Today is World Ocean Day, so I figure it’s the perfect time to share this story. I grew up at the beach. My house is less than a mile from the ocean and through the years I’ve spent as much time at the beach as I have anywhere else. I began surfing at the age of six and until the day I die, I will never forget the wave that got me hooked forever. That wave was the purest, most surreal moment of my life. The memories I have obtained at the beach and in the ocean are some of the best of my life, and ones that I will never forget. Unfortunately, the ocean isn’t in great shape and beaches aren’t fairing much better. I have always been environmentally conscious of my actions and it really bums me out every time I’m at the beach and
Unfortunately, the ocean isn’t in great shape and beaches aren’t fairing much better. I have always been environmentally conscious of my actions and it really bums me out every time I’m at the beach and see trash all over the place. In spite of this, aside from occasionally grabbing a few plastic water bottles when leaving the beach, taking care of the marine debris problem myself is something I never did much about.
One day last fall I was walking off the beach and couldn’t help but notice large clusters of marine debris on the beach. The wind had been blowing consistently for about a week and the onshore flow had brought in a lot of pollution. In between sessions I went back to the beach with a garbage bag and began picking up trash. I walked three blocks in an hour and filled a large garbage bag with an assortment of marine debris. I made a post on my Instagram account of the trash I found, which included mostly single-use plastic items, to try and raise awareness. To no surprise, I didn’t receive much of a reaction.
I couldn’t wrap my head around how much plastic and marine debris was actually on the beach. Eventually, I secured a job as a Sea Turtle nesting Field technician with the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, a non-profit education and ocean conservation research center in Juno Beach, Florida. My job requires me to survey the beach each morning (on an ATV) to document sea turtle crawls and nests. Loggerhead Marinelife Center surveys five areas of beach, adding up to a total of 9.5 miles. One common theme on all the beaches I survey is the presence of marine debris. From the high tide water line all the way to the dunes, pollution covers the beaches.
Photo: Kevin O’ Conner
Tired of seeing trash on the beach every day, I decided to go for a walk in front of my house and collect trash again. I walked about three blocks north to the Jupiter Inlet and in just one hour was able to fill an entire garbage bag with marine debris. The issues surrounding ocean pollution and single use plastics were suddenly brought back to my attention. I went out the next seven days on that same beach and collected marine debris. And unlike the last time when I wanted to bring attention to the major problem of ocean pollution, I decided I would first sort through everything I collected and classify it into categories. Pictures can tell 1,000 words, but numbers don’t lie, so I figure I’ll present both.
In the seven days I walked the beach I was able to collect 3,035 pieces of trash. 1,392 individual pieces of plastic, 564 cigarette butts, 527 plastic bottle caps, 137 plastic straws, 88 pieces of Styrofoam, 73 pieces of fishing tackle and rope, 55 aluminum cans, 55 plastic bottles and containers, 44 paper products, 27 plastic utensils, 21 glass bottles, 15 balloons, 14 plastic beach toys, 14 sandals, and 9 pieces of clothing.
I knew I had collected a lot of marine debris, but when it took me an entire day to sort through all of it I was able to get a whole new perspective on the issue. As I sat and went through all the debris I felt a sense of pride, knowing that I’d helped in some small way. Seeing all the trash made me frustrated with people and their lack of caring. The Marine Conservancy noted that an estimated 8m tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. Recent studies have also suggested that by 2050 the weight of plastics in the ocean will outweigh that of fish. After collecting 3,035 individual pieces of marine debris in seven days from the same beach, I believe it.
Photo: Kevin O’ Conner
The issue of marine pollution is under our control. We can make responsible, educated, and environmentally conscious decisions on what we purchase and how we dispose of it. I think it’s important to remember that we are not the only organism that inhabits this planet. We tend to believe that we are superior to other species, and instead of sharing this planet we have taken control of it. It is sad to think about how much plastic is out there, all of which came from humans.
Be responsible. Whatever you bring to the beach, take it with you. I found a total of 21 glass bottles and 55 aluminum cans in a week. People had just left empty bottles and cans of beer up near the dune and next to fire pits. I found a total of 564 cigarette butts. Perhaps people think that it’s ok to discharge their cigarette butts on the beach because “hey, it’s only one…how can one cigarette butt cause any harm?” The fact that people consciously leave trash and throw cigarettes on the beach truly baffles me, and genuinely pisses me off. If you’re not going to have respect for the planet, at least have respect for all of the other people that love the beach and wish to enjoy it without the eyesore of your trash.
I hope this post will raise awareness; even it only makes a few people think a little bit more about their actions. At the grocery store, you can ask for a paper bag instead of plastic. You can say no to straws or use a re-usable straw. Don’t let balloons float up into the air. Properly dispose of your plastic items by recycling and if at all possible, try to cut down on your plastic consumption altogether. And most of all, don’t ever litter or leave trash behind. I hope next time you’re on the beach you will pick up that piece of trash you see instead of leaving it behind. And if you’re  already the person that picks up trash I hope you will continue to help make this world a safer and cleaner place for every species to enjoy. If just one person can remove 3,035 pieces of debris from a beach in seven days, imagine what 100 people could collect.