Andrew Vine: Don’t let our beaches be wiped out by the litterers

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THERE is a tide sweeping over Yorkshire’s beaches that threatens to despoil our glorious coastline.

It is washing in pollution and threats to both wildlife and the countless thousands of families who will begin heading for the coast during the looming Easter weekend, heralding the start of the tourism season.

This foul tide is coming from some of those visitors to the coast as well as from inland – an unnatural flood of litter and carelessly discarded cleansing wipes, turning too many beaches from Whitby to the Humber into rubbish tips.

Gradually, and depressingly, the amount of waste on our beaches is on the increase.

Last week’s report by the Marine Conservation Society after its annual litter-pick around the coastline of Britain found that the volume of rubbish had increased by 6.4 per cent compared to 12 months before. And within those findings, one glaring statistic stood out.

The amount of used wet wipes had shot up by 50 per cent, a nasty wave of detritus caused by people somewhere inland flushing them down the toilet instead of depositing them in a bin.

The wipes do not break down in the sewerage system, and so they are washing up on the sands, adding to a stinking accumulation of rubbish which included sanitary items, bits of clothing and shoes this year.

There is no finer coastline anywhere in Britain than Yorkshire’s, nor any beaches that are more enchanting for families.

The broad expanses of sands at Bridlington, Filey and Scarborough are wonderful, timeless playgrounds for children and adults alike, and the thought that they are being polluted by the unthinking as well as the loutish is heartbreaking.

Last summer, while walking back towards Filey’s Coble Landing from the Brigg late in the afternoon as the families who had been on the beach all day were packing up to leave, I saw one large group decamp, leaving their day’s litter behind.

Crisp packets, empty fizzy drink cans, half-eaten sandwiches, plastic bags and all the other leftovers of a day out were just dumped on the sand.

What a shameful thing to do, and 
how poor an example to set the children in the group.

A few other people were just as downcast at seeing the rubbish left, so between us we collected it and dumped it in a bin, only a few yards away. Plainly it was too much trouble to reach for the family responsible.

It’s distasteful handling other people’s litter, but we were all of a mind that it was worse to ignore it.

We have a litter problem in our country anyway. As Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield Attercliffe and chairman of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee pointed out in The Yorkshire Post last Friday, it costs the taxpayer as much as £850m a year to clean up, which is a staggering figure.

Urban litter is bad enough, but it’s altogether more troubling when rubbish fouls our shoreline and sea.

For all the timeless qualities of our coastline, it is a fragile place and 
the balance between its enjoyment 
by visitors and the survival of the 
wildlife that depends upon it is a 
delicate one.

But there is a lesson that we can draw from the fight against urban litter to help safeguard the coastline.

Towns and cities have, quite rightly, got tough in recent years by introducing patrols that issue spot fines to those dropping rubbish, whether it be cigarette ends or fast-food packaging.

This hits offenders where it hurts, in the pocket, and also carries the benefit of shaming them.

It’s time to think about similar patrols for the sands. Certainly, there are cost implications for hard-pressed local authorities, but keeping our beaches pristine has to be worth it not only because that would help safeguard the natural environment but also maintain their attractiveness to visitors.

And it’s unfortunately true that there is a category of the loutish who will leave rubbish behind – and fail to admonish their children for doing likewise – unless they face a sanction for doing so. A spot fine might be just the short, sharp shock they need to mend their ways.

For those who are more thoughtless than boorish in leaving rubbish behind, perhaps more signs urging them to bag it and dump it might be the way forward, as part of a campaign of encouragement to keep the shoreline clean.

Tackling the problem of a tide of used wipes washing over the sands is more problematical. Manufacturers could help by introducing packaging that warns more prominently that they must be binned, not flushed, and in the longer term look at making wipes from biodegradable material.

With time, effort, commitment and yes, money, we can be more successful than King Canute ever was at pushing a tide back. It’s undoubtedly worth doing in order to ensure that Yorkshire’s coastline remains timelessly beautiful for everybody who treasures it, as well as those generations not yet born.