Travelling to pick up litter. On the face of it, this could be a tough sell to your average holidaymaker…

But for eco-conscious globetrotters keen to have a positive impact on the destinations they visit, opting to take part in a beach clean during their trip could make for a rewarding experience; a volunteering project that avoids the pitfalls of ‘voluntourism’ schemes and also provides an opportunity to meet like-minded local people. Perhaps not such a rubbish idea after all?

A woman and young boy pick up rubbish from a large white beach. The two people are surrounded by other litter pickers, who are wearing high vis jackets and holding white bags.
Do good, get outdoors, meet local people: participating in a beach clean can be fun © Caiaimage/Trevor Adeiline / Getty Images

Here are six fantastic travel destinations around the world – from Bali to Barcelona – where you’ll find beach clean schemes that welcome tourists, plus some suggestions on how to reward yourself with a bit of R & R afterwards – after all, you are on holiday.

Two litter pickers work their way through the rubbish that carpets the sand of Juhu Beach in Mumbai. The beach is completely covered in litter due to the recent monsoon storms.
Juhu Beach in Mumbai after monsoon season in 2018 © Hindustan Times / Getty Images

Mumbai, India

Splintering from the Indian subcontinent into the Arabian Sea, dazzling, skyscraper-dotted Mumbai is a wonderful place to spend some time. A gargantuan, frenetic consortium of temples, trains and movie theatres, fragranced by the scent of one of the world’s great food scenes.

But Mumbai, like the rest of India, has a problem with waste management, and the issue is starkly revealed each July, when the monsoon-whipped waves deposit kilos of rubbish onto the city’s beaches. Mercifully, in recent years both government agencies and community-led task forces have been set up to tackle the problem, and visitors to the city can do their part by joining one of the regular cleanups of Versova Beach, or become an honorary Beach Warrior by taking part in one of their weekend litter-picks at various city beaches; both groups operate year round.

The pick-me-up: As the home of Bollywood, Mumbai boasts over 120 movie theatres. Sink into a comfortable chair and treat yourself to a few hours of blissful escapism courtesy of a modern blockbuster or classic Hindi flick; Art Deco Regal Cinema and the ornate Edward Theater are two of the most atmospheric options.

Ko Phi-Phi, Thailand

With its dreamy palm-backed beaches, salacious Full Moon Parties and fabled Khao San Road, Thailand has been a stalwart on backpacking itineraries for a generation. But the jewel in Southeast Asia’s crown is in need of a good polish. The waste caused by mass tourism (and the often slapdash infrastructure built to support it) has overwhelmed much of Thailand’s coastal regions and glistening isles, including the postcard pretty Phi-Phi archipelago. The waste problem here was confounded in 2018 when the iconic Maya Bay (star of The Beach) was closed to visitors due to issues around pollution.

But a new wave of travellers – more interested in doing good than getting wasted – are helping to curb the issue. Organisation Trash Hero runs popular, sociable weekly beach cleans on Phi-Phi Don, as well as numerous destinations across Thailand and further afield. Check the website for details.

The pick-me-up: A traditional Thai massage is the antidote to any aches or strains suffered when reaching down to pick up those plastic bottles, with customers coaxed into a number of healing poses, which is said to help relax muscles. Phi Phi Don is home to a handful of parlours, with Baan Sabai Thai Massage offering 30 or 60 minute options, as well as an array of other relaxing treatments.

An aerial view of Porthminster beach in St Ives, Cornwall. The turquoise waters lap against the bright white sand, which is busy with sun seekers.
Even England's premier beach destination can't escape the scourge of plastic waste © Adrian Hughes / Shutterstock

Cornwall, England

England’s premier beach destination, Cornwall, with its fishing boat-bobbing coves, art galleries and one gargantuan greenhouse, also struggles with the scourge of litter along its blissful coastline – much to the anger of the area’s large surfer population.

From the secluded coves of Polperro to the long stretches of sand around Penzance, Clean Cornwall organises regular, small-scale clean up operations throughout the English county that anyone can join.

The pick-me-up: Celebrate a job well done with a Cornish cream tea. Served in any half-decent cafe in the county, the indulgent dish centres around a scone (a small baked good made from wheat or oatmeal), served with a generous dollop of strawberry jam and clotted cream, plus a pot of English tea. Don’t forget: spread the jam first, then add the cream; or risk drawing grimaces from locals.

Barcelona, Spain

It’s fair to say tourism has become problematic in Barcelona, and while there are many ways you can help ease the issue of overtourism when visiting the city (from staying in lesser-known barrios to choosing eco-friendly accommodation), one way to help alter perceptions of visitors – and interact easily with locals – is to volunteer to help clean one of the city’s favourite beaches.

Clean up operations, run by the Clean Beach Initiative, are held every Saturday on the long sweeping sands of Platja de la Barceloneta, where volunteers (sometimes of the four-legged variety) pull together for the cause.

The pick-me-up: Barcelona is famed for its food scene, and after spending a morning picking up litter, consider refuelling at one of the city’s most revered restaurants. For a real treat, avant-garde Disfrutar is Michelin starred, while bare-bricked Bormuth serves traditional tapas at more wallet-friendly prices.

An aerial view of Repulse Bay in Hong Kong. Behind the thin strip of sand a number of the city's skyscrapers are visible.
Help to keep Hong Kong's beaches looking great © KingRobert / Shutterstock

Hong Kong

The archetypal ‘east meets west’ destination, Hong Kong’s cloud-scuffing skyline towers above nose-tingling food markets, gleaming shopping malls, bamboo opera theatres and city-centre horse racing tracks, with just enough room left for the region’s population of 7.4 million people. Indeed, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and, as a result, the city produces a lot of waste – much of which ends up spilling onto the city’s beaches.

While HK is best-known for its urban charms, over 70% of the region is made up of mountains and sprawling country parks. Dedicated volunteer groups work to protect the region’s delicate ecosystem, and gratefully welcome tourists into their ranks. If you’d like to help out, Plastic Free Seas holds regular cleans at Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, while The First Penguins, founded in 2016, adds some fun with monthly costumed cleans on various beaches, with previous themes ranging from princes and princesses to Star Wars.

The pick-me-up: Enjoy the seas you’ve helped to protect by taking to the water. Hong Kong is home to a number of surf schools, such as HK Waterman, which also offers lessons in stand up paddle boarding.

Bali, Indonesia

As a destination synonymous with spirituality – permeating from its pretty water puras (temples) and street-thronging religious processions – and renowned worldwide for its wellness industry, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear Bali is home to a whole host of eco-conscious companies working to keep the Indonesian island’s emblematic coastline clean. It might surprise you however, to see the scale of the plastic problem on some parts of the island, with popular beaches like Kuta often amounting serious sums of litter, posing a serious threat to local marine life.

So after a dose of temple-hopping, market shopping and sampling the island’s salubrious cuisine, consider lending a hand to those fighting to keep the coast plastic free. Trash Hero has projects running all over the island, while beachfront bar Old Man’s in Canggu offers a free beer to anyone who helps out as part of their popular litter picks on Saturday afternoons.

The pick-me-up: Bali is one of the world’s prime yoga destinations, and a few sun salutations makes for the perfect way to restore zen after a morning of picking litter from the shoreline. Almost every hotel, restaurant or bar seems to run classes, but two reputable outfits are Intuitive Flow, up amid the rice fields, and Taksu Spa, set in the heart of Ubud’s forested hills.

A mound of garbage on Kuta Beach in Bali. In the distance, and slightly out of focus, two people work to clear the litter from the sand.
Kuta Beach, Bali, being cleared of rubbish in 2017 © SONNY TUMBELAKA / Getty Images

Other ways to help

Can’t see your next holiday destination here? It’s worth noting over 180 destinations around the world take part in the global litter pick as part of World Cleanup Day each September. If you’re really keen to help with a beach clean while on the road you can always speak to local tourism bodies in the destination you’re visiting about getting involved, or, if you want to go the extra mile, start your own.

While only universal changes in industry and human consumption will end the issue of ocean waste, spending a morning volunteering to pick up litter is certainly better than doing nothing. The psychological aspect of engaging in litter picks is also thought to mould our future behaviours and make us think more about our own consumption habits. To this end, it’s worth remembering that you can also benefit the destinations you are visiting by being a responsible traveller, and minimising your use of plastic on the road.

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