Food and drink packaging accounts for up to a fifth of all rubbish found on beaches, according to new research.
The findings, from the annual Great British Beach Clean, will intensify pressure on ministers to introduce charges on single-use items like coffee cups, bottles and straws.
On average, 718 litter items were collected every 100 metres on UK beaches, up 10% compared to last year. Littering was highest in England, with 911 items per 100 metres.
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), which runs the annual clean every September, also published details of the litter they found by type.
Plastic and polystyrene topped the list (225.3 items per 100 metres). Next came food packets like crisps and sandwich wrappers (42.3/100m), followed by glass (40.4/100m), cigarette stubs (34.5/100m) and caps and lids (32.9/100m). A little over 15 single-use straws, trays and cutlery were also found every 100 metres.
The charity said “on-the-go” litter – drinks cups, plastic cutlery, foil wrappers, straws, sandwich packets, lolly sticks, plastic bottles, drinks cans, glass bottles, plastic cups, lids and stirrers – is a particular problem. In Scotland, for example, 83 pieces of on-the-go litter were found on average per 100m of beaches cleaned and surveyed.
The figures highlight the public’s bad habits. However, MCS called for regulation, including a levy on the millions of single-use items that are handed out free of charge when people eat and drink on the move.
The 5p plastic bag charge has made a “massive difference” said MCS, and the policy now needs to be extended to other single-use items that are littering beaches and polluting seas.
Environmental levies are a devolved matter. The Scottish government, which will introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers next year, is considering the merits of a charge on coffee cups.
In England, the chancellor last week announced a “call for evidence” on charging schemes for everything from takeaway food boxes to plastic packaging. The likes of the Foodservice Packaging Association and the British Plastics Federation are already lobbying hard against any new form of taxation.