Face masks and gloves were found on a third of beaches cleaned by conservationists during an annual beach clean-up.
The Marine Conservation Society said this year’s results revealed a concerning volume of PPE litter on the beaches surveyed.
The charity’s annual Great British Beach Clean was held in September against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This year, volunteers were asked to adopt a 100-metre stretch of beach themselves, and organise their own, smaller beach-cleans with family friends and “bubbles”, in line with Government guidance.
For the first time volunteers were asked to record the number of face masks and plastic gloves they found.
Those items were found on almost 30% of beaches cleaned by Marine Conservation Society volunteers during the week-long event.
The results were supported by inland data collected by volunteers embarking on the charity’s Source To Sea Litter Quest, which revealed that more than two-thirds (69%) of litter-picks found PPE.
Pieces of plastic and polystyrene were the most common items recovered, followed by plastic and polystyrene caps and lids, wet wipes, cigarette stubs and plastic string.
Great British Beach Clean co-ordinator Lizzie Prior said: “The amount of PPE our volunteers found on beaches and inland this year is certainly of concern.
“Considering mask-wearing was only made mandatory in shops in England in late July, little more than three months before the Great British Beach Clean, the sharp increase in PPE litter should be a word of warning for what could be a new form of litter polluting our beaches in the future.”
Like many other single-use items, disposable face masks and gloves pose a threat to wildlife on land and at sea.
Marine animals could mistake face masks and gloves for prey, filling their stomachs with materials which will not break down and could prove to be fatal.
Animals also risk becoming entangled in the straps of face masks, with recent pictures showing seabirds’ feet wrapped in the elastic strings.
Drinks litter continues to be found on UK beaches, with an average of 30 drinks containers, caps and lids being found per 100 metre of beach surveyed this year.
Inland, almost all litter-picks (99%) found drinks refuse.
The charity said this illustrates the need for a bottle deposit return scheme to be adopted across the UK, not just in Scotland.
Dr Laura Foster, head of clean seas at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “This year’s Great British Beach Clean data, in addition to the Source To Sea Litter Quest data, shows just how crucial it is that Wales, England and Northern Ireland follow in the footsteps of Scotland and urgently introduce an all-inclusive deposit return scheme.
“Despite lockdown, with many of us spending more time at home, littering in public spaces has continued unabated.
“Almost every single local litter-pick found at least one drinks container, which is incredibly concerning.
“An effective deposit return scheme would take the UK one step closer to a circular economy model and drastically reduce the volume of single-use pollution in the UK’s streets, parks and on our beaches.”