Meet the expat with a mission to save Spain's beaches

The Local Spain
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Meet the expat with a mission to save Spain's beaches
Ann Jenkins is determined clean up Spain, one beach at a time. Photo: Ann Jenkins/ Playa Patrol

Ann Jenkins, a Canadian living in La Herradura on Andalusia's Costa Tropical, is the woman behind Playa Patrol, a beach clean-up initiative. She speaks to The Local about her mission to clean up Spain’s Costas, one beach at a time.


"Three and a half years ago, my husband and I took early retirement and left Toronto with a view to travelling the world for the next ten years or so. But eight months later we found the Costa Tropical and have been here ever since."

The pair bought a plot of land on a hillside above La Herradura just a six minute walk from the beach and are in the process of building their home.

Ann and her husband Christopher settled on the Costa Tropical three years ago. Photo: Ann Jenkins / Playa Patrol

But last October, ahead of the town’s annual fiesta, Jenkins came up with a project that has now taken over her life. She organised a beach clean-up as part of the Sea Festival and expected a few friends to turn up and help. But crowds came down to the beach and got involved, and made a huge difference.

"We were shocked and thrilled when 350 volunteers joined us and collected 24,000 cigarette butts and other plastic litter and garbage in under two hours," the 54-year-old told The Local.

It was such a success that people began asking when the next one was, so she turned it into a not-for-profit association.

"We had so much positive feedback that we decided to create Association Playa Patrol. Our mission is to think globally and act locally to help keep our sea plastic free. After that it took about four months between the lawyer, the Junta and the bank to get ourselves sorted into an official association with a working bank account. You see, we cannot accept donations unless we do all those steps."


Jenkins believes that one person really can make a difference. 

"I wanted to start Playa Patrol to encourage people at a grass roots level to feel empowered to make a difference. Many people ask: What can I do, I am only one person? Will it really make a difference? Can my children become an Ocean Guardian? My answer is a resounding YES. Together we have the power to not only participate in a beach clean up but to build awareness around changing our relationship with single-use plastic." 

Another beach clean-up is planned for June 30th, just after the parties of San Juan which leave the beaches covered in detritus. Another is planned for September 22th to coincide with International Coastal Clean Up Day.

 And she is working on an educational project for children, to teach them about the importance of the marine environment and the threat plastic poses to the seas and will be crowd funding to launch the project.

"Beach clean ups are just one element of Playa Patrol but working with students both in and out of the classroom is as important as the community outreach beach clean up."

Jenkins already has plans to expand Playa Patrol to nearby Salobreña and Motril for September and for beaches across the Costa Tropical from Carchuna and Albuñol next year.

She has developed a scheme to create Ocean Ambassadors who can host their own clean-ups.

"If other communities in Spain are interested in hosting beach clean ups I will happily share my secrets and invite them to join us to see first hand how many people you can inspire if you have a passion to help keep our sea plastic free and we can empower local communities to take action" she said.

"One of the things we hear over and over again is this: "We want to do better, but we just need someone to help us get started."

Can it really make a difference?

"Every day the local garbage collectors walk the beach and pick up the big stuff: water bottles, plastic bags, broken umbrellas or kids toys, etc. And they do an incredible job. But they cannot afford the time to pick up the microplastics or cigarette butts. And, because our area of Spain has rocky beaches – anywhere from small gravel to pebbles to rocks – we cannot have machines do the clean up work. So it’s a manual process to make a difference," insists Jenkins.  

Alongside the everyday litter, there is an extra danger on beaches along Spain’s southern coast nicknamed the "Mar de plastico" for the swathes of hillsides covered in greenhouses that grow fruit and vegetables for the supermarkets of northern Europe.

"The areas of Costa Tropical that have an influx of plastic farming suffer more because that’s an EXTRA item that simply disintegrates, blows in the wind, then out to sea. Some areas are more impacted by fishing gear. When people hear that we’re doing a beach clean up, I often get phone calls from Team Captains a week before the event saying "the beach looks pretty good, are you sure we shouldn’t cancel?" My response is, "you’ll be surprised how much we will collect."

And it’s not just plastic trash and everyday litter that gets collected in a beach clean up. "We also make a really big deal about cigarette butt waste on our beach. Did you know that a discarded cigarette butt is made of over 97 percent cellulose acetate (just a fancy word for plastic) and that it contains 4,000+ chemical toxins!" Jenkins explained.  

"During our first beach clean up, 350 volunteers collected 24,000 cigarette butts in under 2 hours and at our last beach clean up 543 volunteers collected 40,000 discarded cigarette butts."

At the end of a clean-up, volunteers gather at the "End Zone" with what they’ve collected and the local Medio Ambiente come and dispose of it.

Photo: Chloe Pettersen / Playa Patrol

What can you do to help?

Even small changes in the way you shop can make a big difference, believes Jenkins. "If everyone made one change a week in their relationship with plastic it would just become normal: buy a bamboo toothbrush, find a zero waste shop near you and refill your shampoo bottle, always carry a reusable shopping bag, pack your children’s lunches in beeswax wraps or Tupperware, buy a reusable water bottle and use it – even at a restaurant.," she suggests.

"Now imagine if you continued. 52 weeks of changes might lead to using cotton mesh bags at the fruit and vegetable market, taking Tupperware or glass containers to the meat and cheese department, quit smoking,  buy in bulk to stop single serving purchases. Some people even go so far as to become vegan but that’s a personal choice," she said.

Donate to the Bye Bye plastic fund HERE

Food for thought

"If marine life come across a plastic bag floating in the ocean, they mistake it for a jellyfish. Yummy! Microplastics are seen as plankton. Mmmmmmmm! Marine life and wlldlife do not know that plastic is not a possible food source," explains Jenkins.

"The food chain is just that ... and humans are at the top of the food chain. There is research out there that talks about the micrograms of plastic found in human faeces. So the next time you eat salmon for dinner ask yourself how much plastic you might be ingesting? And that might cause you to develop some empathetic awareness and join a beach clean up!"

More information:

For more information and to get involved in a beach clean up or organize one near you visit the Playa Patrol website. Follow them on Facebook , Instagram or email Ann Jenkins direct on [email protected]

READ ALSO: Meet the woman behind Madrid's first zero-waste shop




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