Beaches & Our Human Footprint

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

What do you think about if I were to say footprints left on the beach? Are they the physical marks on the sand, or do you think about the human impact you have on the beach and the surrounding environment?

The human footprint is a measurement of how we as humans, like yourself and I, impact the Earth’s surface. Everything we do in our daily lives contributes to the global carbon footprint, and the more activities we do such as driving a car or the amount of meat we consume, adds up to a larger footprint.

Humanity's ecological footprint was 7 billion global hectares in 1961 and increased to 20.6 billion in 2014. Our carbon footprint consists of two parts. The direct release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the indirect process of manufacturing products.

We all like to the beach, but we must consider the impact it has on the environment. It is possible to reduce your carbon footprint and make your trip eco-friendlier!

On average 700 pieces of litter is found on a 100m stretch of coastline. A clean beach is important for tourism and the environment. No one wants to put their towel down or eat their picnic surrounded by a beach full of plastic bags, cigarette butts and broken glass.

This means local communities and businesses must keep beaches and the surrounding area litter-free. It is difficult to estimate how much tourism is lost by unclean beaches, but in the UK, £18 million is spent every year on keeping beaches clean to ensure tourism can continue.

With an increase in public awareness and concern for the environment, marine and beach litter issues have become widespread. Unfortunately, some people do not respect the environment and leave their litter behind. Beach litter is not only unattractive and unpleasant, but it negatively affects both humans and animals in the area.

Beach litter comes from three areas: marine, industrial, and domestic waste, which is often dumped on surrounding land or in rivers. It can end up in the water during tidal changes, or simply by the wind. But the ocean is not always the final destination for beach litter. We as humans are not immune to the situation, plastic can end up in the seafood we eat.

Every year, it is estimated that plastic pollution kills millions of marine organisms, and in the long-term, we could see them going extinct.

Plastic bags floating in the water, look like jellyfish, which is the main food source for many fish and sea turtles. After entering their stomach, it affects their digestive system and makes them feel full, causing starvation. Plastic litter may not even make it into their stomachs, but they may become caught in it.

Beach litter can also cause suffocation, entanglement and even drowning in many marine animals. It is estimated that 100,000 marine animals are suffocated or injured from plastic every year. In 2019 a curvier beaked whale was found dead in the Philippines with 40kg of plastic in its stomach consisting of 16 rice bags, plastic packaging, and nylon ropes.

Many seabirds scavenge through beach litter left by tourists looking for food for themselves and their chicks. Unfortunately, they choke on ingested pieces of plastic and often get entangled in them. Every year, a million seabirds die from plastic pollution.

The accumulation of ocean plastic can encourage the growth of pathogens. Scientists have found that corals exposed to plastic, have an 89% possibility of developing a disease, compared to only 4% that have not been exposed. Coral ecosystems are a vital source of food for reef organisms, are essential spawning grounds, and provide nursery grounds for many animals. They also protect coastlines from natural disasters and erosion and play an important role in tourism activities.

There is no such thing as ‘gone’ when we throw something away, it must go somewhere. Once litter makes its way into the ocean, it is transferred by currents and slowly sinks to the seabed where it can take many years to break down.

It is not just animals that are affected by beach litter, but also us humans. Beach visitors can sustain injuries from litter left behind such as glass or a sharp piece of plastic. Also, fishermen are seeing damage to vessels from larger pieces of marine litter.

In some tropical islands such as Indonesia, recycling facilities are lacking. Therefore, they burn the plastic, because if you can no longer see it, it is not a problem, right? This is very wrong.

Due to lack of education and local awareness, these people are putting their health in danger and contributing to releasing harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. These dangerous chemicals are known to cause respiratory problems, affect human immune systems and can be carcinogenic. Besides the dioxins produced from burning plastic, leak into the environment.

Local awareness is working, some clean-up operations are already in place. Some vessels collect marine litter, but these collections are limited to a certain size and therefore microplastics remain in the water.

Local clean-ups on beaches and coasts are a good way to continue to raise awareness and engage people in the tackling problem. As more people get involved, we may see a better way of protecting our planet.

The plastic bag ban and tax measures in 2015 saw a 90% reduction in single-use plastics. Laws like this, if implemented and regulated properly, could reduce the amount of litter making its way into oceans, our food chain, and killing marine organisms.

So, remember before booking your next holiday consider reducing your carbon footprint and how you can help protect the environment.

We do not want to live in a rubbish bin, so stop making it one.

Leave it better than you found it, and only leave footprints in the sand.


Written by Darby Bonner

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