One clean beach

Why is my local beach now free of plastic litter?

No pretty photograph for this one. How can you take a snap of something that isn’t there?

Plastic litter on my local beach, that’s what.

I moved to Spain 15 years ago. My beach walks were interrupted by regular collections of litter, almost all plastic of one sort or another: drinks bottles, throwaway shopping bags, formless lumps of polystyrene, broken tangles of fishing net. It was densest along the shoreline, so jetsam (nice word: its counterpart flotsam is floating junk).

Recently I have had to leave my spandex Supergramps suit at home. There is hardly any to collect. On reflection, the change has been slow, though I’ve only just noticed it. Why has this happened?

The municipality has been putting an effort into the beach. It’s a standard policy in seaside resorts to try to move upmarket to catch tourists with more to spend, so there are more chiringuitos, beach playgrounds, access ramps for wheelchairs, free showers, dustbins and so on. The litter disappearance is no doubt partly down to the Alcaldía (among many Spanish words in administration and commerce with Arabic roots) putting more effort into beach cleaning. However, I’ve very rarely seen the crews: I suppose they do their work earlier in the morning than I get up. The thing is, the beach is still litter-free at 8 in the evening, time enough for dedicated louts to cover it in rubbish. Much less is being dumped now. Something else is going on.

There is a pretty theory of tipping points that might explain it, a variant of “broken windows” : the idea is that while many people will add their trash to an already polluted environment, few will be the first in a clean one. So Spanish beaches and South Bronx streets alike have two equilibria: Switzerland and slum. The hypothesis is that the cleanup has been vigorous enough to flip the beach to the former. Alternatively, the sight of eccentric foreigners ostentatiously picking up plastic bottles has started a social meme of approval and disapproval, which has by itself reached the general tipping point. I don’t buy this as a significant part of the story, flattering though it is.

The big problem with the tipping-point theory is the sheer variety of social groups who would have had to flip at the same time. Beach litter can be generated by:
Beach users:

  • Spanish local residents
  • Foreign local residents (subdivided by nationalities)
  • Summer Spanish tourists
  • Foreign summer tourists (subdivided by nationalities)

Sea users:

  • local Spanish inshore fishermen\
  • local recreational boat owners (we have a large marina)
  • commercial shipping in the channel a few miles offshore (subdivided into cargo and cruise ships)

Possible river users:

  • local Spanish farmers

The clean beach requires similar and parallel action by all these groups (well, I’m not sure about the farmers). They do not interact much with each other, and in one case - the deep-sea shipping crews and passengers - not at all with the landlubbers. The kind of mutual observation of behaviour and exercise of social pressure required by the tipping point story can only happen on a very weak scale.

The rival theory is that this simply reflects a broad, and pan-European, change in sensibility. Dropping litter used to be OK, except for anal-retentive parents, cops and teachers, now it isn’t. Compare smoking. Could someone please mine Twitter for the spontaneous thoughts of teenagers on plastic and litter? I suspect these have gone from “Eek, spoilsport crumblies” to “Eek, terminally uncool yobs”. Note also that it has required both top-down public policy (beach cleaning, plastic bag fees) and bottom-up movement in civil society.

Trivial? Not if you can generalise it it to the much bigger problem of plastic pollution in general. The cumulative global stock of unrecycled plastic waste has been estimated at 6.3 billion tonnes. The half-life in a landfill varies from 10 to 1000 years. Arctic snow is awash in microplastic particles, and plastic rubbish has been found at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

As a tiny first step, many European governments have introduced nominal minimum charges by shops for plastic bags. A 5c bag fee is the ultimate test of nudge theory, but it does seem to be working. My local roast chicken takeaway has, without legislative pressure, also introduced the more expensive (15c) option of a nice paper carrier bag: it finds a good many takers. (Not me, I take my own Supergramps insulated bag.) Is the mechanism here that eco-virtue reduces guilt for resorting to a takeaway rather than cooking a Real Meal at home? If that’s so, still fine by me.

Memo to self: research a proper blog post on the cost of sustainable packaging. Meanwhile, my clean beach offers hope that the needed change is doable.

All right, a photo of my ordinary beach at sunset. Nothing special, but I like it.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

2 thoughts on “One clean beach”

  1. I have noticed a possible smaller-scale “tipping point” effect on a public bicycle/pedestrian trail near my home, converted from a disused rail line. In the past I and others made occasional trash-collecting runs along the our stretches of it, as a voluntary public service. That has been much less necessary in recent years, and my best explanation is such a tipping point. It was kept clean enough to discourage “marginal” potential trash droppers, and now it stays pretty neat without concerted clean-up.

  2. Way to go, James! I pick up trash sometimes at the beach too … usually just if it’s something that could hurt someone or if it’s unusually large. (It’s a beach near people and if I picked up every little thing, I couldn’t commune with nature.) On my To Do list of things that may not ever happen, I plan to bring a pair of nabbers and a bag and really do it right. My favorite plastic trash is when kids leave their beach toys. I like that they think the world is their living room - it’s cute when *they* do it.

    You know … kendoran too … maybe what we need is a website for these public mini makeovers. Who doesn’t love a makeover?

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