Plastic on the beach

Beach “clean-ups” have become an integral part of life for many coastal communities as plastic waste increasingly renders beaches unsightly and sometimes dangerous. Seychelles, with 115 islands scattered over thousands of square kilometres of Indian Ocean, is no exception. In previous blogs I have mentioned Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), constructed from buoys, plastic floats, plastic netting and sometimes with sophisticated location devices, again made largely of plastic but also containing dry cell batteries and other materials of varying toxicity. These are large and conspicuous, and dangerous to some marine life, but the bulk of beach waste comprises smaller items, especially plastic bottles, flip-flops, cigarette lighters, along with glass bottles, tin cans and a surprising number of plastic toys. About five years ago on Bird Island we found an abundance of small unopened plastic and glass bottles full of medicines, along with plastic syringes and plastic packages of tablets, all with Indian labels, as though a consignment of these had washed overboard or been dumped.

Bird Island beach top bin overflowing with plastic collected mainly by tourists (Photo: Chris Feare)
A plastic water bottle on Bird Island’s west beach, nestled next to drifted seaweed. This bottle’s label showed hat it originated in Mauritius (Photo: Chris Feare)

Clean-ups hit the headlines as they are organised and well-publicised, by NGOs and large national and international agencies, and the quantity of items and their origins, discernible from manufacturers’ address labels, can be spectacular and surprisingly diverse. But the deposition of plastic and other waste on coastlines is continuous, whereas clean-ups are episodic, allowing the build-up of waste until the next clean-up.

Christine collected several items of plastic (bottles, a buoy, even an orange lavatory ballcock!) on Bird Island’s west beach only a week after a beach clean-up by members of Alliance Francaise in Seychelles, on 2 June (Photo: Chris Feare)

The approximate 5 kilometres of white coral beach surrounding 100-hectare Bird Island receives its share of Indian Ocean waste. A small fraction of the waste emanates from the island itself, with occasional careless disposal of cans by visiting boats and island staff. Some drinks bottles are of Seychelles origin but the majority of waste whose origins can be established comes from the wider Indian Ocean, for example Maldives, Mauritius and Malaysia, with some from even further afield.

On Bird Island, regular beach cleaning is co-ordinated by Conservation Officer Joana Soares, who herself undertakes frequent beach walks to collect items that have washed ashore, as former Conservation Officer Roby Bresson did also. Bird Island’s upper beaches are well provided with receptacles (large blue barrels – themselves made of plastic!) into which plastic flotsam, and other waste, can be put. Here, tourism plays a major role for hotel guests, especially Europeans, are enthusiastic and efficient beach-cleaners. The abundance of plastic bottles and other plastic items, such as polystyrene, along with glass bottles and metal cans, leads the bins to require frequent emptying. The plastic waste is put in large bags (plastic) and sent down to Mahe for disposal, but the extent of recycling is not known.

Plastic fishing buoys, bottles and polystyrene removed from Bird Island’s eastern beach and placed on one off the blue bins at the top of the beach (Photo: Chris Feare)

The outcome is that beach cleaning on Bird Island is a continuous process and the beaches remain largely free of oceanic waste. And visiting tourists play a significant and unpaid role in the maintenance of the islands beautiful uninterrupted sandy rim, to the benefit of all who enjoy beach life.

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