Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Talking Trash: The International Coastal Cleanup

By July Lewis, Volunteer and Intern Manager

Everyone loves a shoreline cleanup. What could be a more simple, satisfying way to make a difference? Save The Bay holds cleanups around the state from Earth Day to Thanksgiving. But the International Coastal Cleanup, managed by Save The Bay in Rhode Island, takes shoreline cleanups to a whole new level. 

Not only is this part of a massive global effort, with over 560,000 volunteers in 91 countries picking up 16 million pounds of trash, but this cleanup is also special because we record what we find and publish it in an annual report on marine debris. 

Why do we record what we find? It’s a good question, because cleanups definitely go faster if we’re not collecting data. But the numbers are so powerful that it doesn’t make sense not to. The data help us understand the problem, communicate the problem, and empower communities to do something about it. 

Understanding Marine Debris: Where Does It Come From? 

  1. Shoreline Activity. International Coastal Cleanup data shows that the primary source of such individual litter items as food wrappers, beverage cans, plastic bags and straws, is shoreline activity. The number one item collected is cigarette butts. In Rhode Island in 2014, 41,803 butts were picked up, amounting to 33 percent of all items collected. While much of this is littered directly on the beach, items thrown into the street many miles away are washed into storm drains, which empty into our waterways. 
  2. Boating and Fishing. Ropes, fishing nets and lobster pots can be lost in storms or accidentally cut loose by a propeller. They may also be intentionally and illegally disposed of in the ocean. And while this type of debris makes up a small percentage of items found on the ICC, it often makes up a big portion of the weight and volume of trash collected. These items can also be among the most hazardous and are a major cause of entanglement for birds, turtles, whales and other larger marine life. International Coastal Cleanup volunteers actually record entangled animals that they find, and the culprit is nearly always fishing line. 
  3. Dumping. Tires, mattresses, auto parts and construction debris are all signs of dumping by irresponsible individuals who want to avoid the inconvenience or cost of proper disposal. We find these items on isolated shoreline areas where people can sneak up and dump without being seen. Again, these items are fewer in number but tend to weigh a lot! 
  4. Tiny Trash. A growing problem with shoreline debris is that there is so much trash entering the water that it is literally becoming part of the beach. A new feature of the ICC data sheet is recording unidentifiable bits of plastic, foam or glass less than 2.5 cm in diameter. Last year in Rhode Island, volunteers picked up 32,301 tiny bits. 

Communicating the Problem 
At the end of the day, Save The Bay’s mission is to protect and improve Narragansett Bay. And that means changing the behavior of people who litter, dump and cut loose items that pollute our waters and endanger humans and marine life. Because of the special nature of the International Coastal Cleanup—a truly global effort that occurs right in our backyard—we can really highlight the issue, generate media coverage, and get people thinking about the issue. Save The Bay has tallied our statewide results and published a report with our findings. International Coastal Cleanup is an opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about littering, and for communities to band together and take stewardship of their beaches. Spreading the word helps us to reinforce the ethic that it is never okay to litter, ever. 

Do Something About It 
Raising awareness is certainly a key to litter reduction, and sometimes communities need to take action on a policy level. All over the world, policy makers rely on data from the International Coastal Cleanup to craft and support their proposals—for bans on plastic bags and smoking at beaches, litter ordinances, redesign of products to reduce entanglements, and more. 

Marine debris is a global issue, one that unites us all. In Rhode Island, South Africa, Hong Kong—we all want clean shorelines. Join Save The Bay in making that vision a reality. 

  • Defibrillator pads 
  • Unopened bag of medical marijuana 
  • Traffic cone 
  • Flonase 
  • Sword box (the box that a sword came in) 
  • Glowsticks 
  • Live eel in a bag 
  • Test tube 
  • $25 
  • Christmas lights 
In order to offer more cleanups, we need more leaders! Sign up for shoreline cleanup leader training on Saturday, March 19, 10 a.m.-noon at 100 Save The Bay Drive in Providence. Assist Save The Bay with our 2016 cleanups or plan your own in your neighborhood. Contact July Lewis at for more information or to sign up.

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