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A major milestone has been passed in an ambitious project to clear plastic debris from underneath the famous cliffs stretching between Eastbourne and Seaford and to stop it breaking down into small particles and polluting the sea.

Members of the Maritime Volunteer Service (MVS) have transported a large quantity of plastic waste from an inaccessible beach near Beachy Head, East Sussex, to Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne, for proper disposal. The MVS responded to a request by Mr Norm Penney, founder of environmental group Beachy Head and Seven Sisters Extreme Plastic Objects Removal (BHASSExplore), for help.

Over the past few months Mr Penney and a small team of volunteer helpers have worked hard to collect and bag plastic waste washed up under the cliffs. Much of it had weathered and started to break down into small particles which would have gone back into and polluted the sea - a danger to the future of the planet highlighted recently by Sir David Attenborough.

By June, BHASSEXPLORE had collected in excess of 300 bin bags of plastic at one site. The problem was that the only way to get it out and to a proper disposal facility was by sea. That was where the MVS, a UK-wide nautical training and community support charity, came into its own.

On Thursday 6th August, East Sussex Sovereign Harbour MVS Unit sailed the Eastbourne-based vessel East Sussex 1 (ES1) to the location just West of the famous Beachy Head lighthouse. With a crew of eight on board the 17-metre-long former Royal Navy harbour launch used the rising tide to approach the beach and anchor a short distance off. A crew member then took one of ES1's small dinghies to the beach, towing a long line that was then used to pull batches of large builders' bags to the anchored launch. The builders' bags had been filled with bin bags packed with a wide variety of plastic waste. This included expanded polystyrene packing, plastic bottles, fishing nets and lines, ropes and buoys.

Once safely on board the bags were secured and covered in nets for the short trip to Sovereign Harbour. On Friday morning more MVS members assembled by the vessel and quickly took the bags to waiting Environment First vans that had been organised by Eastbourne Borough Council to remove the bags to a disposal facility. There were about 35 bags, amounting to several tonnes of plastic that had been permanently taken out of the marine environment.

ES1's skipper, and the chair of the MVS's governing national council, David Hughes remarked: "Close under the cliffs at Beachy Head is not where I would normally want to venture. However, when I saw Mr Penney's appeal for a boat I thought we could help out. I visited the site at low water and it was clear that an operation to float the bags off the beach was feasible. Our two organisations worked very closely together to achieve this successful outcome. Weather conditions were perfect and the whole operation went smoothly, largely thanks to the excellent teamwork and seamanship displayed by our MVS volunteers."

Mr Hughes paid tribute to Mr Penney's "vital role" in tackling a problem that had built up over many years. Mr Hughes said: "Norm realised the extent of the build-up of plastic under the iconic cliffs between Eastbourne and Seaford earlier this year and set up BHASSExplore. He saw that over the past fifty years or more all kinds of plastic flotsam and jetsam had found their way into the jagged rock pools and onto remote coves, pushed there by the relentless tides and frequent storms. Norm made it his personal, and BHASSExplore's, mission to locate, document and remove as much of this detritus as humanly possible. He has done a brilliant job and the MVS is happy to have been able to help and we are prepared to continue to assist in this way."

He added: "I would like to thank the many people that helped in this project in various ways, including Martin Griffin of Sussex Blast Cleaning which repainted the lighthouse back in 2013. Eastbourne Borough Council officers have given their full support to this project and ensured the unwanted plastic will now be disposed of in a proper manner. In addition, I'm very grateful to Premier Marinas for facilitating the landing of the bags at Sovereign Harbour.

"I also really appreciate the presence in the area of the Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority's (IFCA) patrol vessel Watchful while we were working off the beach and her skipper, Charlie Hubbard's, offer of assistance if required."

Following the successful transfer of the waste, IFCA's Chief Fisheries and Conservation Officer, Tim Dapling, emailed the MVS saying: "A fantastic effort, well done."

Mr Hughes noted: "Plastic in the sea threatens the future of the fishing industry and removing it is in everybody's interest. IFCA's support shows the importance now being given to stopping plastic from polluting the oceans. The MVS is keen to continue this work. It may be possible to do one more operation this year but it all depends on the weather and we will soon be in autumn. In any case, though, we would want to assist BHASSExplore's continuing project next year."