What do a couch, a yoga mat, a Porta-Potty, an old stop sign, and a Nirvana T-shirt have in common?
All were among the trash plucked off the beaches of New Jersey in 2018, according to Clean Ocean Action, a nonprofit environmental group that collects and catalogs waste that accumulates on the New Jersey shoreline through volunteer-driven “Beach Sweeps.”
“People are often surprised to hear what washes up on the beaches, but we’ve seen anything and everything over the years,” said Clean Ocean Action Resource and Event Coordinator Spencer Munson. “That’s why we’re so grateful for our Beach Sweep volunteers. Not only are they keeping our beaches and shorelines aesthetically pleasing, but they’re keeping them safer for humans and marine life.”
Clean Ocean Action coordinates two major community sweeps a year and sees participation is increasing – from 75 volunteers at the first sweep in 1985 to more than 10,100 in 2018. In addition, the group hosts 25 sweeps annually for corporate, educational and civic groups each summer. Participants collect and record valuable data about debris, which Clean Ocean Action presents in annual reports and uses to advance federal, state and local programs to reduce litter.
“It was a real eye-opener,” said Maureen Babb, executive assistant at CRC Group, a subsidiary of BB&T. Babb coordinated two teams of BB&T associates to perform sweeps at New Jersey’s Sandy Hook beaches as part of the company’s annual community service Lighthouse Project.
“There was so much debris, especially tiny pieces of plastic that birds or anything in the water could mistake for food and easily ingest,” Babb said. “All too often we toss something in the trash can and that’s the last we think about it. Participating in this project made a lot of us stop and think about the items we use every day, especially plastic convenience items like bottles, utensils and straws, and what happens after we discard them. Cleaner water and beaches start with us and the decisions we make every day.”
While beachgoers leave behind some of it, boaters also toss trash overboard and much of it's everyday litter that inadvertently makes it into stormwater systems and washes ashore. Rain and snowmelt wash street pollution into the gutters you see on the sides of the road, which then drain into local waterways. According to Clean Ocean Action’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list highlighting the 12 most commonly collected items, most of the found trash (about 93%) is plastic, which can take up to several hundred years to break down, threatening wildlife and shoreline economies for decades.
“I think people are surprised by what shows up on the Dirty Dozen list, because a lot of it is single-use items we use every day as part of our convenience-driven lifestyle,” Munson said. “That plastic cup may seem convenient for the 25 minutes you're using it, but it seems less convenient when you know it’s going to be around for the next 2,000 years.”
Clean Ocean Action Executive Director Cindy Zipf points out while humans have done a lot of harm to our oceans, we also have the power to do a lot of good.
“We're the only ones who can bring our oceans back to good health,” she said. “We just have to step up and say the future of the living world matters, and I’m going to do something about it. BB&T coming out here makes a very grand statement that they care and they are willing to step up and do what’s needed to create better world.”
You can help stop debris at its source. Here are three easy suggestions from the Clean Ocean Action that you can do, every day, to help make a difference!
1. Reduce single-use items: Instead of plastic utensils, cups, bottles and straws, opt for metal cutlery, reusable bottles or paper cups and straws.
2. Recycle and don’t litter: Make sure to have recycling bins for paper and plastic items. And if you see trash on the ground, pick it up and dispose of it properly.
3. Spread awareness: You can “be the solution to ocean pollution” by educating others on the importance of reducing debris, litter and consumption. Go the extra step and volunteer to help with trash clean ups in your local community!