Plastic pickers: Taking on the litter louts

By Gemma Ryall
BBC News

media captionForget the Wombles - meet the litter champs

Most people get angry when they see litter discarded on our streets, beaches and beauty spots.

But there's a small, passionate army of volunteers who are taking action - come rain or shine, they are out and about with their bin bags.

Keep Wales Tidy says more people are joining them - putting it down to the so-called "Blue Planet" effect following the television series narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

Nappies, coffee cups, and even bottles full of urine - they clear it all.

So what motivates these litter picking champions? And what are the most unusual items they've found?

"I found a plastic astronaut"

image copyrightTina Triggs

Tina Triggs - co-founder of the Cambrian Beach Guardians group in Gwynedd

We get so much litter left by tourists who come to our beautiful beaches in the summer months.

Many of them who use our beaches, like Barmouth and Harlech, simply don't like to tidy up after themselves.

Last bank holiday was awful, it was as if people came to the beach and then just stood up and left everything behind when they went home.

image copyrightTina Triggs
image captionTina found this plastic figure from 1959 on a beach

Plates were left, nappies, disposable BBQs, kids' toys, buckets and spades, towels... Sometimes we even find broken deckchairs and beach umbrellas.

I just don't understand the mentality - that people can just leave things in such a beautiful place.

That's why my friend Dianna and I decided to form the Cambrian Beach Guardians a few years ago to clean up our beaches. We are now finding more people want to join with us to help - Blue Planet really raised awareness.

The funny thing is it's actually a really nice and enthusing thing to do. It's beautiful on the beach, it gets me out of the house and it feels really good to leave the beach clean.

image copyrightTina Triggs
image captionSome of the rubbish left by daytrippers at Barmouth Beach

The most common thing we find is plastic but we also find some really unusual things.

I recently found a small plastic astronaut figure while cleaning up Penmaenpool estuary - when we did some research we found out it was from a decades-old cereal packet.

It had been in the sea and was pristine - which is worrying as it shows how long plastic takes to biodegrade.

image copyrightCambrian Beach Guardians
image captionLitter collected by the Cambrian Beach Guardians

"I find a lot of gun cartridges from cruise ships"

image copyrightVicky Pearson
image captionVicky clears a lot of fishing waste washed onto the beach

Vicky Pearson - volunteer litter picker at Druidston Haven beach, near Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire

I moved to Pembrokeshire two years ago and a beach near my home was looking for a volunteer to keep it clean and tidy.

I got in touch with Keep Wales Tidy and they offered me support and some resources - now I go about once a week and I do it all on my own.

It's not very accessible - there's a five minute walk from the road down a steep path so it's not a very popular beach which is nice.

The litter I collect isn't left by tourists - 98% of what I collect is stuff that comes in from the sea. There's a lot of fishing rope, up to 1m in length sometimes, often in one big tangle... lots of fishing crates that have fallen off boats and fishing buoys.

image copyrightKeep Wales Tidy
image captionVicky Pearson won Keep Wales Tidy's Volunteer of the Year award in November

There's also a lot of plastic drinks bottles and bottle tops, a few kids toys, dummies, shoes - always one and never a pair.

Surprisingly I find lots of gun cartridges - they have clay pigeon shooting on cruise ships that they just fire into the sea.

I love the beach and I want to enjoy it without it being full of plastic. I do sometimes think "gosh, this is an endless task". I spend a few hours cleaning and then go back a few days later to see there's more. But I think that's maybe a lot less going back into the sea.

I find a lot of balloon strings which isn't good as turtles eat balloons thinking they are jellyfish. I've also heard of gannets getting their legs tangled up in fishing wire - I find it unbelievable that people are so ignorant about what happens to the waste they throw away. All you need to do is pick it up.

Most rubbish is washed up onto my beach during windy weather and storms. At the end of January I spent eight hours filling 12 bags of stuff. Earlier that month I filled 18 bags in just four hours.

All of them then need to be carried up to the road for the council to collect - it's quite a steep path so it's quite a hard job.

"One guy stopped to give me a tenner"

image copyrightKeep Wales Tidy
image captionDave Pugh is a Keep Wales Tidy litter champion - the organisation gives him bags and a litter picking stick

Dave Pugh - volunteer litter picker in Newbridge-on-Wye in Powys

I started litter picking four years ago after going for a bike ride - on one particular road I went on, there was so much litter it spoilt the ride.

I now go out litter picking whenever I can and I often combine it with a 20-mile bike ride - it's my main hobby.

I've adapted my bike so I can hang a recycling bag off one side of the bike rack and a general waste bag on the other.

image copyrightKeep Wales Tidy

I then cycle around the countryside, stopping to pick up litter with my stick. I fill a bag and leave it along the route - then go back later to collect them all up.

I get a lot of satisfaction from it - I think I've done a good job and if I go down that road again it's nice to see it clean.

I do find it hard to understand how people can just throw litter from a car - which is how most of the litter gets on the country roads where I live.

There are a lot of bottles, crisp packets and baby wipes. Disposable coffee cups have become a huge problem in recent years.

One thing that disgusts me is finding urine in bottles just discarded at the side of the road. Why would anyone do that? I find quite a lot - once I emptied a five-litre bottle full of urine and another time an even bigger bottle exploded as I tried to clean it up. It was awful.

But people are really positive when they see me and thank me.

One time I remember a van passed me and then stopped very quickly. A man got out and I thought "uh oh, I'm in a bit of trouble here...".

But he came up to me and thrust a tenner into my pocket. I said "you don't have to do that". But he said: "Take it, you're doing a great job."

"I get a huge sense of satisfaction"

image copyrightGareth Jones
image captionLlandyrnog litter pick team - one of many cleaning up communities around Wales

Alison Henshaw - volunteer litter picker near Ruthin, Denbighshire

I've been litter picking since I was a teenager and I'm in my late 50s now. In school we had a talk from Keep Britain Tidy and I got so upset about the idea of little critters getting stuck in bottles and dying.

Now I take a bag with me every time I go out with my dogs. I also go out purposefully on a big litter pick once every three months.

image copyrightAlison Henshaw
image captionSome of the waste bags filled by Alison and other volunteers

It's sadly still plastic bottles that I see most. Occasionally I see waste from whole McDonald's meals thrown away - you see the fries container at the side of the lane, then a bit further along you see the burger container and then a bit further down the drink container.

Most of what I pick up has been thrown out of a car which I just can't understand - they could easily take it home.

It's that attitude that some people have that it's someone else's responsibility.

Saying that, there's so much more enthusiasm now among people who want to help in our litter picks - we did an organised pick a few weeks ago and 10 of us collected 22 large Keep Wales Tidy waste bags in a few hours.

We've found a few unusual things - when we were doing a pick along the River Clwyd we found a side curtain from a lorry - it was about 8ft long and 6ft high and was all concertinaed up.

I've also found a nice mug and some pristine socks which I washed and gave to a charity shop - once I even found a £10 note in a hedge.

I get a huge sense of satisfaction at the end of it all and there's also research that shows if a place is kept clean people are less likely to drop litter. So that motivates me too.

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