into microplastics or harm a sea creature. Cleanups also restore beach habitats, improving their ecology and resilience.

As well as the environmental benefits, beach cleanups can increase participants knowledge and awareness of ocean litter. A 2019 study found that encouraging locals to clean beaches improves perception of the problem and attitude towards taking action. More people inspired to change their behaviour through cleanups will result in less plastic consumption by individuals and create a ripple effect of change within the community.

Narawntapu clean up string

However, many activists argue beach cleanups alone are not enough to address the growing problem of ocean litter. It's like the leaky faucet argument - if we only focus on mopping up the floor, the sink will continue to overflow.

To ensure the future of our oceans, we must find and reduce the use of plastic at its source. The data collected from beach cleanups on the types and amounts of ocean litter found can provide important clues that help determine where it comes from. This data can be used to empower individuals and groups to advocate for change from our governments and businesses, and inform long term solutions for plastic pollution in their community.

That’s why Conservation Volunteers Australia has launched #SeaToSource - an initiative which is educating and empowering people to engage their local community in ways to find and reduce sources of ocean litter.

While we may be unable to take part in group beach cleanups right now, there are still lots of ways to get involved with Sea to Source online. You can get started by heading to our hub (hit the button below!) and choose your first step in tackling this important issue.

For example, you can:

· Start a Challenge to reduce plastics in your local community (Challenges will be released from July 2020 onward)

· Have your say on the Community Platform

· Share the #SeaToSource message with your friends, family and networks online

So what is the final verdict on beach cleanups? Although not the whole answer, beach cleanups are an important part of preventing ocean litter when used to engage communities and inspire lasting change. We look forward to bringing people back together on our beaches soon!