Cleaning the beach

Because rubbish doesn’t belong on a beach. Because Straw Patrol is an awesome initiative. Because fish and birds shouldn’t eat plastic. Because there are still idiots who throw their wrappers and cigarette butts in the sand. Need more reasons? Read on; this month Enjoy the Algarve tries cleaning the beach of Ilha de Faro.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine January 2017

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez


At first sight, it doesn’t look like there’ll be much to do this afternoon. Praia de Faro looks, well, fine, as always. Beach cleaning is something I’d associate more with countries like India, where swimming next to plastic cups and putting your towel between some used diapers and a broken bottle has actually happened to me (needless to say, I didn’t stay on that beach for long). Or Cambodia, which in 2015 topped the list of the world’s dirtiest beaches, with 1,027 pieces of trash found by each volunteer per mile of coastline. Not the Algarve, which is known for its beautiful beaches, 88 of them which have been awarded Blue Flag status (this means the beach is free of sewage and meets other stringent environmental criteria). I glance again over the stretch of sand that separates us from the Atlantic Ocean and can’t see any garbage.

Carla Lourenço (27, pictured above) smiles when she hears my words, but it isn’t exactly a happy smile. “The beach seems quite clean, yes. And that’s exactly why people sometimes aren’t aware of the problem.” She assures me there will be rubbish. A marine biologist from Milfontes, Carla set up Straw Patrol a year ago. The reason? “Back in August 2015, I saw a video of a sea turtle (see side note in the original article) with a plastic straw up its nostril. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe this was happening and I just had to do something about it.” So, she created the organisation which has its headquarters in the Algarve, but reaches as far as Lisbon where biologist Lia Laporta takes care of the Costa de Caparica area. Their mission: educate, reduce and protect. Helped by other volunteers, Carla and Lia have already given 22 talks about marine litter, to schoolkids, high school students and the general public.

A big part of Straw Patrol is taking action by cleaning the beach. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing today. Despite the strong wind, the cold and the late notice, 20 volunteers have gathered to collect trash. Carla stresses the importance of monitoring our findings in a scientific way; each piece we pick up is to be categorised and written down on a spreadsheet. We all grab a bag, glove up, and get going. It’s definitely not your average coastal walk. Normally, I’d be staring out over the ocean, admiring the surfers and looking out for dolphins, feeling the wet sand between my toes as I’d stroll along the water edge, maybe occasionally looking down for sea shells. Now, my eyes are fixed on the sand, just like the rest of the group. We leave the water edge alone and instead concentrate on the dry part of the beach as we walk towards the eastern end of Ilha de Faro.

The volunteers are a mix of first-timers and beach cleaning veterans, males and females, with ages ranging from 5 to 50. Apart from the Enjoy the Algarve team, they’re all Portuguese. João Neiva (36, pictured above), who lives in nearby Montenegro and works at Faro University, has joined Straw Patrol’s beach clean for the first time. He has taken his sons, aged 5 and 9, along with him. “It’s important to do something like this voluntary, for the community, and it’s essential for children to learn this as well,” he explains. We soon spot the first rubbish. As the kids hold up the bag, in goes a cigarette butt and a piece of white plastic. Unlike me, João isn’t particularly shocked about the amount of rubbish that lies half-hidden in the sand. “I come here quite regularly and I think it’s worse in the summer months.”

He’s right. “During summer it’s awful because of tourism,” says Carla. “I don’t know if it’s because people know that the beach is cleaned every night in the high season and therefore they just don’t care, but if you’d do this in August instead of December, you’d collect way more garbage.” Still, the Faro area is relatively clean compared to the coastline further north in this country. A combination of ocean currents and the many factories that are situated along the west coast of Portugal, means that the beach pollution north of Sagres is usually worse than in the southern part of the Algarve.

Plastic is a massive part of the problem: 63% of the collected rubbish in Tavira in September 2016 were plastics. When 90 students spent an hour cleaning the Gilão estuary, among the 340 kilo trash they found were 759 plastic bottles. The cleaning of Culatra beach in November resulted in 209 pieces of pottery (mainly because of the lobster fishing pots that are used on the islands), 149 cigarette buds, 104 plastic bags, 84 plastic pieces and 47 bits of Styrofoam. And that’s just the top five of the in total 1089 items that were collected. About 80% of the garbage Straw Patrol has found in coastal areas comes from land-based sources.

To us humans, this garbage looks like load of trash. To a sea turtle, however, it looks like 104 jellyfish if those plastic bags were all to get flushed into the sea with the next high tide. “What people have to understand is that we’re all connected somehow,” Carla explains. “This means that also when you don’t live near the beach, marine litter will influence you. If you throw away plastic packing on the top of Fóia, for example, through rain and rivers it will get into the Ria Formosa. There, fish will eat that plastic. When you then buy some locally caught sardines or mackerel to have for dinner, you’ll end up eating the plastic you’ve carelessly thrown away.”

If this still needs explaining, then the environmental awareness in Portugal, it seems, need a bit of work. However, things are improving. “More and more people are aware of marine pollution,” Carla states. “If you organise beach clean-ups, people will come and help. They want to make a difference and be part of the solution; they just need someone to organise these things.” Which is the task Carla has taken upon herself. Already environmentally active in scouts as a kid, the marine biologist isn’t one to look the other way when she can also take action and make a change. “When I see something wrong, whether it’s a piece of garbage lying on the street or a hungry stray dog, I can’t not help. This is our planet; not just for me, it’s for everyone, for all the species that live here, and I can’t stand thinking that we human beings are polluting and killing it.”

As I spot yet another cigarette bud and think about Carla’s words, I get angry. Normally, walking along the beach calms me down, now it fires me up. While interviewing Carla, keeping an eye on Gustave the dog and making pictures, the Enjoy the Algarve team has still managed to pick up 8 pieces of paper, 12 pieces of green plastic rope, 8 straws, 19 small pieces of plastic, 3 pieces of Styrofoam, 1 plastic cup, 1 beer bottle top, 1 used tampon (??!), 3 plastic lollypop sticks, 1 cork, 1 candy wrapper, 4 Cornetto covers, 1 broken surfboard leash and 57, yes, that’s fifty-f*cking-seven, cigarette buds. And that’s on a distance of max 750 metres from the parking lot. The same parking lot that has sets of recycling bins on either side – eight in total, none of which are particularly full- as well as several rubbish bins at each restaurant. Why the f*ck it’s too much trouble to toss your cigarette or ice-cream wrapper in one of those bins after you’ve finished with it, I don’t have a clue. It’s absolutely insane.

Seeing what the entire group has collected at the end of the walk, I’m even more shocked. In just an hour and with only 20 volunteers, we’ve collected 42 kilos of rubbish. About 40% of it consists of plastic, but there’s also a shoe and some empty beer cans among the items. As we gather again on the parking lot and I glance back at the beach, even though it looks the same as it did earlier this afternoon, knowing it’s now a bit cleaner makes for a satisfied feeling. And even though on a big scale our actions might not have made a huge difference, if everyone in this world would spend an hour a week cleaning the beach, things would change for the better pretty soon. “It’s a duty of all of us,” Carla agrees. She leaves last, loaded with bags of rubbish to dispose of properly. In the bin, that is. Not on the beach.


When to go?

Anytime and anywhere!

Straw Patrol organises regular beach cleans, check out their Facebook site to see when and where the next one will be held. Everyone can join in no matter their age and well-behaved dogs are also welcome. Take some rubbish bags and gloves.

However, cleaning the beach is an activity you can also do by yourself or with friends. It’s free, there’s no need to book anything and all you need is a bin bag and some gloves (you definitely want those gloves, trust us). Next time, instead of spending time on Facebook, watching brainless television or shopping for things you don’t really need, go and clean the beach. You’ll feel better afterwards. Promise.


For whom?

For absolutely everyone!

No matter if you like sport, prefer culture, would rather go on city trips, are an outdoor type or more of a relax-on-a-beach towel-person. We all live on this planet so the least we can do is all help to keep it clean. Yes, you as well.

This is also a great activity for people who don’t live near a beach. Even those who don’t live in the Algarve, or Portugal for that matter, can participate. Go and clean the countryside, the forest or the city you live in.


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine January 2017

Posted in People, This month we try.