• Marine Conservation

Beach cleaning: A big impact with small things

Article by Zaytoen Domingo

Zaytoen Domingo

Posted: February 11, 2020

Beach cleaning is one of the easiest ways to make a tangible impact on the environment.

You may not see the full impact you are making by picking up a tiny cigarette butt or a bottle cap. But each of these things adds up.

We looked at the 2019 International Coastal Cleanup survey and their list of the top ten littered items found in pollution on beaches today. 

Find out what they are and why these items are on the list.


Top litter found on beaches:

1) 5,716,331 cigarette butts

Did you know that the filters of cigarettes contain non-biodegradable plastic fillers? This means they don’t decay even when you squish them under your feet.

Instead, many cigarette butts find their way into the ocean for a swim with the fish. Unfortunately, they are not your average swimmers. Fish mistake the butts, along with other microplastic waste, for food.

The butts leach toxic chemicals such as arsenic and nicotine into the water. This means that they affect the health of the fish who consume them.


2) 3,728,712 plastic food wrappers

Plastic food wrappers are everywhere. What difference does it make if we toss the wrapping of a tiny sweet to the ground? Let’s find out.

Plastic food wrappers are made up of many non-renewable materials like aluminium. The mixture of many non-renewable materials in a single wrapper makes it more difficult for plastic wrappers to break down.

Food wrappers are made this way to make sure the food is protected and preserved for a long time. That also means that the wrapper lasts too.

There are approximately 7,53 billion people in the world. Imagine every person dropped a tiny wrapper on the ground?

Those tiny wrappers go from one small thing to a group of 3,728,712 small things that add to ocean plastic pollution and pollution on beaches. Why not just put a wrapper in your pocket and throw it away when you reach a bin? 

If you aren’t sure if it goes into a waste bin or a recycling bin, there’s an interesting test you can do. If the wrapper crinkles, it means it can’t be recycled.


3) 3,668,871 straws, stirrers


If you’ve eaten out lately, I’m sure you’ll have noticed the new paper straws that come with your drinks. This is an environmentally friendly initiative businesses are taking on to reduce their contribution to pollution.

You might be surprised that this tiny piece of plastic can be a harmful pollutant, but its size is exactly why. The length and bendability of the plastic straw makes it possible for fish to get tangled in them or to consume them. The size also makes it difficult to recycle.

If you are able to drink straight from a glass or can, then straws won’t be necessary. This small act of not using a plastic straw can actually encourage other people around you to be environmentally conscious in small ways.

The small stuff counts!


4) 1,968,065 forks, knives and spoons

Plastic cutlery is an easily-missed form of pollution. Like straws, they are given to us when we order takeaway meals.

Most of the time, it isn’t our choice to eat with them, as alternatives aren’t always available. But we can decide what we do with the waste once we’ve finished a meal.

Wash and throw away plastic utensils in a designated recycling bin. An even better option is to carry your own set of metal cutlery in your bag.



5) 1,754,908 plastic beverage bottles

Plastic bottles are made up of a bunch of synthetic materials bound together with chemicals. Almost all plastic bottles are made up of a material known as Bisphenol A (BPA), but what is that?

BPA is the chemical that strengthens plastic and makes it see-through. The advantages of BPA are that it protects the product, extends shelf life and is durable enough to be reused.

But its durability is also what makes it non-biodegradable. According to the World Economic Forum, it takes 450 years for a plastic water bottle to break down.

It is better to purchase a glass or stainless steel bottle that can be reused multiple times.

6) 1,390,232 plastic bottle caps and 728,892 plastic lids

A hermit crab using a plastic bottle lid as a shell.


Plastic bottle caps might seem insignificant as long as the bottle it was attached to has been thrown away, right? Not quite.

These small items add to ocean plastic pollution and cause pollution on beaches a lot faster than we think because of the long lifespan that plastic has. Just like those cigarette butts, plastic caps are also mistaken for food.

Plastic lids include lids to containers. Have you noticed that plastic lids are different from their containers? 

Lids are usually colourful, thick and sturdy which makes sense since it needs to secure the contents of the container. But that also means that they are more durable than their containers and more difficult to break down.

Can you put a lid on tossing plastic to the ground?

7) 964,541 plastic grocery bags and 938,929 other plastic bags


Have you ever noticed that a plastic bag turned upside down looks like a jellyfish? And did you know that jellyfish are a primary food source for turtles and other marine life? 

This means that plastic bags being littered in our already polluted oceans might be mistaken for food and consumed by marine creatures. Plastic bags are not biodegradable, no matter how much you chew them.

A great way to avoid this is to help clear the clutter on a beach clean. You can do this by yourself when you visit the beach or you can join a group on a beach cleaning program.

Grocery bag or not, plastic bags are convenient for our goods but not for ocean plastic pollution.



Material bags are an excellent alternative, and the best part about them is that you can fold them up and use them again and again. 

Can you try to use a material bag next time you go shopping? 

8) 656,276 plastic cups and plates

Takeaway items like plastic cups and plates, are some of the easiest things to toss aside after a good meal. Many of these items are actually not recyclable.

For example, foam or styrofoam is made from polystyrene. This soft material is easy to crush in your hands, so it must be broken down easily in the ocean, right?

On the contrary, styrofoam lasts up to 50 years in the ocean. Because it is so lightweight, it makes it easy to blow out of landfills and into waterways, leading to the ocean plastic pollution and causing pollution on beaches.

Its soft makeup also means it is easy to break into small pieces. These pieces end up as plastic pollution in the ocean and, just like all other small pieces of plastic, they appear to be food for the fish.



While food containers may be convenient for leftovers, they last a lot longer in the ocean than last night’s meal. One way this has been made easier for us to recycle, is the availability of public bins near most food outlets.

The bins usually have a compartment for paper, plastic and other waste. They even have stickers indicating which kinds of waste goes where.

Have a look out for these useful bins next time you grab a bite to eat. You can also incorporate this system in your own home.

You can do a little more than disposing of your waste properly. You can volunteer to clean up plastic pollution in the ocean.

Do you know how many of your own bottle caps are in this statistic? Probably not. Why don’t you join us on a beach cleaning program to pick them up? 

Zaytoen Domingo is an intern at the GVI Writing Academy. The Writing Academy is a skills-development program that pairs development editors with budding travel writers. Learn more about the program here.

By Zaytoen Domingo

Zaytoen Domingo is a content writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in the Masters program in English at the University of the Western Cape. After graduating with an Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing, Zaytoen completed a skills-development program for writers and became an alum of the GVI Writing Academy.
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