Earlier this year, I wrote here about the plastic pellets that were appearing in large numbers on Charmouth and other nearby beaches in West Dorset in the south west of the UK. A group of us investigated the problem and discovered that many of the plastic pellets were biobeads, used by local water companies in sewage purification before the treated and purified effluent is discharged into the sea. We showed that, most likely, the biobeads were escaping, along with treated effluent, from the sewage works at Uplyme run by South West Water to pollute the very beaches they were intended to protect. The post created considerable interest at the time especially on Facebook. Then, a few weeks ago. the story was picked up by the local daily paper, the Western Morning News. Here is the article:
Should you wish to read the text of the article, I have enlarged it and cut it into two parts below.
As you can see, a local photographer, Richard Austin recently visited Charmouth Beach with his granddaughter and was shocked to find these plastic pellets littering the beach. The well-respected local journalist, Martin Hesp, then took up the story and the feature article was the result. In my opinion, he gives an excellent account of the problem stressing, in particular, the health implications for both children and marine life.
The Western Morning News asked South West Water (SWW) for a response and their Director of Wastewater, Andrew Roantree responded in the article. I was not asked to respond so I want to take up a few of the points he makes.
He says “From the photographs these (the pellets we found on the beaches) look as though they could be biobeads”. I’ll take that as a begrudging yes. Besides, we found the same pellets at the Uplyme sewage works and one of SWW’s employees confirmed that they are used there so we know they are biobeads.
He goes on to say that “…………….we are confident that there has been no loss of biobeads from the (Uplyme) site………. Any escape of biobeads is unacceptable……………….In 2017, we reviewed and updated the technical standard covering their use at our treatment works. This included requirements for storage of used and new biobeads. We also conduct regular site inspections………………….Uplyme Sewage Treatment Works has secondary and tertiary containment measures installed to prevent any biobeads escaping from the process units.”
When we visited the sewage works in February 2019, we found biobeads scattered around the site, so until quite recently biobead husbandry at Uplyme was not as rigorous as he implies.
We know that SWW uses biobeads at Uplyme and we know the identity of the two types of biobead used (knobbly black and ridged bright blue). These same biobeads appear on the beach at Charmouth so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that these two observations are linked.
When we visited in February 2019, the SWW representatives told us that the new containment measures at Uplyme were incomplete so escape of biobeads was still possible until a few months ago. Anyway, why did SWW go to the expense of installing extra containment measures if there were no containment issues in the first place?
The good news, if we are to believe Mr Roantree, is that containment of the biobeads at sewage works run by SWW is now much improved so there should be a gradual reduction in the numbers appearing on our beaches.
There is also a misunderstanding in the article. Biobeads are not “designed to catch nasty bits in the water”. They are designed to act as a solid support for bacteria to grow on and digest the sewage. Their ridged or knobbly nature provides a larger surface area to accommodate more bacteria to hasten sewage digestion. As they are made of plastic, they do absorb organic chemicals like PCBs from the sea but then so do nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.
It should also be acknowledged that the installation of the additional pellet containment measures by SWW results from the extensive activities of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition who first highlighted the biobead pollution problem on beaches in Cornwall (see report).
The picture at the head of this post shows Charmouth Beach with Golden Cap in the background.
This is a long post describing how a group of concerned people, including myself, noticed some unusual plastic pellets appearing on several beaches in the vicinity of Charmouth in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. After a tortuous investigation, we identified the source of the plastic pellet pollution as a local water company carelessly and unnecessarily discharging the pellets into the sea.
The story started on a sultry day in late July 2017. I was driving back from the Wareham area where I had been walking across one of the remaining fragments of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath, the fictional landscape that plays so important a part in his novel The Return of the Native. I found myself approaching Charmouth, a small village in west Dorset and decided I needed a cup of tea. Charmouth village lies a short distance inland from the sea and Charmouth beach is popular with families in the summer, the cliffs are famous for their fossils and in her novel Persuasion, Jane Austen refers to “its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs”.
I was the only customer in the Bank House Café that afternoon and as I waited for my tea, I noticed some copies of the village magazine, Shoreline. I picked one up and started to leaf through. It’s an interesting read but my attention was taken by an article about “nurdles” written by Eden Thomson, a volunteer at the local Heritage Centre that organises marine and fossil events. I quickly learnt that nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets used as easily transportable raw materials in the plastics industry where they are used to make many of the plastic goods we have become accustomed to. There is considerable loss of these pellets during transport and during use. Some of these lost pellets end up in the sea and Eden reported finding large numbers of turquoise pellets on the beach at Charmouth with light grey and dark grey also being common. I didn’t have time to go to the beach to look that day but my curiosity was piqued.
Looking for pellets
Now, when we walked on beaches, both Hazel and I looked to see if we could find any plastic pellets. It took me a while to get my eye in, Hazel saw them more quickly, but gradually I noticed a few pellets on most beaches. My first big find was at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone in south Devon after some hefty storms in mid October 2017 where hundreds were sprinkled along the strandlines. These were all 5mm or less across, some were lentil shaped and translucent, many were cylindrical and grey and a few were irregular grey and black with clear ridges. By reference to the Great Nurdle Hunt web site I reckoned most were nurdles but a few might be biobeads (see below).
Then in late October 2017 I had a chance to return to Charmouth and look at the beach. Not only was there a lot of general plastic pollution among reedy/woody debris either side of the river Char where it approaches the beach, but among this debris were many plastic pellets. There were a few of the translucent or yellow or green lentil shaped pellets, also some grey or black cylindrical pellets. Most of these were nurdles. Also, as Eden Thomson had described, there were many bright blue cylindrical pellets. When I examined these, I felt they were quite different from other pellets I had seen; in particular they had many fine ridges and I thought they might be biobeads (see below). We returned to Charmouth in January 2018 and again found many of the bright blue ridged pellets littered around the two sides of the river and on the car park edges. We also made a brief visit to West Bay, about 7 miles to the east of Charmouth and found many bright blue ridged pellets there as well.
Dawlish Warren is another beach where we find plastic debris especially after storms and we had a look for pellets in March 2018. We found them distributed along both inner and outer beaches, they were mostly cylindrical, pale blue, grey and green but there were a few knobbly dark grey pellets, some also having ridges. We also found a few of the bright blue ridged pellets seen at Charmouth.
Trying to understand
In trying to understand these observations, I was greatly helped by the influential report from the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC) lead by Claire Wallerstein. The CPPC had found huge numbers of black plastic pellets further west along beaches in Cornwall and, following extensive investigation, showed that these were biobeads, plastic pellets used in some sewage plants to promote sewage digestion and water purification. Biobeads are usually ridged or knobbly to provide a greater surface area for bacteria to grow and help digest the sewage. The CPPC showed that most likely the biobeads they found on beaches were escaping from biobead-dependent sewage plants run by South West Water, the local water purification and sewage company.
Based on their findings, I worked out that I was collecting both nurdles (preproduction plastic pellets) and biobeads. For the most part when I collected pellets from beaches in Devon, I found mixtures of nurdles of different shapes and colours together with a few black knobbly biobeads. At Charmouth and West Bay in Dorset, however, the predominant pellet was bright blue, cylindrical with fine ridges, typical of a biobead. There were definitely also some black knobbly biobeads on the beach at Charmouth. The four pictures below showing samples of pellets collected from two regions of Dawlish Warren beach in Devon and two sides of Charmouth Beach illustrate these differences quite well.
So, did South West Water (SWW) have a role in the biobead pollution appearing on Charmouth beach? The company runs a sewage works in nearby Lyme Regis based on biobead digestion. The actual works is located in Sleech Wood above the town but the purified sewage effluent is discharged into the sea some distance off the town of Lyme Regis below the Cardinal Buoy. I began to develop a working hypothesis whereby SWW uses these blue biobeads and probably also the black knobbly equivalent in their Sleech Wood works but containment of biobeads is incomplete and some are discharged into the sea and are washed back on to Charmouth and West Bay beaches. Another possibility was that pellets were being lost into the river Lim, which passes near the sewage works, to enter the sea with the river water.
A Nurdle Hunt
In the meantime, I took part in a nurdle hunt on Charmouth Beach organised by Sophie Thomas from the Charmouth Heritage Centre one Saturday in February 2018. There were 30 nurdle hunters on a bright sunny morning including Eden Thomson who wrote the article in Shoreline Magazine and it was good to meet her. It was also good to meet blogging friend Sarah West from Transition Town Bridport and her husband John. Altogether we collected 6650 pellets many of which were bright blue biobeads although a few black knobbly biobeads were mixed in with the blues. It is my impression that the black type may often be ignored in favour of the much more visible bright blue pellet.
I wrote an article for the local Marshwood Vale Magazine describing the nurdle hunt and its background. This was published in May 2018 and soon after, I was contacted by Joe Hackett of Transition Town Bridport who had organised a beach clean at West Bay (seven miles east of Charmouth) and found many bright blue pellets there. He had noted the similarity between the pellets found at West Bay and Charmouth and wondered if we could discuss the situation. We spoke by phone and have been in contact since then.
In March and April 2018, I became very frustrated at my inability to tie down the nature and the origin of these blue and black biobeads. I had contacted various academic experts, pressure groups and one local plastics company to ask if they could help me understand the nature of the pellets and the background to what was going on. I was very surprised to find that none of these people was prepared to get involved. Of all the people I contacted, only one replied and she was “too busy to help”.
I did investigate one possible hypothesis, namely that the biobeads were being lost from the Lyme Regis sewage works into the river Lim. I walked along the river Lim in Lyme Regis to see if any pellets were visible at the river’s edge but found none suggesting that this route was unlikely. When I talked to Joe Hackett, it turned out he had done the same accompanied by local environmentalist, Horatio Morpurgo. They also found nothing suggesting that pellets were not being lost in to the river Lim. This meant that most likely the biobeads were being discharged into the sea along with the treated sewage.
Claire Wallerstein from the CPPC offered to ask SWW what biobeads they used at their Lyme Regis sewage works and was told, “we don’t know and it would cost too much to use a crane to lift the lid to check”.
I enter the South West Water labyrinth
In desperation, I contacted the South West Water (SWW) Press Office in May 2018 and my enquiry was forwarded to Paul McNie, Environmental Manager of Waste Water Customer Service & Networks. I received a reply from Gavin Lincoln, Wastewater Treatment Process Consultant, asking what I wanted to know. I sent him a list of questions about biobead-dependent sewage treatment including asking what type of biobead was used at Lyme Regis but heard nothing. After discussions with Joe Hackett and Horatio Morpurgo, I wrote a paper letter to McNie in July 2018 asking about the nature of the biobeads used at the Lyme Regis Sewage Works. This occasioned a reply from Sue Richards, Customer Manager for SWW towards the end of July introducing herself as my dedicated case manager (it felt as though my enquiry ranked at about the same level as a leaking water pipe). I received a second letter in early August from Katie Hudson, also a Customer Services manager telling me that Paul McNie would be in touch about my queries. He never did get back to me and the rest of my interactions with SWW were through Sue Richards who, although courteous and helpful, appeared to be poorly briefed as she made some obvious errors of fact in her letters to me. The saga continued in this vein but she did reveal that the biobeads used at Lyme Regis were “black with a hint of blue” and after I asked what this meant she sent me a low-resolution photo printed on letter paper showing the biobeads used there. They all appeared to be black and strongly resembled one class of biobead found at Charmouth as well as the majority of those found by CPPC in Cornwall. I spoke to Sue Richards by phone several times and raised the issue of the blue biobeads only to have the conversation closed down quickly.
To summarise, SWW told us three contradictory stories:
They didn’t know the nature of the biobeads used at Lyme Regis sewage works (via Claire Wallerstein)
The biobeads used are black with a hint of blue
The biobeads used are black and knobbly
This was all very confusing and I was left not knowing what to believe.
Living the high life – visits to the sewage works
In the meantime, Joe Hackett had been busy organising visits to Exmouth and Lyme Regis sewage works as it was felt that this was our last chance to understand what was going on. The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition had visited the Plympton sewage works early in 2017 and found biobeads littered about the site. This was a key piece of information linking poor biobead housekeeping by SWW at the Plympton sewage works to the extensive biobead pollution on Cornish beaches.
The Exmouth visit took place in November 2018 but I was unable to be there. Those that visited had an interesting time and learnt about the basics of the biobead sewage treatment. They did not find any biobeads loose on the site but noticed a huge pile of used/depleted biobeads, the size of two buses, covered with sheeting. The SWW representative expressed his frustration over the problems the company faced with biobeads in the following admission “If we’d had a crystal ball back in the 1990s and could have seen how controversial plastics would have become, we might not have gone down this road”. I believe this was a reference to the pressure put on the company by Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC over losses of biobeads from the Plympton sewage works.
The Lyme Regis visit took place in February 2019 and a large group of us representing Transition Town Bridport, Charmouth Heritage Centre, Litter Free Coast and Sea Dorset, together with individuals each with their own interest gathered at the site in Sleech Wood. We were welcomed by two representatives of SWW, Rhidian Howells and Stephanie Jones who were both courteous and helpful. Rhidian Howells explained how the automated process removed large items from the crude sewage and then passed the remains through the biobead reactor where bacteria digested it. Ultraviolet irradiation completed the treatment and the effluent was then discharged to the sea. He went to some trouble to explain how SWW was installing new filters on all their biobead plants to make sure that biobead loss was minimised. The installation of these extra filters is a direct result of the work of Claire Wallerstein and the CPPC identifying the source of biobeads on Cornish beaches as South West Water.
While we were looking about the biobead reactor area, one of our party found a few of the bright blue ridged biobeads on the ground. A little later, someone found a clutch of black knobbly biobeads on the ground near the parking area. This immediately answered the question about the source of the biobeads on Charmouth beach: despite what SWW had told us we now knew both black and blue biobeads were used at the Lyme Regis sewage works (Howells confirmed this) and were most likely escaping from the reactors to end up in the sea. I became very angry with Howells at this point; as I explained to him, we had spent so much time and energy trying to identify the source of the biobead pollution at Charmouth. South West Water had fed us contradictory stories, when all along they knew the source of the pollution which was their own sewage works.
Chemical analysis of pellets
The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition biobead story featured on a special edition of Inside Out South West on BBC TV in October 2018. The programme included visiting Dr Andrew Turner at the University of Plymouth where he had been analysing pellets for Claire Wallerstein for potentially toxic elements. I wondered if similar analysis might help understand the Charmouth blue pellets so I contacted Dr Turner. I was most grateful when he replied quickly and in the affirmative. I made two special collections, one at Dawlish Warren and another at Charmouth and I also sent him some of the black biobeads picked up at the Lyme Regis sewage works.
While this was in progress, Dr Turner along with Claire Wallerstein and Rob Arnold published a paper detailing X-ray fluorescence analyses of nurdles and black biobeads collected at a variety of locations in the south west (including Plympton sewage works and several Cornish beaches) and elsewhere along the English Channel. The technique identifies potentially toxic elements in the pellets and, whereas nurdles were usually devoid of these contaminants, the black biobeads contained varying quantities of lead, bromine, cadmium and antimony, a chemical signature characteristic of recycled electrical equipment containing flame retardants. Sometimes the levels exceeded permitted levels rendering the pellets toxic and potentially hazardous to life.
Black biobeads collected at Dawlish Warren, Charmouth and at Lyme Regis sewage works had the same chemical signature (bromine and antimony and sometimes lead and cadmium) as the black biobeads collected at Plympton sewage works and along Cornish beaches. This shows that the same black biobead is used by SWW at different sewage works and is escaping to end up on local beaches in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Nurdles found at Dawlish Warren and Charmouth (lentil shaped and smooth, cylindrical) did not hold any toxic element contamination whereas the blue biobeads found at Charmouth contained copper probably part of the blue pigment used to give the distinctive colour.
I am most grateful to Andrew Turner for supporting us by analysing these pellets.
The source of the black and blue biobeads polluting Charmouth and West Bay beaches is the Lyme Regis sewage works run by South West Water where these pellets are escaping with treated sewage effluent to be discharged into the sea.
The black biobead is the same pellet found along beaches in Devon and Dorset and in huge numbers on Cornish beaches, it is made from recycled electrical equipment and may contain toxic levels of trace elements. South West Water is responsible for this extensive pollution.
Subsequent investigation found that the blue ridged biobead is also found at Burton Freshwater beach (a mile east of West Bay, found by Joe Hackett) and on the main sandy beach in Lyme Regis (about 2 miles west of Charmouth, found by Harry Dennis of Surfers Against Sewage). The pellets found on these beaches almost certainly come from the Lyme Regis sewage works
One sample of pellets that I collected from Westcombe beach near Kingston in south Devon showed surprisingly large numbers of the blue ridged biobeads. Perhaps this can be explained by proximity to SWW’s biobead-dependent sewage works at Modbury.
At Charmouth, West Bay and Lyme Regis, these biobeads are found in parts of the beach where children play in the summer. They are also found at Charmouth by the river where both gulls and ducks feed so it seems very likely that these birds will be accidentally ingesting pellets.
South West Water are installing extra filters at their biobead-dependent plants to minimise pellet loss as a result of the efforts of the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition. Providing that programme is completed and is successful, the number of biobeads on local beaches should diminish. This of course does not deal with the reservoir of biobeads now in the sea and also buried in sand. It is very difficult for me to see how these pellets can be cleaned up without damaging the fabric of the very beaches we wish to protect.
Greater legal protection for the marine environment should be introduced so that companies like SWW who release biobeads, also plastics companies that release nurdles could be prosecuted for polluting seas and beaches.
I should like to express my thanks to everyone who helped bring this tortuous story to a conclusion.
You may have never knowingly encountered a nurdle but these small plastic pellets are the raw material of the plastics industry and are ferried around the world in their millions. About the size of a small pea, nurdles come in many colours and they’re finding their way on to our beaches, killing wildlife and polluting the environment. I wanted to find out more about these unwelcome intruders, so I joined a nurdle hunt organised by the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.
Charmouth beach was surprisingly busy that morning but it was half term and, for mid-February, quite warm in the low sunshine. Many people were walking by the sea, taking advantage of the mild weather, perhaps hoping to find a fossil, but an expectant crowd had also gathered by the steps to the Heritage Coast Centre. At precisely midday, Sophie Thomas, one of the Centre wardens, walked down the steps together with local volunteer Eden Thomson and gathered us together. Sophie began by explaining what nurdles were and how they washed up on the beach from the sea. She emphasised the dangers these plastic pellets pose to wildlife such as birds and fish who mistake them for food. Each of us was given a pair of disposable gloves, to guard against toxic chemicals contained in the nurdles, and an empty margarine pot for nurdle collecting. Then off we went, about thirty of us, to hunt among debris washed up on the west bank of the river Char between the two beach car parks.
And what a fine sight we were! Young and old, locals and visitors, families and children, sitting or lying on the ground, enthusiastically scouring the debris for the plastic pellets. It was a fascinating event, although we did get some funny looks. Everyone found pellets in large numbers, not just on the surface but also buried a few centimetres down showing how pervasive they are. Some were smooth, grey and cylindrical and a few were lentil shaped, white, yellow or green. The vast majority, however, were bright blue cylindrical pellets, about 5mm in size, with fine ridges. The grand total for the group was 6650 pellets collected in 90 mins from this small section of beach, highlighting the extent of the contamination.
What do we know about nurdles and how they get into the sea to wash up on our beaches? These small plastic pellets are made from oil or natural gas to provide an easily transportable raw material for use in plastics factories all around the world. Most of the plastic products that now dominate our lives are made from nurdles and huge numbers of the pellets are transported by ship, so there is always the potential for spills. In October 2017, two containers of nurdles fell from a ship in the port of Durban leading to massive nurdle pollution along more than 1000km of beaches. Closer to home, the storm-damaged container ship, Napoli was beached off Branscombe early in 2007 leading to hundreds of containers breaking free. Two containers were filled with nurdles which washed up along many local beaches. These environmental disasters have been likened to oil spills, only worse as the nurdles do not break down.
Nurdles can also end up in the sea through careless handling at plastics factories. The environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage, visited several plastics companies in Cornwall and found nurdles littered around the sites. These will inevitably be blown or washed into drains and into the sea. Another kind of plastic pellet, wrinkly or ridged, has been found in large numbers on beaches in Cornwall by Rame Peninsula Beach Care. These are biobeads, easily confused with nurdles but with a completely different purpose. Some sewage works use biobeads as part of the wastewater treatment process and the pellets get into the sea through careless handling by water companies.
Why should we be concerned about nurdles and biobeads? They are a totally unnecessary form of pollution in our seas and on our beaches and their presence shows a lack of respect for the environment. They are now found all over the world wherever the sea meets the land: on beaches in industrialised countries or on isolated, sparsely populated islands. Not only do they pollute our beaches, they are eaten by seabirds and fish who mistake them for food. Once consumed, they block the digestive tract, lodge in the windpipe or fill the stomach leading to malnutrition and starvation. For example, analysis of dead puffins on the Isle of May in Scotland, home to one of the UK’s largest breeding populations of these birds, showed they had consumed nurdles alongside their usual diet of sand eels.
Nurdles are also a source of toxic chemicals that may exacerbate their physical effects. Freshly spilt nurdles may release chemicals such as plasticisers used in their manufacture. Nurdles that have been in the sea longer attract toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDTs. These substances may have a toxic effect on seabirds and fish that consume them and have unknown effects on humans who encounter them on beaches.
What can we do about the nurdle problem? Industry needs to improve handling procedures and make sure nurdle spills are cleared completely. Operation Clean Sweep is a plastics industry programme aimed at eliminating pellet losses but, as yet, it is only voluntary. In the longer term, we need to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single use plastics.
Nurdle hunting can also help by raising awareness and by reducing pellet numbers in the environment. As Sophie Thomas said to me “A nurdle collected is a nurdle out of the sea”. Occasionally, it may be possible to infer the source of pellets based on their appearance and properties. For example, the pellets found at Charmouth are unusual compared to those I have seen on other beaches. Although some at Charmouth are true nurdles, the majority are the bright blue cylindrical type with fine ridges, more typical of a biobead. If these are indeed biobeads, how are they getting on to Charmouth beach?
It was also a pleasure to meet Sarah West and her husband John that day. Sarah is a blogging friend and she and John had also joined the nurdle hunt. Sarah writes the blog “Down by the Sea” and has recently been heavily involved in organising the Bridport Green Fortnight.
As we stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, we had our first glimpse of the river Exe, its waters a sparkling pale blue in the bright sunshine. The weather was a welcome change after so many cold and snowy days but, during our short journey from Totnes, we had passed bright ridges of snow still piled against field hedges and, in low lying places, large lakes of standing water from snow melt. Perhaps the weather was giving us a gentle reminder of its power to disrupt life.
We hadn’t intended to visit Dawlish Warren again so soon (see here for a description of our previous visit) but we wanted to get out for a walk and, hearing that some country roads were still snow-blocked, we chose somewhere easily accessible. We also wondered how the recent extreme weather might have affected this beautiful sand spit.
The view from the promenade quickly told us part of the answer. Sand was piled up on the retaining wall that slopes to the beach and, along the promenade, some of the benches were partly submerged in sand as if caught by a pale brown snow storm. On the beach, huge quantities of wooden debris lay in random heaps, along with some very large plastic items; it will be a mammoth task to clear this. A closer look showed that the debris was a mixture of wood and reeds along with bits and pieces of plastic and many industrial plastic pellets (mostly grey nurdles). I don’t want to go on too much about these industrial pellets, I’ve written about them several times already, but we found them littering all the beaches at the Warren to a greater or lesser extent. Near the promenade there must have been thousands.
As we were picking up a few of the pellets, a woman asked Hazel what she was doing. After an explanation, the woman said:
“I thought you were picking up driftwood,” and after Hazel had shown her some pellets the woman continued “still they might be very nice for decorating a mirror.”
We then walked around the Dawlish Warren sand spit following the route I outlined in a previous post, which also gives some background information about this nature reserve.
The central area of the Warren was partially flooded but still passable. No spring flowers were to be seen yet but small birds were performing florid mating displays while a group of black corvids sat judgementally in a nearby tree. Vegetation along paths over the dunes was seemingly spray-painted with a coat of rough sand, probably a result of the blizzard sucking up material from the beach. Near the bird hide, I disturbed a large flock of Brent geese feeding on the golf course. These imposing birds took off as a group and circled low over us before moving to a quieter spot.
Warren Point at the end of the sand spit was as mysterious and beautiful as always, its pale marram grass covering glowing in the sunshine. A small flock of linnets, the males with their pink bibs standing out, fidgeted in the branches of a low bush. A skylark rose from the ground, wings flapping frantically as it hovered in mid-air, singing, turning a tune over and over, changing it each time. Then, without warning, it stopped flapping and deftly descended back to the ground with subtle, steadying wing movements.
The story on the beaches bordering Warren Point was less uplifting. There was a slew of debris along the strandline, mostly wood and reeds but also many dead birds. We saw at least twenty casualties, mostly lapwings, identified by their largely black colouring combined with russet brown and white undersides. During the storm there had been a mass movement of these birds across the Warren and a proportion didn’t survive. We also saw one or two golden plovers with their exquisite pale brown and white herringbone patterns. On the beach facing up the Exe, the low sand cliffs at the back of the beach had been damaged by high water and when we rounded the point to walk back, there were more signs of storm damage. Areas of marram grass had been torn out and reddish soil had been deposited on the edge of the remaining marram grass.
The most significant damage, however, had occurred to the taller sand cliffs that abut the groynes on the sea-facing beach. Sand had been washed away from the back of the groynes and several metres of sand cliff removed exposing, in some places, the old sea defences. Some of the new fences built on the reinforced dune ridge had been torn out and now lay on the ground in casual heaps or hanging in mid-air, still partly attached. The groynes themselves seemed to be intact but plastic notices attached to them lay in pieces among the other debris. In a powerful demonstration of the scale of the storm and the water level reached, small pieces of wood and more plastic pellets lay along the wooden planks of the groynes and on top of the main support posts nearly a metre above the sand.
Despite all this, the Warren itself is intact and ready for the bloom of spring flowers. The scale of the damage to the new sea defences was shocking and a salutary reminder of the power of the sea, but at least the defences did hold. Elsewhere in south Devon, the coast road linking Torcross and Slapton was almost completely washed away. As in 2014, when the Dawlish railway line was destroyed, this year’s damage was the result of a combination of high winds and very high tides, perhaps combined with increased sea level.
As we waited at the station for our homeward train, I noticed willow trees by the platform with many plump, pussy willow catkins. A medium sized buff-tailed bumblebee arrived to collect pollen from the lemon-yellow male flowers.
There’s something other-worldly about sand dunes. They’re such unusual, secretive places and I remember as a child being able to lose myself in a dune dip. So, as we walk up the sandy path crossing the dune ridge at Bantham on the south Devon coast, there’s a little bit of me back all those years, hiding. The path is edged with marram grass, richly gilded in today’s low sun, and seemingly threatening to take the path back. There’s also a prolific patch of Alexanders with its shiny, yellowish-green leaves. The plant is one of the early signs of spring by the coast and I notice a few fresh creamy white flowers.
The roar of the waves increases steadily until we reach the highest point where the path widens between white-bleached wooden fences. A sandy beach, deep and broad, is now spread out below us and we get our first taste of the cool sea breeze. We walk downwards across the unsteadily soft sand and, with the tide this low, it’s a long walk to the surf. But there certainly is surf and I watch volleys of waves and white water making their attack. To the west, the beach ends with the mouth of the River Avon, while ahead the central view is filled by the green outcrop of Burgh Island with its white art deco hotel shimmering in the sunshine.
There are several family groups on the beach today. It’s half term and children are enjoying building sand castles; some are even paddling. One large group pass us, body boards slung over shoulders. The strandline spreads in a wide semi-circle across the beach with increasing amounts of seaweed towards the eastern side. I spend some time poking around with a walking pole examining the strandline debris. There’s not much large plastic waste but I do see small fragments over most of the beach, some gradually disappearing under wind-blown dry sand.
I notice a young woman nearby with her children, all clad for arctic weather. She’s looking in my direction and eventually comes over to enquire kindly:
“Have you lost something?”
“No, I am actually looking for something.”
I open my hand to show her the few plastic pellets I have found on the beach: “I’m looking for these.” Her children also want to look. “Some of them are nurdles, the raw material of the plastics industry.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about them” she replies
She continues: “Did you see about the palm oil on the beaches, apparently it’s completely legal for ships carrying palm oil to flush out their holds into the sea. Several dogs have died eating lumps of the stuff washed up on beaches.”
We talk for a while and then she wishes me good luck in my hunt, telling me to make sure I publicise what I find.
A high-pitched “peep, peep” announces the arrival of several rock pipits skittering around on the beach, looking for insects in the seaweed. They swoop around like wagtails, even wagging a little when they land.
It’s cold on the beach so we head up along the coast path that follows the edge of the cliffs at the eastern side of the beach. The path is busy with families and dogs and, after heavy overnight rain, it’s muddy and slippery. As we gain height we get better views of the waves approaching the beach in wide, white-fringed, concentric arcs.
The path levels out to snake eastwards, roughly following the line of the cliffs. It’s being continually re-routed inland because of “activity” in the cliffs and we notice deep red-rock fissures where the cliff will eventually fall away. Thurlestone Bay with its distinctive stone arch is laid out ahead of us, the sea dominated by a silvery mirror spread by the low sun. We look downwards to buff-yellow sandy beaches criss-crossed with anonymous footprints and to dark rocks where the water boils and spray shoots upwards as the waves rush inwards. Oystercatchers add their yearning cries to the atmosphere.
Thick tussocky grass fringes the path and starry yellow celandines are starting to show, with the occasional gorse bush continuing the colour theme. A large black beetle, about 2cm long, makes its unsteady way across the path. In the sunshine I see hints of iridescent blue from its back and from its distinctive wire-wound legs. This is a Bloody-nosed Beetle; later we see another and I wonder how many are squashed by walkers gazing at the views. The same may be true about two large caterpillars we encounter later. About three times the length of the beetle, they are covered in thick wiry hair, bright orange-brown above and mid brown below. These striking creatures are larvae of the Fox Moth taking advantage of some winter sunshine.
We catch fragments of conversation from passing walkers, minor insights into other lives. Then ahead I see a young man sprawled on the grass by the path. Has he slipped on the mud and hurt himself? No, he is checking his phone messages!
For some distance the coast path follows the edge of the golf course. Signs helpfully warn us to watch out for flying golf balls but today there are few players and after passing the Club House we reach Leas Foot Sands, a pleasant sheltered sandy beach and lunch stop. We see the usual bits and pieces of plastic rope and twine but the beach appears relatively clean today compared with previous visits. Sea mayweed, with its fleshy green foliage, is growing well at the back of the beach accompanied by plastic fragments blown into the grass behind the dunes. Hazel discovers a crack in the rocks on the west side of the beach where many different kinds of industrial plastic pellet have collected.
After lunch we retrace our steps along the cliffs passing a male stonechat sitting on a bush flicking his tail and displaying his snowy white collar. The wind is stronger and colder, and water and waves are now coming within striking distance of the dunes at Bantham. Two kite surfers enjoy the white water, zipping back and forth. Occasionally, like watery ballet dancers, they leap into the air as the wind shifts.
Hope Cove is a popular seaside village on the south Devon coast located on the eastern side of Thurlestone Bay. The village used to be a centre for fishing and smuggling but nowadays tourism is the main activity. It’s a 45-min drive from our house through the undulating countryside of the South Hams and the journey took in all kinds of weather. We left in squally showers and sunshine and then, from one of the elevated sections of the road, I looked across to the peaks of Dartmoor, had someone really sprinkled icing sugar snow? Later on, I glanced to the west to see the sun shining from a pale blue sky illuminating a deep emerald green valley. To the east, however, a thick horizontal layer of dark grey cloud lay above clear sky that glowed with an ominous orange light. Curiously, the dark grey layer appeared to be bleeding downwards in to the orange layer compounding the threatening feeling of impending rain.
Fortunately, by the time we arrived at Hope Cove, the sky had cleared and the sun was shining although its low angle left large areas in the shade and the persistent sea breeze made it feel much colder. There were good views across Thurlestone Bay to Burgh Island and onwards as far as the distinctive conical outcrop of Rame Head in East Cornwall.
We found a large crowd of 40 or more people gathered around Amanda Keetley as she explained her plan for the afternoon. Hope Cove has two beaches, the smaller Mouthwell Sands and the larger Harbour Beach. The tide was well out exposing great expanses of sand and we were to clean both beaches. She handed out large plastic sacs and reusable gloves and people dispersed to pick up plastic waste and other litter. There were quite a few children and dogs and the afternoon had a happy, light feeling despite the cold.
Hazel and I went to Harbour Beach where we found plenty of plastic waste along the strandlines. We didn’t see many large items such as plastic bottles but there was a lot of plastic twine/fishing line much of it entangled with seaweed. We also found pieces of plastic bag, plastic wrap, pieces of plastic rope and many, many smallish plastic fragments (1-2 cm) probably from the breakdown of larger items. Much of this waste is potentially very damaging to sea creatures.
We also found a few plastic nurdles and other pellets but only at the back of the Harbour Beach on dry sand. The nurdles were quite similar to those we found at Leas Foot Sands, two miles further west round Thurlestone Bay.
When we had enough of the cold we took our bag to the collecting point outside the Cove Café Bar where a large pile was developing. In the end there were about 20 bags of waste: it was reassuring that so much plastic had been picked up but troubling that so much needed to be picked up.
Our reward for the afternoon, apart from feeling we had done an important job, was a free hot drink in the Cove Café Bar. The owners were supporting the beach clean and were very generous and welcoming despite the huge crowd; they are taking measures themselves to reduce use of plastics in the café so the drinks were served in china cups although some of us had brought our own reusable cups.
Two final points:
I was encouraged to see that most of the people taking part in the beach clean were in their thirties suggesting an awareness of the problem of marine plastic waste and a feeling that something needs to be done even when you are busy with jobs and children.
Should you be sceptical about the value of beach cleans, I suggest you take a look at a report from Eunomia where they conclude that beach cleans are an effective way to remove plastics from our seas.
The featured image is of Mouthwell Sands, Hope Cove.
Here I am again at Leas Foot Sands near Thurlestone on the South Devon coast, a week after my first visit. Storm Ophelia passed noisily through the area between the two visits, bringing very high winds and rough seas and I wanted to see how the beach had fared.
Mist accompanied me for most of the journey down but as I approached the coast, the gloom cleared and there was a hint of brightness in the sky. To the west, the art deco hotel on Burgh Island glowed in a halo of white light and there was even a little milky sunshine at Thurlestone. These luminous promises were destined to be unfulfilled as the sky quickly resumed its overcast state leaving the sea a uniform dull grey-blue. At least it was calm; there was virtually no wind and the waves looked as though they couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps because of the calm, there were birds about, on the beach and on the cliffs, wagtails, corvids and pipits. Compared with my visit a week ago, the tide was much lower, exposing a larger area of beach with several concentric arcs of debris and a mass of dark seaweed at the water’s edge.
The beach at Leas Foot Sands is enclosed on either side by moderate red cliffs and backed by scrappy sand dunes that have suffered badly in previous years’ stormy weather. Today these dunes resembled a piece of conceptual art dedicated to our throwaway culture. All sorts of debris littered the rising sand: many small fragments of plastic, wood and seaweed, feathers, plastic containers and many pieces of plastic wrapping. There was even a battered but colourful drink can that seemed to have come from the Far East. It had obviously been fairly wild when the storm arrived, with high winds and waves reaching right up to the back of the beach; this area had been mostly clean a week ago.
Further down the beach, there were several arcs of debris presumably corresponding to the distance reached by different tides as the storm abated. These strandlines contained small pieces of seaweed, cuttlefish shells, Portuguese Men O’War looking rather sad and deflated with some in pieces, cotton bud stems, colourful rope and fishing tackle.
One of the arcs of debris in the centre of the beach grabbed my attention. It contained some of the same stuff but in lower amounts: a few feathers, small dry pieces of wood and seaweed and the occasional shard of plastic. The big difference was the presence of nurdles, very easy to spot littered among the other debris here. There must have been several hundred of the small, mostly grey, plastic particles spread across the beach in this arc.
Finally, near the water’s edge, there were substantial amounts of shiny dark brown seaweed partly submerged in the shallow water. It looked as though this had been newly collected and dumped by the storm. There was little or no plastic waste in this area.
So, what a difference a storm makes. I wasn’t surprised to see all the litter at the back of the beach given the ferocity of the storm but the nurdles were a shock. A week ago we had been hard pressed to find any nurdles at all whereas today they were plentiful. The challenge now is to understand why the nurdles arrived and why they were apparently concentrated in one strandline.
Our seas and our beaches are contaminated by nurdles, these small pieces of easily transportable plastic used as a raw material for making many of our plastic goods. Nurdles pose many dangers but one obvious concern is that that they will be consumed by seabirds and by fish with dire consequences for their health. Here is a link to more information about nurdles.
Last week, on a very windy day well before storm Ophelia arrived, we visited Leas Foot Sands, one of the small coves clustered around Thurlestone Bay in South Devon. Thurlestone Rock, a stone arch or “thirled stone” is a prominent local landmark located in the Bay. As well as being a popular attraction for canoeists and wild swimmers, the Rock gives the village of Thurlestone its name.
When we reached Leas Foot Sands, we stood and gazed across the water at the elemental scene. A gusty, gale force wind blew from the sea, a powerful natural force affecting everything in its path. It had been hard enough to walk there, buffeted as we were from side to side and, now, above the beach and just about able to stand, we felt specks of sand flick across our faces. The sea was a uniform grey under the overcast sky, but the wind created many white horses offshore and a sense of agitated movement. Chunky waves continually attacked the curving apron of yellowish-brown sand, each one finishing in a foaming mass of white water that mingled with the wind giving the air a moist, salty essence.
At the southern side of the beach, the sand and rocks were coated with a slightly unsavoury looking, brownish foam. I remember being alarmed, some years ago, when I first saw this spume on a beach in Cornwall and feared effects of detergents. I now know that it is a mostly natural phenomenon, caused by a high wind interacting with organic matter from marine phytoplankton.
A few hardy plants grew at the back of the beach beyond the strandline, bringing welcome colour on this mostly monochrome day. Brash yellow and white daisy-like flowers of sea mayweed bobbed in the wind and pale lilac blooms of sea rocket kept safely close to the sand along with their fleshy green leaves. A few pink lollipop flowers of thrift struggled on exposed cliff edges.
Further down the beach, bands of dark seaweed stretched in broad arcs parallel to the shore. The thickest band of seaweed was the result of the morning’s high tide; here the seaweed sparkled, seawater dripping off dark fronds as the tide receded. Mixed with the seaweed were various colourful examples of plastic waste, mostly bits and pieces of fishing tackle or rope, but I also saw an old plastic yoghurt container, a bright green plastic straw and several smaller shards of plastic. A bright pink balloon-like object clung to a flat stone nestling among the damp seaweed. I wondered if this was some kind of joke as it vaguely resembled an inflated condom but I abandoned that idea when, further along, I came across several similar objects. Hazel put me right, telling me that these were Portuguese Men O’War, very colourful but dangerously stinging organisms that float on the sea surface trailing long tentacles, until driven in by high winds. There have been reports of swarms of these colourful creatures on several beaches along the south coast and warnings that the number will increase with storm Ophelia.
Behind the wet strandline was a sparser band of dry, black seaweed, presumably resulting from sporadic higher tides. I started looking around this sector digging up the sand with a garden trowel to see what I could find. This was too much for a woman who had recently arrived on the beach with her child and friend.
“What are you looking for?” she asked me.
“I’m trying to find plastic nurdles, have you heard of them? “ I replied
“Do you mean those small bits of industrial plastic?”
“That’s right, but I can’t find any here” I continued.
“I suppose that’s good” she suggested.
I carried on looking but was unsuccessful. Hazel, however, found six of the lentil-sized plastic pellets, a mixture of grey and blue, on the other side of the beach. Earlier in the year, someone had reported collecting hundreds of plastic nurdles from this beach; perhaps we were unlucky or perhaps conditions had changed.
Marine plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time and something I want to return to in future posts.