Volunteers mark the data card while throwing away trash at the International Coastal Cleanup at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Kahuku, Hawaii. credit — Elyse Butler
Take your pick: 41 blue whales, 10 Boeing 747 jumbo jets, 5,000 tons or 10 million pounds. Whichever one you prefer, that’s roughly the weight of trash that was collected by volunteers during Ocean Conservancy’s 2012 International Coastal Cleanup (Cleanup). More than 10 million pounds of trash – that’s an astounding amount.
Each year in September, citizen scientists around the world mobilize during the Cleanup to remove plastic trash and other debris from the world’s shorelines, waterways and underwater habitats. Tallies of trash recorded by the more than 550,000 volunteers who participated in the 2012 Cleanup are a snapshot of the persistent and proliferating problem of trash on our beaches and in our ocean.
Neither tsunami debris nor marine debris is going away any time soon. Following an August 2012 NGO tsunami meeting and increasing reports of tsunami debris on the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii, concern and interest about tsunami debris in Japan continues to increase. Responding to this interest, the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency of Japan has funded a series of beach site investigations in the United States to convey the present situation of both tsunami and marine debris to Japan officials and the Japanese people. The first stop for these surveys: Hawaii.
I teamed up with members from Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN), the Oceanic Wildlife Society and the Japan Ministry of Environment tobegin surveys on O’ahu beaches where confirmed and suspected tsunami debris has recently been found . During our first inspection at Hanauma Bay, we examined a rusted Japanese refrigerator that washed ashore on December 20th, 2012, several days before a second fridge was found on Waimanalo Beach. Cleanup volunteers commonly found refrigerator pieces on Kaua’i beaches during this past summer.
Dr. Nikolai Maximenko of the University of Hawaii International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) explained that these different ‘waves’ of alike debris (e.g., oyster buoys, refrigerators, etc.) are a result of how tsunami debris is affected by wind. Because the tsunami debris entered the ocean at the same time, similar items travel at the same speed and will appear on Hawaiian and West Coast beaches around the same time.
We are very excited to announce that our own Kara Lankford received the Alabama PALS (People Against a Littered State) Governor’s award for her long-time work with the Alabama Coastal Cleanup. She was recently honored at an awards ceremony in Montgomery.
We are not surprised others have taken notice of Kara’s commitment and enthusiasm to keeping our ocean clean and healthy. “Not everyone has a job they like, much less one they can say they love,” she said of the award. “In that respect I feel honored. I love my job. Since graduating from college I have had the opportunity to work in my field of environmental sciences and have always loved my work. Winning an award for doing something that brings joy and gratification isn’t something I expected. However, it is always nice to be recognized for something you are passionate about.”
The Alabama Coastal Cleanup first appeared on Kara’s radar when she was an intern with the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program. One of her supervisors asked if she’d like to help out because of her success as zone captain for the Mobile Bay causeway site. This sounded like a great experience and a fun day so she was eager to help out. Little did she know this site was the largest in the state of Alabama and saw between 200-300 volunteers!
The team worked tirelessly that morning to get volunteers signed in, hand out trash bags, weigh the trash individually with a bathroom scale and reward participants with t-shirts. It was a long, exhausting day and she was completely inspired by the idea of everyone around the world cleaning our waterways of trash on the same day. She felt that seeing the amazement on the Boy Scout troops’ and families’ faces as they filled the dumpsters to capacity was the best kind of marine debris education anyone could offer. As she says, “It was a hands-on, real life example of how marine debris can impact our ocean and I was hooked.”
Kara has been the zone captain for the Mobile Bay causeway site for about 8 years now. This past year, 2012, the team had a record of over 300 volunteers. Congratulations to Kara, and here’s to many more years as the zone captain for the causeway.
It’s impossible not to be if you work in the ocean trash world. Every year International Coastal Cleanup volunteers pickup more cigarette butts off our beaches than any other item by an order of magnitude. Since the Cleanup’s inception in 1986, cigarette butts have been the number one item on Ocean Conservancy’s annual Top Ten list, which highlights the most persistent items of ocean trash found globally. And while 2012 Cleanup data are still being compiled, I suspect cigarette butts will retain their title for another year.
What’s the big deal you might ask? Well inside each of those butts is a filter—unfiltered cigarettes excluded—made of cellulose acetate, a slow-degrading plastic. These plastic fibers are packed tightly together to create a filter, which often resembles cotton in appearance. So even though Cleanup volunteers have kept more than 55 million cigarette butts off beaches and out of the ocean over the years, the ultimate fate of these tiny plastics is still the landfill because there’s simply no value in a butt…or is there?
I recently started writing about ocean views over at the National Geographic News Watch blog. My first post explores the trash we found during this year’s International Coastal Cleanup and what we learned during a subsequent research project dubbed “Trashlab.” As you might expect, the things we leave behind on the beach reveal a lot about our society as a whole. As I write in my post:
Bags from some of the beaches were bursting with bottles and cans of every variety. Beaches in the more rural northern portion of Santa Cruz County are well known by locals as “party beaches” and the trash left behind certainly confirms it. Beer is the clear beverage of choice but interestingly, brews range from the cheapest of swill to the finest of local microbrews. It appears that beer drinkers are equal-opportunity litterers. I expected beaches in the more populated areas, frequented by families and tourists might be cleaner, but only the nature of debris, not quantity, changed. Food wrappers of all types – from fast food takeout containers to every possible variety of potato chips, cracker, candy and other snack food were plentiful. It was clear – folks don’t come to the beach to eat health food.
After we removed and weighed these and the other obvious items, a mass of unidentifiable junk, including large amounts of plastic fragments, remained. The conclusion was apparent: pretty much anything you can imagine will, unfortunately, be found on the beach.
Celebrating a successful Cleanup in South Africa. Credit: Thomene Dilley
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Well…a group of 600,000 people is not exactly small, but the dedication and commitment displayed by International Coastal Cleanup volunteers is changing the world in a very meaningful way. Once again I am awed and inspired by the incredible efforts put forth by ordinary citizens to rid beaches and waterways around the world of trash; culminating in a healthier, more resilient ocean.
‘Success’ is often the term used by organizers and volunteers alike following the International Coastal Cleanup, but personally I find this term to be an interesting –perhaps even perverse—way to define a Cleanup event. Removing millions of pounds of trash from beaches and waterways is unquestionably cause for celebration, but actual success will be the day when we no longer need the Cleanup because we’ve stopped trash from occurring in the first place.
Regardless of how you define the Cleanup though, there can be no dispute over what to call the volunteer effort: remarkable and unparalleled. Whether you picked up a single bottle or hauled a 500-pound fishing net off a beach yesterday, thank you for participating in the International Coastal Cleanup. Without the extraordinary contributions from Cleanup Coordinators and Volunteers around the world, the International Coastal Cleanup would not exist—You are the Cleanup. Continue reading »
Hilberto Riverol of The Scout Association of Belize has coordinated the International Coastal Cleanup for his country over the past 20 years, teaching scouts how they can help keep the ocean clean and healthy. Credit: John Carrillo.
So back in 1992 when Hilberto Riverol, national scout executive with the association, heard that the Ramada Hotel in Belize City was gathering volunteers for the country’s first International Coastal Cleanup, he signed up. Some 600 participants including the scouts removed more than three tons of trash from approximately 18 miles of the coast. Continue reading »