Today’s post is by Catherine Gemmell, the Marine Conservation Societies Scotland Conservation Officer whose work ranges over education and public engagement to campaigns and policy. Over the past four years Catherine has mainly been focusing on the promotion of the beach cleaning and litter surveying project, Beachwatch, and using the data collected to drive change in marine litter policy. As ever with NAEE blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily those of the Association.

Introduction – ‘The beach looks so lovely. But I saw some bits of plastic.’ These were the words from one of the pupils of Our Lady’s RC Primary School who was visiting the beach for the very first time as part of the #wildbottlesighting campaign with the Marine Conservation Society and the Have You Got The Bottle? (HYGTB) Campaign.   From landlocked Perth to East Haven beach to Scottish Parliament, pupils from Our Lady’s Primary have spent the last two years working with the Marine Conservation Society and HYGTB to make connections between their school, the sea and what they can do to help stop the plastic tide hitting Scotland’s shores.  Focusing on plastic bottles after finding some in their playground, pupils worked on highlighting the issue of single-use plastic bottles and the solution of a Deposit Return System through the Marine Conservation Society’s #wildbottlesighting social media campaign.  From workshops, assemblies, beach cleans, media interviews, visits from Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham and a hugely successful stall at a Scottish Environment LINK parliamentary event, this school have shown that no matter where you live, you can stand up and make a difference for our ocean. 

How did it start? – The work began with the amazing work on marine conservation by Our Lady’s RC Primary in 2017 when the then Primary 3 teacher Margaret Sharkey, Marine Conservation Society Sea Champion Volunteer and scuba diver, requested one of the Marine Conservation Society’s free educational workshops. Despite being in landlocked Perth, Margaret was keen to link the school to the ocean and show the children how they could help protect it.  

Education Workshops – As a marine conservation organisation, marine litter education is central to the work that we do with young people. The Marine Conservation Society’s Education programme, incorporates learning and engagement opportunities for primary aged children and high school students. The charity’s Education programme involves a range of resources and experiences, designed to raise student awareness of the issues facing our ocean, particularly marine litter.  All resources are curriculum linked and freely available to schools across the UK. 

The Marine Conservation Society’s workshops, delivered by Engagement staff and a team of trained Sea Champion volunteers, are available around the UK including Scotland. There are four primary workshops available, each incorporate learning about marine litter. The Ocean’s Alive Assembly and Turtles in Trouble workshop have a particular focus on the issue of litter and its impacts on the marine environment and creatures. The core activity of the assembly involves children selecting an item which is commonly littered, and matching this to the time it is predicted to take to break down. This activity lends itself to lots of discussion around why certain items are particularly littered and why some may be more of a problem than others. Turtles in Trouble, tells the story of the life of a leatherback turtle and involves students exploring the impacts of marine litter and possible solutions for reducing its impact, including beach cleaning.

In 2017 the Marine Conservation Society visited Our Lady’s RC Primary school to deliver a single ‘Turtles in Trouble’ workshop for the Primary 3s as they were studying life underwater. The pupils were so enthusiastic and wanted to find out more about what they could do to help that the charity arranged a follow up visit to deliver school-wide ‘Turtles in Trouble’ workshops as well as the Oceans’ Alive Assembly.  

The #wildbottlesighting campaign – Littered bottles and cans were unfortunately a regular sight in and around the students’ playground and on their walks to school. They also knew that a bottle or can dropped in the middle of a town could still make its way by wind, river or drain to the sea, so were determined to help make a difference.

The Marine Conservation Society has a long-running wildlife sightings project. Members of the public are asked to report what animals they spot on the shores of the UK via an online map, which helps the charity’s scientists understand what’s happening at sea.  The charity wanted to create a similar sightings initiative for ‘wild’ bottles and cans andthe hashtag #wildbottlesighting was created so anyone who spotted a ‘wild’ bottle or can  could take a picture and add it to an online map on the charity’s website. The school loved this idea and helped spread the word about the #wildbottlesighting campaign through their own social media accounts as well as uploading pupils’ photos to the online map.  Within 6 months over 6000 #wildbottlesightings had been reported to the online map from across Scotland. 

To highlight how many of these ‘wild bottles’ were being found across Scotland, the #wildbottlesightings map was printed. The pupils wanted to give a copy of the map to the Scottish Government so invited then Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, to their school for a special assembly. to the students handed over the map and shared everything they had learnt about litter in our ocean so far, including a fantastic song. The event caught the interest of national press and some of the pupils were interviewed on national radio  – another fantastic challenge that they rose to brilliantly!

The Marine Conservation Society then invited some of the pupils to join a beach clean, as part of the charity’s Beachwatch programme. The citizen science project sees beach cleaners become scientists:  volunteers clean a 100m stretch of beach for litter, recoring the litter they find. This data is then used by the charity to campaign for policies which reduce the tide of plastic entering our ocean. The beach clean connected the students’ #wildbottlesightings in land with what was found on the beach, highlighting just how much beach litter actually comes from inland. Nearly 60 pupils were able to get to the coast thanks to funding from the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland. For two 10-year-olds, this was the very first time they had ever been to the beach. One of them remarked ‘The waves, they just keep coming!’ with a joint class summary saying: ‘We collected 24 kilos of rubbish – we were surprised it was so much. We learned that lots of people are dumping rubbish. We learned not to drop litter as it kills animals, especially those in the sea. Thank you for letting us visit the beach, especially those of us who were visiting the beach for the very first time. We were happy to pick up the litter to help the environment. We loved collecting shells too.’ 

After a very successful trip to the beach and in recognition of all the  pupils had achieved, they were invited to the Scottish Parliament to showcase their work at an event called ‘Generation Earth’. During the event the pupils spoke to 14 different Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) about their work on marine litter, wild bottles and deposit return – it was a fantastic success and was the highest number of MSPs the Marine Conservation Society had engaged with in one event – a brilliant result for the pupils! 

Fast-forward to 8th of May 2019 and the Scottish Government announce that Scotland’s Deposit Return System will include glass and plastic bottles as well as metal cans. Our Lady’s Primary messaged me saying they were watching the announcement live on the Scottish Parliament website and were all so excited to see their work had helped secure this amazing change at the highest level in Scotland. 

Conclusion – So, from a landlocked school to the beach and on to parliament, these pupils have been on a fantastic journey learning the amazing power they have to inspire change, a realisation that is dawning on us all across the world at the moment. Each and every one of us has the power to inspire that change and I am honoured to be able to do so in my work for the Marine Conservation Society in Scotland. Our ocean needs more of this change, and it needs it now! 

As the Marine Conservation Societies Scotland Conservation Officer my work can cover many different projects from education and public engagement to campaigns and policy. Over the past five years I have mainly been focusing on the promotion of our beach cleaning and litter surveying project Beachwatch and using the data collected to drive change in marine litter policy. Prior to MCS I have held several public engagement and environmental education roles after I studied Marine and Coastal Resource Management at Aberdeen University, which is where I also learnt to dive. Whether under, on or beside the sea it is fantastic to have come full circle to now be working for a marine conservation charity and volunteering as a STEM Ambassador to help inspire some ocean optimism and encourage everyone to take action to protect our incredible seas.


Catherine can be contacted at: or Twitter: @mcsuk @cathgem2000vdbdzb

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