Many of us have fond childhood memories of the beach—building sandcastles, collecting shells and splashing in the waves. As adults, we head to the seashore to relax and escape the stresses of life. Many of us equate happiness with a day by the sea with family and friends. Beaches also provide important ecosystem services in coastal zones, such as water filtration, nutrient cycling and protection from waves and storms, as well as bestowing a range of recreational and economic benefits upon coastal communities. Yet despite their importance, we are largely failing to protect the health of these precious enclaves.
Perhaps nothing illustrates our lack of respect for beaches more than the still widespread practice of stubbing cigarette butts in the sand. Described by the UN Environment Programme as “the most common plastic litter on beaches,” cigarette filters, made from non-biodegradable plastic fibres, take a decade to break down into microplastics. Despite legislation and awareness campaigns, five billion cigarettes are discarded on beaches worldwide every year. Seabirds have been seen feeding them to their chicks, and they have been found in dead seabirds, sea turtles, dolphins and fish. The chemical toxins they contain leach into the surrounding environment, contaminating the sand, inhibiting plant growth and affecting species throughout the food chain.
But cigarette butts are just the tip of the iceberg. A stroll along any shoreline in the world will reveal a collection of human detritus that typically includes plastic food wrappers, beverage bottles and caps, straws, single-use plastic bags and lost or discarded fishing gear. Then there is the ubiquitous presence of microplastics, which are created when larger pieces of plastic break down in the ocean. These small particles and molecular compounds permeate into the sand and are much more bioavailable to organisms than large marine debris, which can be removed during beach clean-ups.
STEALING FROM THE BEACH
Beaches also degrade when we remove what they need to thrive. While seaweed-free stretches of sand undoubtedly please tourists, the practice of dragging rakes along the intertidal zone to groom the sand and remove seaweed deposits harms the entire food web, from microscopic bacteria and simple marine isopods to the shorebirds and small mammals that feed on them. Collecting seashells is not a harmless pastime either. Shells provide a home for sea creatures such as crabs, snails and molluscs, and places for small fish to hide from predators. Birds use shells as nesting material, and when shells eventually decompose, they provide nutrients for organisms living in the sand.
Beach sand theft is also a growing problem. From Sardinia and Scotland to Hawaii and the Canary Islands, people are illegally removing sand from beaches. While souvenir-seeking tourists are to blame in some cases, sand theft is also a result of our insatiable demand for this increasingly scarce resource. In the most notorious case, in Jamaica in 2008, thieves made off with an entire beach—500 truckloads of white sand—in the middle of the night. The world consumes 50 billion tonnes of sand every year, mostly for making concrete, and organised crime is often involved in its illegal extraction.
Added to this is the water pollution from terrestrial run-off and marine traffic that contaminates coastal waters with sewage, pesticides, fertilisers and oil. Human exposure to sewage-contaminated bathing water can lead to a range of illnesses, including gastroenteritis, sinus infections, skin rashes and conjunctivitis. Research estimates that there are over 120 million cases of gastrointestinal illness and over 50 million cases of more serious respiratory illness worldwide caused by swimming and bathing in wastewater-polluted coastal waters.
EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO BEACHES
But it is climate change that poses the greatest threat to the world’s beaches. Rising sea levels and an increase in the intensity, frequency and direction of coastal storms wreak havoc on sandy shores. A study published in Nature Climate Change in 2020 used satellite data to conclude that 50% of the world’s sandy beaches will be lost to erosion by the end of the century. On a slightly optimistic note, the author points out that: “As shorelines retreat, new beaches may be created if there is space available to accommodate the retreat.”
But in many cases, because humans have blocked the path of retreat with urban development hardened by coastal structures such as sea walls, the intertidal zone cannot move inland, effectively “squeezing” beaches and coastal wetlands out of existence. As sand is swept away, biodiversity is lost and coastal communities are deprived of essential protective barriers, tourism revenue and recreational spaces. Preserving and protecting our sandy coastlines, which hold a special place in our hearts and minds, is essential if future generations are to have the same opportunity to enjoy frolicking on the beach as we have had.