Storm Babet, it has been predicted, is likely to have been one of the costliest weather events in Scottish history – at a possible cost of £500 million for repairs. But it has also inspired a huge community clear-up effort - and one of the places in which this has been most visible is on our shorelines.

The successive storms of the past few weeks have wreaked havoc on Scotland's coastlines, sweeping away paths, battering a hole in North Berwick harbour wall, and throwing mounds of rubbish onto Scotland’s east coast beaches. One volunteer said it was as if the “sea had vomited up all our rubbish”,

Another observed, "The sea has had enough and she’s spitting it all back.”

Tangled in that "vomit"  has been everything from giant tyres to creels and plastic bottles to sealife. Across Scotland over the past week, volunters began the effort of clearing it up. 

North Berwick

The power of the sea made itself felt in many ways at North Berwick during the recent winds and storms. Not only was litter and sea-life thrown up onto the beaches, but a hole was blown through the harbour wall.

The Scottish Seabird Centre, which regularly organises beach-cleans and loans out equipment, organised a clean in its wake – and what was found, amongst other things, was a crisp packet from 1968.

The Herald: Beath litter found at North Berwick following Storm Babet. Image: Dora RodenBeach litter found at North Berwick following Storm Babet. Image: Dora Roden

“It’s been brilliant to see the community response in the wake of the recent storms,” said conservation officer, Emily Burton. “Aside from the obvious damage to coastal infrastructure, we have seen huge amounts of debris washing up along the local beaches, including fishing gear, polystyrene sheets, and plastic waste.”


That crisp packet, she said, was “a stark reminder of how long our single-use plastic can stick around, polluting precious habitats and posing a threat to wildlife.”

Among the beach cleans was a big group litter pick last Sunday arranged by local community groups (North Berwick in Bloom, Law Primary Parent Council, Bass Rock Community Group and Coast to Coast Surf School in Dunbar), with between 40 and 70 people helping out.

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East Lothian Beaches

One of the most difficult-to-remove types of waste has been the creels that have sloshed up on countless beaches. It was for this reason that the charity Scottish Coastal Clean-up which has access to equipment and experience, decided to focus on these.

“Other things people can easily pick up, but the creels are often in massive bundles and are very difficult to remove,” said project coordinator,  Kerrie Flockhart. “Unless you’ve got a way of getting down to the beach, or you’ve got some way of pulling them out, you’re not going to be able to do it.”

“The amount of creels that have washed up is unbelievable. We’ve been working with the fishermen on this and some of them have come down to help or see if they are theirs. But you can’t even move them and most of them are mangled and there’s no ID on them.”

The Herald: Creel waste being cleared from East Lothian beach by Scottish Coastal Clean UpCreel waste being cleared from an East Lothian beach by Scottish Coastal Clean up. Image: Kerrie Flockhart

Flockhart has done countless hours of beach cleaning – working as part of the Scottish Coastal Clean-up in sites from the isle of Ulva to Skye - and what struck her when she saw the waste on East Lothian beaches was that it was “more like west coast amounts of rubbish, not east coast”.

That’s not an indictment on West Coast waste. As she pointed out, “Obviously there are fewer people on the West Coast, but there are big seas all winter and everything gets thrown up – and that’s probably what was happening here.”

She sees several positives in the event. One is that it’s an opportunity to get rid of the waste; the other is that people can see it. "Maybe it will change people’s attitudes. It’s obvious to everyone how much is in there, and it’s everywhere along the east coast.

But it wasn’t just the creels that  MsFlockhart noticed when she was down there, it was also the microplastics.

“I’ve never seen so many nurdles in my life," she said. "There were also so many cotton earbud sticks. They were banned in 2019 and with the Marine Conservation Society surveys levels  have been going down. There has definitely been a decrease in what’s been found."

Their presence suggests that much of what has arrived on Scotland’s shorelines in recent weeks is material that has been on the seabed and in the sea for some time.

“I think it’s just," said Ms Flockart, "that the storm has stirred everything up and it’s brought everything out – which is like the sea just saying, ‘Have it back!’”

Aberdeen Beach

Last weekend  150 people cleared a grand total of 400 bags of litter from Aberdeen beach in a a haul that seemed to contain, said organiser Mike Scotland, "as many different things as you could possibly think of."

“Personal clothing, lots of plastic bottles, plastic containers, buckets, large pieces of net – and there was octopus, starfish, crabs, washed up and tangled in amongst plastic.”

Mike Scotland is an inspirational figure. He has been running the Aberdeen-based group  Community CleanUP since 2020, when, following a dark period in his mental health, he decided to clean up an area of the Don riverside that had been used for many years as “a dumping ground”.

The Herald: Mike Scotland of Community CleanUp at post Babet Aberdeen beach cleanMike Scotland of Community CleanUp at post Babet Aberdeen beach clean. Image: Community CleanUp

Mostly, he focuses on catching the rubbish further upstream at the river, organising clean-ups in industrial areas. But it was a “boys' day out” at the beach with his five-year-old son, following the storms, that triggered this mass clean.

“It was actually my son that said, ‘Dad that beach is a mess. Go and clean it up.’ So we went with a couple of litter pickers and we both went down the beach and he turned to me and said, ‘Dad this is so much rubbish, we need to get some help.’”

In the end, 25 people came down, but even they quickly realised that even that was only going to scratch the surface and that a bigger litter-pick would be needed.

“I’ve never seen the beach like that,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before – the way it was washed up – but I thought this is brilliant. This gives us an opportunity to bring people together, to empower people to step forward, to get people together to make a difference. It brings unity to people."

The Herald: Community CleanUp beach clean at Aberdeen beach following Storm BabetCommunity CleanUp beach clean at Aberdeen beach following Storm Babet

For Mr Scotland, beach cleans are about mental health and “turning negatives into positives”.

“An ethos," he said,  "of Community CleanUP is that it’s all about positive energy and recycling the negative into a positive and it doesn’t just have to be solid materials. It can be energy. One of the things I discuss in terms of community clean-ups and mental health is that if you are feeling down about something you can do something about it. And litter is one of those things that if you give it the energy and effort you will get it back for yourself.”

Wardie Bay, Edinburgh

One of the most striking things about the waste that washed up on the small beach at Wardie Bay, in North Edinburgh, is the sheer number of tyres. “

The Beast from the East was in 2018,” said Karen Bates, who has organised beach surveys for Marine Conservation Society on the bay and also runs Wardie Bay Beachwatch on social media. “There were twenty tyres then. There have been over sixty this time, including this huge tractor tyre, which is so heavy and just goes to show the force of the waves. People who have worked the harbour for fifty years and sailed the waters said they have never seen the water do this before, the swell and the power coming into the harbour.”

The Herald: Wardie Bay Beach clean after Storm BabetSome of the waste from the Wardie beach clean. Image: Wardie Bay Beachwatch

Around 200 people turned out for the beach clean on Saturday. Other waste included creels, giant plastic bollards from construction infrastructure, plastic crates of all kinds, and “huge amounts of fishing litter”.

“Most common items are wet wipes, small broken up plastic items, nurdles, cotton bud sticks, plastic bottles and bottle tops, plastic everything actually.”

But it wasn’t just the macro waste that struck Ms Bates. It was also what she saw when, after the hard work of clearing the beach had been done, she looked amongst the seaweed.

The Herald: Wardie Bay beach clean after Storm BabetBeach cleaners at Wardie Bay. Image: Wardie Bay Beachwatch

“There were absolutely thousands of nurdles, microplastics and fishing line, and really nobody who is responsible for this stuff is being held to account from a producer responsibility point of view to even contributing to beach clean-ups. This should be really triggering for governments to make  industry really do things differently."

Belhaven Bay, Dunbar

Diane Christopherson recalled that when she went down to the beach immediately after the storm, she was “appalled by how much debris was washed up”. “It was just so visible,” she said.

As an outdoor activity organiser, who runs Wilder Outdoor Education, she was also fascinated.

The Herald: Belhaven Bay post-storm beach cleanVolunteers at Belhaven Bay beach clean. Image: Diane Christopherson

“I went for a walk at the very north end of Belhaven beach and usually that’s just sand, and there was kelp that was piled 6ft high in places and you could see it was massively entangled with creels and buoys and fishing nets, but also there was huge amounts of sea life that was washed up. Octopuses, all sorts of fish, urchins, starfish, and a lot of the starfish were the species you would find in deeper waters, so it’s just because all the kelp beds got absolutely ripped up and everything came with it.”

“It was fascinating, but horrible to see all the plastic debris. I run outdoor activities for children and we had done a lot of beach cleans before and we just wanted to make something happen as soon as possible.”

The Herald: Octopus from Belhaven beach cleanOctopus at Belhaven Bay. Image: Diane Christopherson

Other community groups joined her – Surfers Against Sewage, Belhaven Surf Club, Coast to Coast Surf School and The Wave Project – and around 70 people turned out at the weekend. A great deal of the waste, she said, appeared to have come “from the fishing industry”.

“Yesterday," she said, " we just had so much rope and netting, and parts of creels. That was what made up the mass of things that people were collecting – and lots of polystyrene. A lot of plastic bottles.”

READ MORE: A Scottish island awash with fishing waste, beach cleaned

Stonehaven beach

When Marion Montgomery went down for the regular monthly Paws for Plastic and Plastic Free Stonehaven beach clean, there was more than the usual amount of beast waste. 26 volunteers, including several children, removed 71.165 kgs.

“There are always pieces of fishing line and small random broken-up pieces of plastic but after the storm, we had some larger pieces including a tyre and a piece of carpet plus a selection of footwear, traffic cone and other random items.”

The Herald: Paws for Plastic post Storm Babet beach clean at StonehavenStonehaven beach clean. Image: Paws for Plastic

Ms Montgomery is chair of the environmental dog charity Paws on Plastic, which encourages dog owners to simply pick up a couple of pieces of litter while walking their dog to protect animals, communities and the environment.

The charity has 25,000 members and followers from around 70 countries worldwide removing over 36 million pieces of litter every year.

Plastic Free Stonehaven is a community group working towards gaining Plastic Free status for the town using the Surfers against Sewage framework.

Arbroath beach

But beach cleaning isn't only done by groups. There are also many lone litter-pickers who have contributed to clearing up. Among them is  Mysha, a beach-cleaning volunteer from Arbroath, who cleans her local shoreline regularly.

“Every tide," she observed,  "brings more rubbish. No matter how well you clean the beach, the next high tide brings more rubbish in. A big mission of mine is just to communicate to people how simple it is just to take a few pieces while you are there."

"Ideally we also need people to stop throwing things away and for the fishing industry to be responsible for their waste.”

“Storm Babet,” she said, “was extremely rough. I spoke to someone who has been litter-picking for over 30 years and she said she had never seen it that bad. I’ve been living in Scotland for 19 years and in all that time, I’ve only seen one dead starfish on the beach. After this storm there were hundreds. There were also hundreds of dead man’s fingers, hundreds of fish, several octopi, squids, blue lobsters. There were baby seals. It was absolute carnage.”