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Just as beach season begins, Ocean Conservancy has released its 2016 Ocean Trash Index, the world’s largest item by item, location by location database of trash found in near shore environments during the 30th International Coastal Cleanup last September. Worldwide, 791,336 volunteers collected more than 18 million pounds of trash—equivalent to the weight of more than 100 Boeing 737s—over 25,188 miles of shoreline. Among the trash collected were 2.1 million cigarette butts and 1 million plastic beverage bottles.
Locally, Save The Bay coordinated the International Coast Cleanup in Rhode Island, with the support of many individuals, non profit organizations and private companies. In 85 cleanups in 19 towns along 65 miles of shoreline, 2,199 volunteers collected 19,469 pounds of trash. Consistent with the global report, the 47,397 cigarette butts collected on Rhode Island shorelines topped the list of litter collected. Other top 10 trash items collected were 10,448 food wrappers, 7,960 plastic bottle caps, 6,023 plastic beverage bottles, 5,037 straws, 3,689 cans, 3,678 metal bottle caps, 3,655 plastic bags, 3,557 glass bottles and 2,726 plastic/foam packaging.
“It’s amazing how similar the debris is all over the world. There are local differences, but overall, we are seeing the same kinds of trash in Rhode Island as we find in Brazil, Europe, Japan everywhere. It’s food and beverage packaging and cigarettes. And more and more, it’s ‘tiny trash,’ bits of plastic and foam,” said Save The Bay Volunteer and Internship Manager July Lewis.
Plastic debris remains a growing concern in the marine environment, according to Ocean Conservancy, as the top five most commonly collected items worldwide are cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles, food wrappers, plastic bottle caps, and plastic straws.
In a recent short video, Lewis shows how plastic trash breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that eventually become part of the sand and soil that lines our shorelines. Save The Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone presented the short video recently at a bipartisan oversight hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife. Stone was invited to testify by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse to speak to the problem of marine debris, along with representatives from Ocean Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gulf of Alaska Keeper, and University of Georgia.
The Ocean Trash Index provides the only annual global snapshot of the growing problem of plastics and other marine debris found on beaches, along rivers and lakeshores and in the open ocean. Results are used to inform researchers, government and industry leaders in developing initiatives to prevent trash from harming fish and wildlife habitat and to improve health and sanitation on land. “This data really highlights the problem we are facing. That’s why we do it: to put numbers on a problem so people can really appreciate the scope of it,” Lewis said.
“Volunteers are not only removing more trash from beaches, but they are also contributing to a better understanding of the types of waste entering the ocean,” said Allison Schutes, senior manager for Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “The database is used by scientists, conservation groups, governments and industry leaders to take action and ensure trash never reaches the beach,” she said.
To continue to add to that database, Ocean Conservancy has launched a Clean Swell mobile app, which allows individuals at a local level to join a global community working to add vital data to the Ocean Trash Index. Users can quickly and easily record the trash they find while at the beach, even without being part of an organized beach clean up such as those hosted by Save The Bay throughout the summer and into early fall.
The 2016 International Coastal Cleanup will take place on Saturday, September 17. Save The Bay will once again coordinate Rhode Island’s participation in the global event. Lewis says she welcomes the interest of volunteers who want to help as cleanup leaders and participants. “Trash is more than just messy. It’s unhealthy and it’s not safe for wildlife. Plastics don’t biodegrade, they just slowly break up into smaller and smaller pieces, and our oceans are filling up with these tiny bits. Animals eat them, fish breathe them into their gills. Even plankton can contain tiny fragments of plastic. This is a problem you can actually do something about. Just spend a couple of hours at a beach cleanup with us and you’ll see the difference,” Lewis said. Save The Bay will hold cleanup leader training, start recruiting volunteers and post cleanup locations for the Internationanal Coastal Cleanup in July. Volunteers can find out more about how to become involved in a local cleanups throughout the summer and the International Coastal Cleanup in September at Save The Bay’s Volunteer Website, http://www.savebay.org/volunteer.