Cleaning up the coast: A local look at a problem that unites the world

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Camryn Page, Taylor Tybaert, Dr. Bill Zitek and Elizabeth Cummings cleaning the beaches of Mashomack Preserve.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Camryn Page, Taylor Tybaert, Dr. Bill Zitek and Elizabeth Cummings cleaning the beaches of Mashomack Preserve.

“Today, plastic has been found in 62% of all sea birds and in 100% of sea turtle species.”

These disturbing statistics come courtesy of the Ocean Conservancy and confirm what many of us may have already suspected.

We’re literally killing ourselves (and our fellow living beings) with garbage — much of it plastic, which we love as consumers because it is strong, durable and long-lasting, and hate as environmentalists for exactly the same reason.

September is International Coastal Cleanup month and Saturday, September 16 was cleanup day for the beaches of The Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve. The preserve was just one of thousands of sites around the country and the world where residents are pitching in to lend a hand this month by collecting and recording types of garbage found along shorelines. Other communities on the East End hosting cleanups include Orient, Mattituck, Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Southampton and Riverhead.

In many ways, beach garbage poses a unique challenge in that it affects communities around the globe by unwittingly linking them. Unlike trash deposited by local hands on roadsides or wooded trails, coastal debris generally arrives here from somewhere else, driven to our shores by the movements of current, wind and tide.

When it comes to the oceans, we are all truly connected — witness what happened to debris in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan which, years later, is still washing up on beaches in Hawaii and the West Coast of North America.

In the waters between Japan and California, there sits the infamous Great Pacific garbage patch, a swirling vortex of plastic particles, some so small they can’t be seen by the naked eye — and fish are eating this stuff.

According to a story earlier this week on npr.org, in 2016 professor Sarah Dudas and her students at Vancouver Island University conducted an experiment in which they planted thousands of clams and oysters around coastal British Columbia. Three months later, they processed and analyzed the shellfish flesh and when they looked at it under a microscope, discovered it was filled with tiny plastic particles.

“So when you eat clams and oysters, you’re eating plastics as well,” Ms. Dudas said in the story.

Trash travels globally and locally, as Cindy Belt, the education and outreach coordinator at Mashomack Preserve, knows very well.

Ms. Belt organized last weekend’s cleanup effort at the preserve  — which brought out 34 volunteers — and in a phone interview on Tuesday, offered details on what the group found.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Franny Regan and Myla Dougherty found an inflatable rubber duck (which they named Frank) and a pink hat during the cleanup. The hat, which Franny is wearing, had a phone number written inside and, as fate would have it, made the trip to Shelter Island by crossing the sea from Sag Harbor. The owner has been contacted and the girls will soon be returning the hat to Sag Harbor. Frank was adopted by one of the cleanup volunteers and has found a new home on Shelter Island.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Franny Regan and Myla Dougherty found an inflatable rubber duck (which they named Frank) and a pink hat during the cleanup. The hat, which Franny is wearing, had a phone number written inside and, as fate would have it, made the trip to Shelter Island by crossing the sea from Sag Harbor. The owner has been contacted and the girls will soon be returning the hat to Sag Harbor. Frank was adopted by one of the cleanup volunteers and has found a new home on Shelter Island.

“More people than we expected showed up and it was mix of all ages,” said Ms. Belt who estimates around 130 pounds of garbage was collected. “We had good representation from the Girl Scouts’ middle school troop, and a couple of Cub Scouts. We also had three or four different families, and a few high school students cashing in on the community service offer.”

Ms. Belt notes that visitors to Mashomack are often surprised by the volume of garbage that can be found along the shoreline, even in the most remote parts of the preserve.

“They ask, ‘Why is there so much garbage on the beach? I thought people were not allowed here,’” Ms. Belt said. “I say, ‘You’re right, but after floating around in the water it ends up on the beach.’”

On Saturday, the targeted beach cleanup area at Mashomack was the roughly three-mile stretch between Miss Annie’s Creek and Major’s Harbor encompassing the west end of the preserve. Ms. Belt explained the area gets prevailing winds from the southwest which carry in detritus from Peconic Bay.

“It is overwhelmingly plastic,” said Ms. Belt when asked about the garbage collected, confirming on the local level what seems to be true for the global coastal garbage situation as well. “Food wrappers, a lot of cups, tons of balloons, straws — the beverage kinds of things. I’d say the plastic bags we found were along the lines of the random Doritos bag, or ice bags. Most of the things are objects that are likely to blow off a boat or be left behind at a picnic and wash off the beach.

“There’s also a fair number of shotgun shells,” Ms. Belt said.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Dr. Bill Zitek shows off a bird skeleton that was discovered during the cleanup process.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Dr. Bill Zitek shows off a bird skeleton that was discovered during the cleanup process.

Topping the list of items found at Mashomack were small plastic pieces under an inch. Ms. Belt believes much of that plastic is from single-use grocery bags (now banned on the South Fork) that have broken down.

Then there were the curious finds, including a baseball cap that had washed up (and was traced back to an owner in Sag Harbor thanks to a phone number written inside) and a large inflatable duck which was christened “Frank the Rubber Duck” and went home with a volunteer at the end of the day.

“The same group that found the duck also were convinced they had found a shipwreck,” Ms. Belt said. “They found two big foam boat cushions — 3-feet by 2-feet — and a life preserver. It was all found by the Major’s Harbor area where people anchor their boats.”

Ms. Belt’s job now is to tally the items found and send the data to the Ocean Conservancy which will add it to a larger database as part of this year’s International Coastal Cleanup.

“They collect data on things found underwater, in salt water and fresh water and they have used this long term data set to take a look at the biggest problems,” Ms. Belt said. “They’ve actually used this citizen science data to pass laws about ocean dumping and make changes.

“I hope people find that interesting and understand why we are collecting the data,” she said. “That old phrase, ‘Think globally, act locally’ is true.”

The Top 6

items collected at  Mashomack Preserve on September 16, 2017*

1. Plastic pieces less than one inch — including single-use bags (150)

2. Food wrappers — candy, chips, etc. (97)

3. Balloons — (92)

4. Other plastic bags — (89)

5. Foam pieces — (53)

6. Shotgun shells — (46 )

* per Cindy Belt

The Top 10

items collected in the 2016 International Coastal Cleanup*

1. Cigarette butts (1,863,838)

2. Plastic beverage bottles  (1,578,834)

3. Plastic bottle caps (822,227)

4. Food wrappers (762,353)

5. Plastic grocery bags (520,900)

6. Plastic lids (419,380)

7. Straws, stirrers (409,087)

8. Glass beverage bottles (390,468)

9. Other plastic bags (368,655)

10. Foam take-away containers (365,584)

* per the Ocean Conservancy

There’s an app for that

The science of gathering beach garbage has gone high tech and there’s now an app for that. It’s called Clean Swell and it can be used wherever you happen to be in the world. Just log onto the app and enter information about what you gather into Ocean Conservancy’s global ocean trash database. The information helps provide a global snapshot of ocean trash and insight for researchers and policy makers.

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