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"So Christine...what about all this rubbish then?"

We quickly realised that an Oppie full of ropes and nets whilst easy to tow was pretty heavy to haul up the slipway on a trolley with wobbly wheels, but team effort got all 8 dinghies around to the sailing club yard and the RIBs safely put away. Enough for a day that had started before dawn!

Because everything to do with beach cleaning with boats is weather dependent, we had not arranged in advance for the council to come and collect. After a few phone calls that lead in circles, we got the mobile number of the guy who actually drives the bin lorry. Sorted!

But first we wanted to survey our haul. We had 8 boatloads, something approaching 800 kgs, of assorted garbage. The vast bulk of it, by weight or volume, was made up of nets and ropes. But it was everything else as well: traffic cones, trainers, buckets, assorted had plastic pieces, inhalers, cigarette lighters, shotgun cartridges, bottles, bottle tops, containers, washing up liquid bottles, toothbrushes, razors, pens and toys. And all this from an SSSI which is protected as a nesting site for Arctic terns.

Whiteness Spit and the post industrial land of McDermott's Yard in the middle. Our beach clean was along the last km or so of the spit.
Old photo of an oil rig under construction in the hey day of McDermott's Yard. Double decker bus for scale!

Whiteness Spit forms a barrier between the North Sea and the mile long lagoon behind it. Ten years ago we helped start a junior club sailing program and got permission to use the sheltered water behind the spit. Prior to that however, the site was a colossal industrial area. For 40 years, from the 1970's until 2001, the oil rigs of the North Sea were built in McDermott's Yard.

Much of the waste we were finding- the beaten up hard hats, the broken ear defenders, the massive ropes, sacking and sheeting- probably came from those days, blown off the site by SW winds and caught on the spit. The spit also collects the rubbish of the NE gales, pushing up onto the pebble banks.

Having met with plastic researchers at the National Environmental Research Council before setting off on our trip, we knew that it would be important to record what we found - to do the citizen science. When you go to remote places, you aren't finding yesterday's crisp packet as much as "historic rubbish" - degraded plastic, ropes and manmade objects that may have been exposed to a harsh environment for up to 60 years. We were looking for clues as to where and when the item might have been made. Research needs to be done on how quickly plastic is breaking down, and into what form, so the debris we collect is of significance. We filled in survey sheets, quantifying the rubbish from 2 100m strand line surveys and logging the data onto the national data base of the Marine Conservation Society Beach Watch program. From here it can be accessed by the public, researchers, DEFRA and ultimately policy makers in government, providing the hard evidence needed to make positive changes and ultimately to reduce the flow of waste into the ocean.

Lacey and Angie helped catalogue it all, being careful to keep the old rope bagged up as it was disintegrating into microfibres all the time. Angie posted an ad for the huge 6 inch diameter rope we had found- and a buyer was quickly found for "a £50 unique nautical garden feature". Traffic cones seem to always be in demand we re-homed anything useful and the rest went off to landfill. This is not a great solution of course, but it is all we can do for now, and at least it is no longer in the marine environment.

Club members came to chat. The club does beach cleans as part of their normal program, but it was the first time they had used the dinghies to bring back such a quantity. Paul was keen to keep the idea going and promised to let me know if they do any more. I was just relieved to know that the collection was confirmed and the boats all packed away, and that we could safely move on to our next stop without leaving behind a big problem!

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