The day before I flew back to Barnard at the end of the summer, I spent one last day with my family in the Florida sunshine. We laid down our towels and set up the umbrella on a beach in a state park near Jacksonville. The weather was perfect and the beach was gorgeous, with sugar white sand spanning as far as the eye could see. After some bodysurfing in the waves, we went on a long walk along the water’s edge, watching pelicans diving at the sea and sandpipers skittering in and out of the tides. Something translucent glimmered a few yards away from me. Was it a jellyfish washed ashore? No. I fished the long, shredded plastic bag out of the sand. Standing back, I gazed at the beach with new eyes. Scattered along the high tide mark were milk cartons, beer cans, rubber gloves, old fishing nets and tackle, cigarette butts and water bottles. I borrowed a bag from a fisherman and began collecting all the strewn bits of litter, wondering “Why was it all here? Where did it all come from? What will happen to it all?”
Unfortunately, most of this trash will end up in the sea, swirling in gyres twice the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific and Atlantic, creating expansive areas of ocean depleted of oxygen and incompatible with life. Plastics, particularly plastic bottles, are the primary substance in these gyres, and the most common type of litter I found on the beach. Incapable of fully decomposing, these broken down pieces of plastic are continuing to expand the “ocean garbage patch”.
In a conversation with a friend, I was once asked, “So what? This litter is far away from us, in the middle of the ocean. What does that have to do with me?” Even if we think we are leaving trash behind, far out at sea, it follows us within the food we eat. I have worked with biologists that have performed necropsies on fish, whales and sea turtles that have died and washed ashore. Within the stomachs of these animals are plastic bags, thought to be jellyfish by the consumer, and tiny toxic particles of plastic, mistaken for plankton, the primary food source for most marine wildlife. This garbage blocks intestines, killing the animals, and even if the animals survive, the toxicity continues to be carried within the fish all the way up the food chain- even (and especially) to us.
The videos below address three of the most common items I found on my walk on the beach- plastic bottles, cigarette butts, and old fishing nets:
Cigarette Butts: http://www.sustainablewaters.com/cigarette-butts-are-marine-pollution-they’re-not-small-and-harmless/
“Ghost Fishing” Nets: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXwFHRUL_Ts
Want to help? – Make sure whenever you or your friends and family go to the beach, take everything you bring to the beach back home with you. Remember that any trash you throw in the streets will eventually make it to a waterway and then out to sea. If you are interested in doing more, you can join a marine conservation organization. An awesome list of these organizations can be found at: http://marinebio.org/oceans/conservation/organizations.asp.