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Every year, roughly eight million tonnes of plastic garbage wash into the ocean. Despite this constant stream of bags, bottles, and beads—many bits of which wind up washing back to shore—Kayleigh Wyles thought that some British beaches didn’t look quite trashy enough. So, a few years ago, Wyles began strategically strewing bits of garbage onto the sand along several of England’s sandy beaches. She didn’t stop until the shore was littered to her satisfaction. “I did get many looks,” she says, “and had to reassure fellow beachgoers that I would remove the rubbish.”
The harmful effects of garbage on marine ecosystems are well known—from birds ingesting plastic to sea turtles swallowing metal—but Wyles, a psychologist, is studying something else. She wondered if a dirty beach also hurt the well-being—specifically the mental well-being—of beachgoers.
One hypothesis, called the “attention restoration theory,” argues that spending time in natural environments can be beneficial for our mental health. The theory suggests that coastlines, as with other idyllic environments, make people happier, calmer, and more refreshed. But when the trappings of human culture degrade these natural scenes, says Wyles, suddenly those landscapes lose their value as potential mood enhancers.
To compare the calming potential of dirty and clean beaches, Wyles presented photographs of her carefully littered beaches to project participants at her lab in Plymouth.
Wyles found that an abundance of litter undermines whatever psychological benefits could otherwise be gained by looking at a pristine coastal landscape.
But not all beach clutter is created equal, says Wyles. For one, natural beach debris like seaweed and kelp doesn’t cause negative feelings. Further, she says, people seem to be more accepting of fishing litter, such as discarded nets or crates, than of soda cans or sandwich wrappers. Wyles says that’s probably because people try to infer the litterers’ intentions—fishing debris could be the accidental byproduct of a beach activity, whereas a soda can is likely the result of carelessness or disrespect.
Most often, arguments for keeping trash out of the ocean and off the beach are grounded in guilt, or in the notion that we should care for the habitat that provides resources such as food, oxygen, and jobs. But that view, says ecologist and ocean advocate Wallace J. Nichols, is “dangerously incomplete.”
“By recognizing the cognitive, emotional, psychological, social, and (some would say) spiritual benefits of healthy oceans and waterways, we can provide a more complete and motivating rationale” for maintaining a healthier, more habitable planet, says Nichols.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that only eight tonnes of plastic wash into the ocean annually, instead of eight million tonnes.