Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Growing Threat of Marine Debris

By July Lewis, Volunteer and Internship Manager

As Volunteer & Internship Manager at Save The Bay, I am proud to lead our shoreline cleanup program and the International Coastal Cleanup in Rhode Island. I see firsthand the problem of trash on our shores and in our Bay. Volunteer cleanups are an essential way of getting trash off our beaches, but we need so much more action on this issue. That’s why I was excited when our Executive Director, Jonathan Stone, was asked to testify on marine debris at an oversight hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife.

The hearing includes alarming testimony from experts on the growing threat of marine debris – in particular, plastics. If you have the time, it is well worth watching. It details how plastics are accumulating in the marine environment. Plastics do not biodegrade, they merely break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, which bear toxins that are absorbed into the organisms that we eat. And more and more of it enters the oceans every day.

Much of the testimony was focused on debris in the Pacific. A major concern there is the number of middle-income countries whose waste management systems are not keeping up with their rapidly-growing economies and consumption rates.

But other nations are not the whole problem. During his testimony, Jonathan Stone presented a video to the committee in which I literally dig into the mix of plastic fragments that have become part of the mulch on the shores of Narragansett Bay. As he pointed out in the hearing, “None of this plastic comes from the Pacific.” And yet, here it is – millions of fragments of plastic on the shores, in the water, in the sediments and in the fish that we eat. This is our trash. We are part of a wealthy nation with a well-developed waste management system – so what’s our excuse? Simply, carelessness allows plastics to continue to flow into Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic waters beyond.

We need to raise awareness that littering is not merely an aesthetic issue. We need to convey the message that every bottle cap and straw that enters the water adds to the plastic soup and does not go away. We need to let people know that a plastic bag entering a storm drain on a city street travels straight to a river and into the Bay. And we need people to care.

I’ll end with an anecdote and, hopefully, a vision for the future: years ago, I attended a conference of International Coastal Cleanup organizers and I was chatting with another organizer while we were on a boat tour of the local harbor. Suddenly the wind gusted and blew the straw out of her drink! It flew to the back of the boat and was caught in some rigging just above the water. Without missing a beat, she kicked off her sandals, sat on the edge of the boat in her sun dress, reached out with her foot and grabbed the straw with her toes. Everyone on the boat applauded. Not one more straw in the ocean, not on our watch! If we are to stem the tide of plastics building up in our ocean, this is the kind of dedication we need from everyone.