Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Bay-Friendly Living: Litter on land finds its way to bay, ocean

By July Lewis, Volunteer and Intern Manager

Aquidneck Island is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in New England. Large beaches such as Easton’s Beach in Newport draw tourists from around the world, and local gems like Sandy Point Beach in Portsmouth allow families to relax close to home. The island also hosts wildlife sanctuaries such as Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown and prime fishing sites like King Beach in Newport.

There’s a beach for everyone, and the last thing anyone wants to see when they visit their little slice of paradise is trash.

But thousands of pounds of trash wind up on the beaches every year, all from individuals making the seemingly inconsequential choice to drop an item on the ground rather than dispose of it properly. Much of this trash comes from people littering directly on the beach. But what most people don’t know is that it also comes from people littering miles away from shore. How does that happen? Storm drains.

Rain washes litter from the streets into storm drains, which empty into rivers and waterways leading to the ocean. If you’ve ever cleaned out the storm drain in front of your residence, you know how large items like bottles can get caught in the grate. Think of how many smaller items pass through — wrappers, straws, bottle caps and countless cigarette butts. Cigarette filters are not, contrary to popular belief, biodegradable, but made of a type of plastic that falls apart into tiny bits and becomes part of the environment.

All this trash going into the sea not only winds up on our beaches, it often winds up in the stomachs of such animals as sea turtles, birds and whales, which either mistake bits of trash for food or accidentally ingest them while feeding. A whale swallowing a mouthful of krill has no way of spitting out any cigarette butts or bottle caps that come along for the ride. These indigestible items can get lodged in an animal’s digestive tract, filling up their bellies or blocking their systems entirely and leading to death.

Fortunately, Aquidneck Island residents are taking action and standing up for clean beaches.

Students and volunteers are raising awareness of the connection between storm drains and waterways. They glue tags to the curbs above storm drains saying “DON’T DUMP — DRAINS TO BAY” and pass out pamphlets to educate their neighbors.

Shoreline cleanups are another popular way residents are taking action. Save The Bay holds regular cleanups on the island, but we are not alone. Clean Ocean Access has a robust, year-round cleanup program. Naval groups, the Portsmouth Conservation Commission and businesses such as Rhody Surf all hold their own cleanups. Newport’s Clean City Program has a citywide Earth Day cleanup.

Many groups, from schools to Scout troops to neighborhood associations, participate in the annual International Coastal Cleanup each September. During this event, volunteers pick up trash and debris and record it for an annual, global report on marine debris. Last September, on Aquidneck Island alone, 373 volunteers picked up 2,981 pounds of trash from 14 miles of shoreline. The No. 1 item: 5,724 cigarette butts. Other top items were 2,075 bottle caps and 1,840 food wrappers. Less prevalent, but more dangerous, were 319 yards of fishing line, a major entanglement hazard for wildlife. All are the result of careless disrespect for the environment and the community.

The volunteers who came out that day and to cleanups year-round set an example for how we can take care of our beaches. For information on this year’s International Coastal Cleanup, on Sept. 19, visit www.savebay.org/icc.

Perhaps the most important way we each can make a difference in reducing beach pollution on Aquidneck Island is to simply let other people know that it’s not OK to litter. People care what their friends and family think of them, so you can gently let people know there are alternatives.

If you see friends littering, say something — even if it’s “just” a cigarette butt. Set an example by taking a trash bag with you to the beach and leaving it just a little cleaner than you found it. Remind friends that if they use storm drains as a trash can, they turn the bay into a trash can. Join a cleanup and invite your friends to participate — it’s amazing how enthusiastic people get about clean beaches once they have a chance to make a difference.

To find a beach cleanup near you, visit www.savebay.org/volunteer or www.clean oceanaccess.org.

July Lewis is the volunteer and internship manager at Save The Bay, a nonprofit environmental organization that is providing a series of occasional columns for The Daily News about stormwater issues on Aquidneck Island.