Scotland’s beaches filled with eight times more sewage debris than those in England and Wales

Scotland’s beaches filled with eight times more sewage debris than England’s. (Photo: PA)
Scotland’s beaches filled with eight times more sewage debris than England’s. (Photo: PA)

Beaches across Scotland have eight times more sewage-related debris than those in England and Wales, new data has revealed.

Scottish beaches had an average of 88.2 items of debris, such as wet wipes, per 100 metres last year compared with an average of 9.1 and 10.7 per 100 metres on English and Welsh beaches respectively, according to data from the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

Sewage-related debris includes wet wipes, cotton bud sticks and sanitary products, which all make their way into the sea after sewer networks get overwhelmed from heavy rain or storms.

Falkirk was found to be the worst-affected area with an average of 358 sewage-related items per 100 metres.

Last year during a beach clean, volunteers at MCS molunteers collected more than 35,000 items of sewage-related debris in Scotland.

The greatest number of sewage-related items found on the charity’s beach cleans were in the Lothian parliamentary region with 19,590 litter items collected and recorded across the year. While the most sewage-related items found in a 100 metre stretch were in Central Scotland with an average of 358 per 100 metres.

The MCS is calling for Scottish Water to monitor all combined sewer overflows (CSOs) as currently only 3.4% of CSOs in Scotland are monitored and reported. In Wales 96% are monitored and in England 91% are.

Scottish Water has said it will install 1,000 more pollution monitors across Scotland by the end of next year to cover a third of the country’s 3,617 overflows but the MCS says this does not go far enough.

The charity is demanding that all CSOs are monitored and reported.

Catherine Gemmell, Scotland Conservation Officer at the MCS said monitoring is “crucial to improving the sewage situation in Scotland” as without it the Scottish government “cannot hold those responsible accountable”.

Ms Gemmell added: “Given how many sewage-related items our volunteers across Scotland find on our beaches, we know the situation is bad, but we need to understand the full extent of the issue, so it can be fixed.”

In England and Wales private water companies have committed to monitor 100% of CSOs by the end of this year, and water companies in England are also now required to ensure that all CSOs have screening controls to reduce the amount of sewage-related debris discharged into seas and rivers.

In 2021, Scottish Water said that about 80% of its CSOs did not have a screen in place.

Last year there were more than 400 sewage spills on Scotland’s beaches including at some of the most popular beaches such as Nairn, St Andrews and Peterhead Lido.

A total volume of 47.1 million cubic metres of sewage was also reported to have spilled into rivers and seas in Scotland in 2022 - the equivalent of 18,845 Olympic swimming pools.

In separate research, using data from Scottish Water and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), the MCS showed that untreated sewage was also released into designated bathing sites as well as marine protected areas last year.

It found sewage was released into waters within 1km of areas designated for marine nature conservation for more than 20,000 hours. Less than 2% of storm overflows within the same distance of designated bathing waters are monitored yet they alone released sewage for more than 600 hours in 2022.

Laura Foster, head of clean seas at the MSC, said: “All we have is a tiny snapshot of data for storm overflows in Scotland, but from what we can see, they paint a terrible picture of the situation.

“For thousands of hours each year, untreated sewage is being released straight into Scotland’s seas. This includes into designated bathing sites as well as marine protected areas which have been specifically recognised for their environmental importance.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said blockages and overflows can be prevented by “reducing the amount of inappropriate items such as wet wipes, fats and oils that are flushed away.”

The spokesperson added: “Overflows from sewers normally consist of around 99% rainwater and less than 1% toilet waste. We all need to be more careful about what we flush, and we are supporting Scottish Water’s ‘Nature Calls’ campaign highlighting the impact of inappropriately flushed items and the damage they cause to our environment.”