Plastic pollution gets trapped on the beach

By Natalie Kikken

11 March 2020

3 minute read

plastic rubbish on beach

Where does plastic pollution from our oceans go? It gets pushed onto the beach and trapped at the back in the vegetation.

There are trillions of pieces of plastic in and on our oceans and beaches. Yes trillions.

We know it maims and kills marine life and is a navigation hazard. It also impacts our health. But the estimates of plastic waste entering the ocean each year are 100 times greater than the total amount of plastic floating on the surface. So, where does all the plastic pollution go?

If you go down to the beach today, you’re sure of a big surprise

It’s certainly no (teddy bear’s) picnic when a visit to the beach leaves you wading through plastic to find a place to roll out your towel. A significant amount of plastic pollution from the ocean ends up stuck along our beaches.

Mostly the plastic becomes trapped in vegetation toward the back of the beach. And it doesn’t discriminate, big or small, it stays trapped there. But the further back from the beach, the more there is and the bigger the pieces of rubbish.

Map of Australia highlighting data collection points for marine debris

Dirty work. We recorded marine debris every 100 kms around the coast of Australia.

Mapping rubbish along the coast of Australia

Data between 2011 and 2016 reveals how much and where trash ends up every 100 kilometres around the coastline of Australia. Our team recorded a mix of litter and marine debris making its way from the ocean to our shores where it gets stuck. We didn’t just calculate how much marine debris there was – we also wanted to know how it got there.

Overview of sampling setting. Light blue arrows indicate the inward transport of debris due to Stokes drift and onshore wind

Waves and wind influence where plastic pollution ends up on our beaches.

Big winds and crashing waves

Onshore wind and waves influence where our plastic pollution on the beach ends up . Waves have much more influence washing the litter toward the back of the beach.

Most of the litter in our oceans and on our coastlines started in someone’s hand. So it is no surprise the more dense the regional population, the more plastic pollution we find in the area.

Plastic pollution solutions

Our research was conducted in partnership with Utrecht University. It suggests most plastic makes its way from urban areas into the ocean. It is then transported back onshore through wind and waves and pushed onto land where it stays.

With marine pollution being a major threat to our environment, this research deepens our understanding of its journey from urban to coastal areas. This data helps us know how – and where – we need to make changes to improve waste management. We hope it also brings attention to the plastic pollution issue.

Hopefully the result is less plastic pollution on our beaches. You can be part of the solution – always put all of your rubbish in the bin! And check out our tips for reducing your impact.