A scientific study published just 7 weeks ago underscored the dubious distinction of the US in being #1 on the entire planet in generating plastic waste. Data collected from 2016 showed that nearly all of this waste (which originated on land) found its way to the oceans contributing to the massive ocean garbage gyres1.
I have written about the perils faced by aquatic wildlife last year, in conjunction with UN’s World Wildlife Day which shone a spotlight on “Life below water: for people and planet”. According to the fact sheet compiled by Earth Day2, we dump ~48 million pounds (one garbage truck full) of plastics every minute into the oceans globally. At this rate, there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans by 2050. A direct consequence of this pollution is the decimation of marine wildlife. Aquatic animals, unable to distinguish plastics from real food, ingest the former which fills their stomachs preventing them from eating the latter and are starving to death. Sea turtles caught in fisheries operating close to garbage patches have been found to have up to 74% of their diets composed of ocean plastics. All the seafood that we eat now have plastic microfibers in them which in turn compromise our own health and wellbeing.
As part of the course work related to Hydrosphere, I assigned my students a lab activity – to conduct cleanups of rivers, beaches, local parks, sidewalks & storm drains, etc., individually or together (taking COVID-related precautions), wherever they were located. In addition to learning about environmental stewardship, they would become citizen scientists collecting and uploading the cleanup data to Ocean Conservancy’s global ocean trash database using its Clean Swell Mobile App3. These data would be analyzed by professional scientists and help inform public policy in reducing and managing the trash we generate.
To lead off the activity and to set an example, I chose Hains Point, DC, where the Potomac, and Anacostia rivers and Washington Channel merge, to conduct my own cleanup.
On a sunny day in early November, I spent over 3 hours collecting about 25 pounds of trash over a 6,000 sq. ft. area. The trash included consumer plastics (containers, bottles, caps, cutlery, wrappers, bags, gloves, wipes, masks, dental flossers, toys, pieces of foam insulation, chunks of Styrofoam, thick pieces of plastic such as from car fenders), fishing gear (several 100 feet of nylon fishing lines, lead sinkers, rod holders, bait hooks), smoking-related garbage (cigarette lighters, cigarette holders and filters, cigarette butts), corks, aluminum beer cans, and glass bottles.
I went back to this area on a cold windy December 23, 2020 and collected nearly 50 pounds of trash scattered over 15,000 sq. ft. in more than 3 hours. There was still so much trash in the area that I forced myself not to look down as I headed back.
- Law, K.L. et al., 10/30/2020. The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean. Science Advances, 6(44). https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288