AT THE WEEKEND MY FAMILY AND I WERE INVOLVED IN THE GREAT BRITISH BEACH CLEAN. As part of a nationwide, end of summer event, run by the Marine Conservation Society, we were joining with others across the UK to take on the task of litter-picking and also making a record of our findings.
Here in Northern Ireland, our event, organised by the volunteer group Grass Roots NI, and led my Ken Orr, took place at Ballyhornan Strand near Strangford. At first glance it was hard to believe that we would find much rubbish at all. The sun was shining brightly and as we made our introductions, we chatted about what a beautiful piece of coastline it was. This beach was completely new to me and my family and we couldn’t believe we had never visited it before. A stunning stretch of beach with a small island just offshore and a large rocky patch of ground, rich for budding explorers to spend time hunting in the numerous rock pools.
Ken gave us our instructions, made sure we were kitted-out with gloves to protect our hands, and off we trudged down the beach, bucket in hand to see what we could gather. It didn’t take us too long to realize that the beach was actually covered in tiny pieces of plastic – bottle tops, straws, fishing line and other unidentifiable chunks of plastic.
I was surprised to find garments that had washed up on the beach – socks, a hi-viz jacket, boxer shorts, tracksuit bottoms and other random pieces of fabric. Having discussed with my 3 boys on the car journey across to the beach clean what we expected to find we were more than a little surprised by this. We had assumed we would find lots of plastic bottles and coffee cup lids, and although we did unearth these items there were nowhere near as many as we had expected.
We worked from shortly after 10 until around 12.30 and in that time my family of 5 managed to fill at least 5 buckets full of waste. That’s an awful lot when you consider most of it was tiny pieces of plastic and fabric. The boys couldn’t believe what they were seeing and the conversation we were able to have with them was brilliant. This was hands-on education about the responsibility we have to care for our beautiful planet.
We are a very outdoors family and as we talked we not only realized how important it is to keep our natural world in good shape so that we can enjoy it for recreation but my middle son, the budding palaeontologist was mightily concerned about the effect all this rubbish was having on animals. And rightly so!
I half expected the children to get bored halfway through the operation, which records all the findings and contributes to a nationwide survey about the condition of our beaches. However, they kept their gloves on and got stuck in and picked up rubbish as we worked our way up and down the beach. My youngest son was really enthusiastic, he’s 7 years old, and when I asked him why it was so important to do things like this he replied: ‘We only have one world. We need to look after it.’ The message was seeping in through visually seeing the effect of over-consumerism, over-use of plastic and mindless littering. And physically lifting the debris from a 100-metre stretch of beach was also highlighting the mammoth task at hand. We were a small number of people playing a small part in a bigger picture. But just by being there and contributing to the mission, we were all helping our planet to be healthier. Imagine how effective we could be if more people got involved in helping our world recover and blossom.
My eldest son was most keen on helping with the task of tallying up our findings. We had to manually pick through the rubbish (not the nicest task in the world, but necessary for the survey) and record each item on a very detailed chart. He managed this job very well and as team we were very proud of our efforts.
After a quick lunch-break, we continued with the clean-up operation but no longer needed to take a note of what we found. We walked to the far end of the beach with the intention of working our way back and from 1 until 2.30 we collected another 6 buckets full of waste. Unbelievable! We weren’t the only team either, there were at least 5 teams gathering similar amounts of rubbish, meaning by the end of the day we had filled lots of bin bags.
There’s no denying that it’s a pretty gross job picking up other people’s litter, and some might not think it’s a suitable job for children. However, Ken was extremely thorough in his instructions. We weren’t to pick up needles or sharp items. He told the children if they weren’t sure what something was, or if they were uncertain whether or not it was safe to collect, they needed to call an adult to advise. Thick gardening gloves were provided to protect hands as well as wipes for cleaning up afterwards. We stayed with our boys the entire time, explaining and discussing the purpose of our task as well as our findings. At no point did I think it was unsuitable. Quite the opposite in fact. They were learning so much through this hands-on experience and their enthusiasm surprised me.
Once the job was complete we spent some time exploring in the rock pools, revelling in the glorious sunshine after a week of heavy rain. As my oldest boy and I walked side by side I asked him what he had thought of the day.
He said: ‘When you told me yesterday what we would be doing today I thought it would be boring and a complete waste of time. But it wasn’t boring. It was interesting and I feel good that we have done something helpful for our world.’
I’m not sure there’s a better endorsement than that! On the way home I was even asked if we could take part again next year and I know they’ve been telling their friends and teachers about the experience.
It was definitely worthwhile taking part for numerous reasons. Seeing the rubbish first-hand was a real eye-opener. It was astonishing that this beach, that looked so stunning from a distance, could have so much waste lying on it. The actual process, although at times a little disgusting, was actually fairly therapeutic. Walking up and down the beach on a sort of stinky treasure hunt with kids became a challenge to see who could unearth the most interesting piece of rubbish (a toy soldier!). We also made a whole bunch of new friends who I am sure we will work with again and I even bumped into a friend from school who I haven’t seen in around 17 years, so that was lovely! These connections, old and new, with like-minded people enrich our lives as we pursue fullness of life and life with intention. It is my hope that the experience taught my children lessons that will remain with them and that they now have a renewed sense of responsibility for our amazing world. They are the next generation after all and it is through them that future generations can learn to be more conscious in their choices.
I must say a massive thank-you to Ken at Grass Roots NI and his great team for allowing us to be involved and for their contagious enthusiasm for the natural world. They all chatted with the kids, giving them loads of cool facts and showing them insects and crab pincers, which they just loved!
More information about the work of the Marine Conservation Society can be found on their website http://www.mcsuk.org