Beach Guardians put plastic in its place

Rob Stephenson, right, with the Beach Clean volunteers at Swanpool. Photo copyright Jane Leigh

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky … “

And all I ask is a litter picker made of recycled plastic, a bag made from an abandoned festival tent, good eyesight and the aim of saving the planet.

Apologies to John Masefield, but I hope he would have been pleased to see more than 40 public-spirited individuals descend on Swanpool Beach in Falmouth for a litter-pick organised by Beach Guardian.

A Community Interest Company (CIC) based in Padstow, Beach Guardian was co-founded in 2017 by father and daughter team Rob and Emily Stevenson. I’ve attended several beach cleans, but this was different in that it was pretty well plastic-free to begin with, and it started with an introduction from Rob on what we might find.

The list included nurdles (the basic pea-sized pieces that are the starting blocks for plastic manufacturing), fishing bangles (clouds of tangled line and whatever’s snared within it), and pyroplastic (pieces of plastic fused together by heating). Mermaids’ purses (the egg cases of sharks, rays and dogfish) were also in the mix as something natural to look out for, and as an indicator of what’s at risk from the tide of plastic already in the oceans.

Even the kit provided for every volunteer is plastic-free. The litter pickers were from Waterhaul in Newquay: the green ones feature handles and ‘grabs’ made from polypropylene (from fishing gear recovered from the ocean), while the blue pickers’ handles and grabs are made from recycled facemask waste from NHS Royal Cornwall Hospital. And the collection bags are recycled from tents abandoned by festival-goers.

Duly kitted out, the volunteers set about weaving their way through clusters of beachgoers, clearing the area, while Rob explained how such events have changed since he and Emily first started five years ago.

He says:

“We started doing little local beach cleans around Padstow, but then the Blue Planet TV series came along and people wanted to do more. We realised that we didn’t just want to be picking up rubbish, but that we could raise awareness through what we’d collected. We were lucky enough to have the use of a building where we could store everything found on the beach cleans, and that turned into getting groups involved – schools, cubs, old people’s homes etc – to create artwork and see plastic pollution in a different light.”

Beach Guardian’s three aims are to engage, educate and empower, and involving other organisations has been key to that. Rob says:

“Plastic-Free Falmouth and the Marine Conservation Society are joining us at this event, and we’ve been working with Treliske Hospital in re-using PPE, and getting staff to come on volunteer days to have a break and get outdoors.

“We’ve also recently started working with Age UK to get inter-generational activities going, so you might see children, parents and grandparents working together. In the last week we’ve done three beach cleans near to Age UK hubs, where staff, volunteers and family members have all joined in.”

All of the plastic collected on the cleans gets transported back to Padstow where it gets sorted by volunteers of all backgrounds and ages. It’s then collated into different categories – cigarette butts, cotton buds, bottles and tops etc – and the data fed back to the Marine Conservation Society.

Rob explains: “The data provides evidence that helped get legislation in place to ban plastic straws and drinks stirrers, for example, and it also provides an overall picture showing the worst offenders in terms of items and where they wash up.”

As for the plastic, smaller pieces are cleaned, sterilised and sorted into colours for use in artwork, while fishing gear is used for large and small art installations such as Cetus, an 8m whale made of abandoned fishing nets known as ‘ghost gear’. To date Cetus has appeared at COP26, the Royal Cornwall Show, and Glastonbury, and Rob reckons it gets people thinking about using rubbish in new ways, whilst also demonstrating the longevity of plastic that’s thrown away.

One other aspect of beach cleaning that’s changed is the engagement factor. Rob says:

“At first we would send people off with a bag and a litter picker and we’d get maybe 10, or even 15, full sacks from one clean. Now we can struggle to fill one bag, and people are sometimes disappointed that there’s not as much plastic to be found as expected.

“That’s tribute to the local people who come out every day and pick up rubbish, but it does mean that the stuff we look for now is often smaller and harder to see. So we give out sieves so youngsters can go through the sand and find nurdles, search out fishing line that’s a real scourge for marine and bird life, and try to make it into a treasure hunt as you never know what you’ll find.”

Three bucket-loads of plastic picked up from the shore. Photo copyright the author

Debris recovered at Swanpool included general litter, a plastic beach toy, the tag from a lobster pot, a bleach bottle, a wooden block from a pallet (not a threat to marine life, maybe, but a potential issue for swimmers or kayakers) plus fishing line, and pieces of plastic from bodyboards and yacht flooring.

Rob adds:

“Each event ends with show and tell so that people will, hopefully, go away with stories of what everyone has found – and feel inspired to carry on doing their bit.”

This is the first year Age UK has been involved, with transport manager Ann Lewis making her beach clean debut at the Swanpool event. She explained:

“This year Age UK is celebrating its 50th anniversary, as well as the 20th anniversary of its transport division, and when we asked members of staff for ideas on how to celebrate they came up with doing a Beach Clean.

“So today staff and volunteers have come down to Swanpool to join in, and we’ve also taken part in events at Treyarnon and Porthpean. As a first timer I was a bit taken aback by how much we found and how much damage it does. I’ve watched TV programmes about the state of the oceans, but didn’t believe we’d have found this much. It makes it much more real, actually doing a beach clean.”

As well as taking part, Ann brought one of Age UK’s vehicles down to the beach.

“Eventually we want all the fleet to be electric,” she explains. “It shows what the organisation’s working towards, and both the Beach Clean and the vehicle show our commitment to helping the environment.”

Member of the public, Anne Fortune from Mylor Bridge, was taking part in her second clean, and her first with Beach Guardian. She said: “I liked the way Rob gave detailed information on what we might find, and on how the items found could provide valuable data on where they came from and how long they’d been there – it really illustrates how long plastic can last in the wild when you hear of someone finding a crisp packet that dates from 1982.”

She added:

“It was well organised and there was a really useful discussion at the end, when Rob went through what everyone had found. It was fun, very enjoyable, and fulfilled the mission to engage, educate and empower.”

To find a Beach Clean near you, please visit