“AFTER storms we are finding sanitary products and wipes tangled up in seaweed,” says wild swimmer, Sarah Morton. “It’s not nice to swim in, of course, but I’m thinking more about the bigger consequences for wildlife. I’m keen that wild swimmers become a bit more environmentally active. That’s what made me think we should have a pick-up week, a shoresweep for litter, and get other swimmers involved and thinking about it a bit more.”

A small beach along from Portobello sands in Edinburgh is littered with plastic bottles, wet wipes, and even a couple of shoes following a storm the previous week. Two wild swimmers and a surfer pick over for plastic waste and sewage products. “You see the stuff that ends up on the beach and you think how can people put that down their toilet,” says swim coach Debbie Kelso. “Why?”


Pack it in! A fiercer war is needed against plastic packaging

These three are a small element in a movement aimed at protecting the health of our waters and their wildlife that is gathering fresh momentum because of the new wave of wild swimmers that has flocked to our seas, lochs and rivers in this pandemic year.

Swimmers who have come for the health benefits or just the joy of escape have looked at the waste on our shorelines and become worried for the wellbeing of an ecosystem which many say gives them wellbeing. The result is that those who enjoy the water are campaigning for its monitoring and protections.

The idea of this Portobello “shoresweep” was generated this autumn when a swimmer and a surfer happened to be on Edinburgh’s Portobello beach the morning after bonfire night. The surfer, Elspeth Simpson of Surfers Against Sewage, was clearing up the litter from the night before. The swimmer, Sarah Morton, a member of the 4,000-strong (and rapidly growing) local Facebook wild swimming group, The Wild Ones, thanked her and a conversation began.

It was a collaboration opportunity that, Morton recalls, she had been looking for. “There is this massive, expanding community of wild swimmers. It’s great to see people enjoying the water and there is lots of talk about all the things swimming outdoors can do for you, but I’m really concerned about the climate emergency and the biodiversity emergency. I’d been thinking, okay, let’s see if we can utilise this enormous power of having these groups of thousands.”

Beach-cleaning is, of course, nothing new. The Marine Conservation Society has been running its Beachwatch cleans and litter surveys for 27 years and collected over 11 million pieces of litter. But the recent wave of swimmers getting involved suggests that this year’s pandemic has brought, along with the frenzy of swimming, a rising awareness and sensitivity to our marine and freshwater environments. This is not just happening in Scotland, but across the UK.

Across England swimmers and other river users have been behind campaigns to get bathing waters status for rivers, working in groups like Sewage Free Swimmers and London Waterkeeper.

One wild swimmer, Laura Owen Anderson, has been collecting water from the 15 national parks in the UK to be analysed for micro-plastics for Bangor University – and fell ill, in the process, from swimming through what she believes was slurry.

The sewage that we find there on the beach – wet wipes, tampon applicators, sanitary towels – has generally ended up there because of overflow from our sewers during storms or heavy rain. What are called combined sewer overflows, of which Scotland has around 4,000, are designed so that excess untreated wastewater, rather than back up into buildings, floods down through pipes into our waterways, contaminating them.

A campaign to gain designated bathing waters status for Edinburgh’s Wardie Bay is also part of this movement to protect our waters and their wildlife. Last year, a bid put forward by swimmers and campaigners was rejected by the Scottish Government. But, in this pandemic year, the number of people using the waters of this increasingly popular town beach has risen hugely. When the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) offered the opportunity to appeal this summer, the #Wardie-Bay4BathingWater campaign was born – creating a petition, a film and even a song. Recently, the City of Edinburgh Council voted unanimously to support the bid.

A key voice in the campaign is Karen Bates, who organises Wardie Bay Beachwatch, a series of regular beach cleans and surveys collecting data on marine litter for the Marine Conservation Society. She has been running these surveys since 2017 and over that time collected what she describes as “really good data on what is happening on the Edinburgh shoreline”. “We were able to say, on average, that 30 per cent of the debris is sewage-related and 60% is plastic. After a heavy rainstorm we get masses of sewage and plastic pollution on this beach.”

The data collected by her beach cleans, Bates says, has been used to inform both the City of Edinburgh Council and others who use Marine Conservation Society data. “It has led us to know that the water that swimmers are swimming in may not be healthy. And everything that we are finding on those beach cleans directly indicates what people are swimming in and what is also impacting on the wildlife.”

Among those who have researched the impact of the pollutants entering UK waters is Alex Ford, professor of biology at the University of Portsmouth. He observes: “One of the problems we have with the chemicals coming out through our storm water overflows is that they can’t be seen and they don’t need to be there in very high concentrations to damage wildlife and the many species we use for food. Within that effluent, you’ve got fertilisers, industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals as well as the organic matter from faeces. With that pollution comes disease but also abnormalities in those coastal organisms’ development. There are also suggestions we humans are suffering as well.”

If Wardie Bay’s bid for bathing water status is successful, the sea there will be monitored for bacteria that indicate the presence of human faecal matter. During the summer months, the public would be provided with information on whether the water on is poor, sufficient, good or excellent. This is, for Bates, just the “tip of the iceberg” of what we need to monitor . She adds: “We know that there is a spike of microfibre levels in our beach sediment here. We know through talking to scientists that there are waters around the UK that contain agricultural run-off, pharmaceuticals, hormones, antibiotics – all of which affects the wildlife.”

Bates would like to see more extensive monitoring. “At Wardie, people are increasingly keen to know what lives here – the seals, the creatures that inhabit our rocky shore,” she points out. “This wildlife is susceptible to the pollutants in the Firth of Forth, from the microplastics, the nurdles, to the pollutants in the water. If we don’t monitor the water, we are not able to go back to Sepa and Sepa is not able to go back to the Government to step in and call it when pollutants in the Firth of Forth reach a level such that something needs to change.”

She believes that the community working together is making a difference. All of us, she adds, can be part of a “community coastal observatory”. Bates recommends people download NatureScot’s community-led marine biodiversity handbook and go down to their local shoreline to start recording the wildlife that lives there in order to give data back.

The year of the pandemic has also, of course, brought its own distinctive wave of litter to the beaches. As Tara Proud, a volunteer and community engagement manager for MCS describes, "Volunteers found a concerning, but perhaps predictable, presence of PPE litter on beaches. Face masks and gloves were found on almost a quarter (23.5%) of Scottish beaches cleaned during GBBC 2020. Witnessing the rapid rise of these new types of litter has certainly inspired more people to volunteer for MCS."

One of the messages reiterated by many of the campaigners is that beach cleaners can have their biggest impact when they data-collect or report what is found to Sepa. “With beach cleans, people say that’s not solving the problem, because it’s not stopping it at source, but we still organise them as a way to carry out data collection," says surfer Elspeth Simpson. “Previous cleans we’ve organised informed different SAS campaigns and consultations – including the deposit return scheme on plastic bottles and ‘Dirty Dozen’ brand audit.”

They are also often uplifting, she adds “You get people saying what is the point in beach-cleaning? But everyone’s individual efforts combine to create a powerful impact. And, when I’m beach-cleaning, I often think of the quote that ‘action is the antidote to despair’. Yes, it’s just one bottle and there are still going to be so many on the beaches but it’s much more satisfying than being at home worrying about the climate crisis and plastic pollution. You’re doing something at least.”