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How much rubbish do you think can be washed up
in 24 hours on a beach?

Pollution on the Beach

In August 2019, whilst on holiday, we noticed large amounts of plastic waste washed up on a beach in Thailand. We wondered why it had not been cleared up by the big hotels nearby, as we thought it would be in their interest to have nice clean beaches nearby for their clientele. This beach was situated on the west coast of Phuket Island. It is just off the Andaman Sea and the plastic is most likely to have originated from India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh or Thailand itself (see map of the area right.)

In an attempt to understand more about the challenges of cleaning up plastic waste from beaches we decided to try and find out how much rubbish would be deposited in a 24 hour period. This would allow us to get an idea of the size of the problem facing those attempting to clear up these beaches.

We cleaned a 10 metre stretch of beach in Thailand of all the plastic and other debris we could find at the high tide mark. We then returned 24 hours later to see what had been washed up along the same stretch. There would have been 2 high tides during that period. The photos below show what was washed up at the high tide line on the beach along the 10 m stretch after the 24 hour period. There was also a lot more rubbish spread more thinly over this stretch of beach.

The following photo was taken of the high tide mark line across the beach. We think that the majority of this rubbish has been washed up by the tide rather than been dropped by passing people, due to the partially damaged surface texture of the plastic pieces found and the presence of small muscles/shells attached to the plastic. This seemed to indicate that the rubbish had been in the sea for some time.

A map of the Island of Phuket, in Thailand

The levels of pollution washed up over a 24 hour period were quite severe. See the montage of 14 photos for the whole stretch of beach that was cleared between the two wooden markers.

Some close up photos of the worst areas are shown below. As well as plastic bottles and plastic flip flops, we saw large amounts of small pieces of low density polystyrene present across the whole beach. These originate from polystyrene packaging that has broken up in the water. As they are so small they are quite difficult to clear up.

Close up of a particularly polluted area of beach

Close up of another area of the beach – This area can be seen to contain a broken glass fluorescent bulb and other non-plastic rubbish. Plastic appears to only be a part of the causes of pollution on beaches.

After these photos were taken, all of the rubbish in this section of beach was cleared, and a bag full of rubbish was collected, weighing several Kilograms, but not weighed, see right.

Some distinctive items of rubbish were collected for identification purposes, to get an idea of where this rubbish originated. One piece of rubbish was a bottle top from a drinks manufacturer which is likely to have originated from Thailand because the company is based there, and Thailand is their largest market. So it would appear that this rubbish has originated from this country or from surrounding countries.

A recent paper [1] estimated that in 2010, 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with an estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of it entering the ocean. Thailand seems to be the 6th largest contributor to marine plastic in the world, according to the same paper. This source also concludes that without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.

[1] Source Jambeck, J. R., et al. “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean.” Science, vol. 347, no. 6223, 13 Feb. 2015, pp. 768–771., doi:10.1126/science.1260352.