Environment: Plastic Rein

Art Throb writer and Salem Sound Coastwatch board member Andera Fox joins other volunteers in cleaning Rice's Beach. Photos by Mary Shea.

Nearly half of all seabirds, a quarter of marine mammals, all sea turtles, and a growing list of fish are suffering homicide by entanglement. Scores of animals literally burst from the indigestible plastics, or implode when pieces block their digestive tracts. They also absorb toxins from this faux cuisine du jour.

There is too much plastic trash in the ocean. I know because I pick up, on average, about 30 pounds of errant, left behind, deliberately littered, or regurgitated tidal trash each week as a beachkeeper with the Salem Sound Coastwatch.

Globally, we only recycle five percent of plastics. Where ocean flows converge, debris collects, so we don’t usually see the plastic remnants unless we are walking a wrack line along the beach, stumble upon a backwater intersection of local flows, or reach a spot where jetsam and flotsam congregate. But it’s congregating out at sea at an alarming rate.

Researchers have developed highly sophisticated computer models of plastic drift present in all of the world’s oceans in patches called gyres. According to the original “garbage patch” crusader, ocean researcher captain Charlie Moore, who recently received a Salem State University 2012 Friend of the Earth award, 55 percent of all plastic is single-use. It’s intended to be totally disposable.

Leading the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, he trawls the Pacific collecting thousands of water samples. His research and others has shown that plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, which are present at all levels of the water column.

Stopping Trash

According to the website 5Gyres.org, “cleaning up plastic pollution from the world’s oceans is impractical,” and the organization advocates strongly for legislative solutions like the Massachusetts Bottle Bill.

Currently, proposals to extend the bill to include bottled water and other categories as well as raise the deposit are with both branches of the Massachusetts Legislature. The issue failed when it reached the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, co-chaired by Salem Rep. John Keenan. Keenan told Dan Rea of CBS NightSide in February that while he was still formulating his position, he doesn’t want to add cost to products like bottled water. He said the Bottle Bill extension is cost inefficient—returning bottles is much more expensive than curbside recycling.

I drink tap water and advocate for “Take Back the Tap” alternatives through Water Wise Salem Beverly. I support the Bottle Bill extension based on the success of the original law. I am determined in my beach trash collections, and am conscious of my plastic use, carrying reusable bags, cups, and bottles with me whenever possible. I recycle at home and take my boyfriend’s Coke cans back to the store despite smirks from some friends.

I admit that sometimes I do wonder, does anything I do make a difference?

Since Moore began studying plastics in the Pacific Ocean in 1997, the amount has doubled. In the U.S., we make more plastic than steel—“it’s ubiquitous in our lives,” he said. The tiniest plastic particles have replaced nearly all the sand on Kamilo Beach in Hawaii, now known as Plastic Beach.

But, even if some national organizations and conventional wisdom have taken the position that the problem is far too insurmountable for beachkeepers alone to solve, our local beachkeepers and other national ocean preservation organizations prove that millions of pounds of plastics can be reined in.

I recently learned that the Ocean Conservancy’s 2011 International Coastsweep collected 9.2 million pounds of trash from nearly 21,000 miles of coastline last September. Topping the list were plastic cigarette butts, followed by bottle lids and caps, plastic drink bottles, and plastic bags coming in at number four. The data revealed that about 598,000 volunteers like me collected two million cigarette butts and 1 million plastic bottles, and six million pieces of other types of debris, in just one month.

So I won’t give up the fight, and I’m not alone.

A Local Sea of Support

“For sure, our Adopt a Beach efforts have made a difference at Coney Island,” said beachkeeper Gary Moore, a commercially licensed captain and recreational boater who has been involved in monitoring Salem Sound’s condition since 1987. “We can see the improvement every time we make the trip,” he said.

Coney Island is a 3-acre rock outcropping that once was the home of the Salem YMCA day camp. It’s out in center of the Sound, collecting a good deal of debris on its way out to sea. The island’s Adopt a Beach team of four needed two boats for the first clean up in 2010, returning eight times in 2011 to follow up.

Since Adopt a Beach launched in 2010, Salem Sound Coastwatch has trained upwards of 200 beachkeepers. There are 39 teams from Magnolia to Nahant. When a team adopts a beach, they meet with Coastwatch Executive Director Barbara Warren to determine the beach’s needs. Warren has surveyed more than 30 beaches, and recently revisited Collins Cove here in Salem.

“The Adopt a Beach program has clearly struck a chord. Our beaches are so special—it’s fantastic to see how many people want to be involved in protecting them,” she said.

Kerry Alice Collins and Heather Goodwin, twin sisters, recently joined the program to adopt Short Beach in Nahant. “We need to tell our children that littering is wrong and affects our animals and beaches. We need to teach them about the dangers of plastics at an early age and have them participate in recycling programs and help clean the neighborhoods and beaches. It needs to become second nature to all of us,” they said.

Coastwatch hopes to spread awareness, empower individual beachkeepers, collect information, and ultimately change behaviors. Beachkeepers might address invasive species—both flora and fauna—measure for erosion, monitor stormwater outfalls, report on seawall conditions, focus on the cleanliness of water, and more. Beachkeepers are moms and dads, boaters, dog walkers, kayakers, students, researchers, beachcombers, and sun worshippers that yearn to have impact on the plastic pollution epidemic and other human-induced problems afflicting oceans and beaches.

Rick Le Mon, a geology student at Salem State University, joined the Collins Cove team in Salem to study invasive species. “I saw Salem Sound Coastwatch mentioned in the biology department’s email newsletter, and from there, I realized I could turn my little scientific curiosity into something real that would do some good,” he said.

Invasive species monitoring is becoming a greater part of Salem Sound beachkeeping. There are numerous invasive species to look for. In addition to ongoing efforts to pull pepperweed—a plant that outcompetes native plants and is a weed that spreads like mint—I recently found that Heterosiphonia japonica, an Asian red algae that’s been plaguing West Beach in Beverly for some time, has recently made its debut at my Rice’s Beach. Joan Johnson, who cleans West Beach daily, said, “Right now, West Beach stinks from the red algae that has moved in. It is just awful!” Another beachkeeper at Marblehead’s Devereaux Beach also spotted some of the festering algae and posted pictures in our private, online beachkeeper forum. We are Coastwatch’s eyes and ears on the ground, beachkeeping as individuals or in groups, tracking invasives on our shores and making a real difference on the amount of plastic pollution in the North Atlantic.

Andrea Fox is a board member and Adopt a Beach chair for Salem Sound Coastwatch and is also founder and co-chair of Water Wise Salem Beverly at WaterWiseSalem.com.

  • To learn more about Adopt a Beach and join the program, go to SalemSound.org.
  • To learn more about Algalita Marine Research Foundation, go to Algalita.org.
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