First, some good news. Cigarette butts were once “almost as common… as blankets” (as NJ.com puts it) on the beaches of the Jersey shore. Environmentalists for Clean Ocean Action say this is no longer the case, the result of fewer people smoking (though I am not so sure about this, based on how many of my students light up) or of more trash cans (and more people actually using them). Some beaches (in the town of Belmar, for instance) have outright banned smoking on the beach. Cigarette butts had once been in the top three types of debris found “down the shore,” says Tavia Danch, education coordinator for Clean Ocean Action; now they are “only” the fifth.
Progress comes gradually, I guess.
The bad news is that there’s more plastic than ever littering the 127 miles of New Jersey’s beaches. At the 2011 beach sweeps, some 7,575 volunteers collected, tallied and removed over 452,698 pieces of debris for three hours in the spring and three in the fall at 69 sites. They found that 83 percent of marine pollution at the Jersey shore is from plastics. Globally, plastics make up 60 to 80 of marine pollution.
Plastics are particularly lethal for marine life and water quality. As the Clean Ocean Action’s blog says:
Plastic does not biodegrade, instead through a combination of chemical reactions and physical forces (including sunlight and waves) plastics can slowly break down into smaller and smaller pieces and in the process release toxic chemicals into the sea, such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and styrene trimer (a liquid hydrocarbon).
Plastic pieces can be deadly to marine life as they can be accidently ingested by or entangle wildlife.
Indeed, in 2011, volunteer found 20 animals dead due to being entangled in nylon balloon string, fishing line, and six-pack rings. Volunteers were able to free three entangled animals.
The 2011 Beach Sweep Report also says that 5,322 plastic hygiene products were found on the beaches. These items actually came via New York City: A July 2011 fire at one of NYC’s sewage treatment plants released over 200 million gallons of raw sewage into New York and New Jersey waterways for three days straight and debris from the raw sewage ended up on New Jersey beaches.
Last August’s Hurricane Irene also resulted in some stranger than usual debris washing up on New Jersey beaches: an adult-sized Elmo costume, a 16-foot fiberglass boat, four car bumpers, a plastic kitchen set, a USPS mail bin, a metal bed frame, three propane tanks, a bag of garlic and a religious shrine. (The full list is can be read via the 2011 Beach Sweep Report.)
On April 21, volunteers will be walking New Jersey’s beaches in 76 locations and who knows what they’ll find. One thing’s for sure: We need to get the word out that people should dispose of items in appropriate places and not in our streams, lakes, rivers, bays, beaches and the ocean.
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Photo by DanCentury