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Everyday Environmentalism

Enriching Lives by Gathering Garbage

The cleanup crew takes just two steps onto the beach before they start finding trash.  From there, the relatively small strip of shoreline they carefully trod yields up an endless supply of bottle caps, food wrappers, straws, cigarette butts, water bottles, and unidentifiable bits of plastic for collection. In the course of about an hour, the team of six collects four pounds of human detritus from the hot sands of Jones Beach's Field 6 area. It's damning evidence of humanity's impact on the natural world, but getting it off the beach is what matters at the end of the day. So it's definitely been a positive experience, particularly for the three men volunteering through Family Residences and Essential Enterprises (FREE), a program that assists and supports the intellectually/developmentally disabled.

"It gets them out of the program and into the sun doing stuff and actually getting involved. Which, anything we can do with them in that sense, we're gonna try and do," says Keriann Tenney, the organization's employee chaperoning them. But her interest in beach cleanups goes far beyond enriching the lives of those in her care. In fact, she's sort of pulling triple duty today because she's also a master's candidate in Stony Brook's Marine Conservation and Policy Program and an Education Intern with the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society(abbreviated as AMSEAS because they're clever), the organization behind many beach cleanups (not to mention loads of other vital science and conservation projects) here on Long Island. Including this one. "I wanted to incorporate my knowledge of marine conservation with their access to education and show them what conservation looks like,” Keriann says. “And get them to learn about what kind of marine life we have here on Long Island."

While today's cleanup is relatively unique in that it's a joint venture between the two organizations Keriann works for, its primary goal is the same as every beach cleanup: get manmade garbage out of the environment. Get it away from the seas where it can do extensive, long-term, and perhaps even irreparable damage to the planet. And while there's all sorts of debris strewn across the average beach, there's one particularly harmful sort. "Plastic is the most prevalent type of garbage on beaches," Keriann explains. " The problem with plastic is it doesn't break down, it just breaks up into smaller pieces. So it doesn't come out of the environment unless someone takes it out."

Most people understand that plastic in the environment, particularly the oceans, is a bad thing. But not everybody knows exactly why it's so problematic. Or knows that they probably have plastic in their daily diets, and possibly their own digestive tract or bloodstream, without even knowing it. Which is part of what makes all those tiny pieces of plastic floating around so scary. 

It all boils down to two concepts everybody ought to know. The first is bioaccumulation, which is how an animal continuously exposed to plastic consumes more and more of it throughout their life without expelling or digesting it. It's why we have more and more animals with plastic in their bodies and blood. Not to mention birds, dolphins, and whaleswho die because their bodies are too full of plastic to survive. The second is biomagnification,  the inevitable aftereffect of bioaccumulation, which is the tendency for animals higher on the food chain to have higher concentrations of plastics and other toxins than their prey. It's why plastic is an exponentially worse problem for predators. Humans included.

This is why finding and removing plastic before it's swept out to sea is so important.  Keeping it from breaking up into microplastics in the oceans means less  of it going into the bodies, stomachs, and bloodstreams of everything from forage fish to whales. Not to mention us. Clearing even these four pounds from the beach is an important step forward in addressing these problems, but there's always more to do. A larger cleanup in the same spot a few weeks later ended up collecting ten times that amount of trash. Which shows just how important it is for folks to come out and lend a hand. "I encourage people, if they're interested, to get involved in any way," says Keriann. "Even if it's something small like going to one beach cleanup. Any little bit helps." Anybody interested in doing their little bit should look into AMSEAS or whatever organization(s) run cleanups in their area. Because the more people pitching in to police up plastics, the better. 

For all of us.


Paul D. Mooney

Paul D. Mooney is an award-winning writer and filmmaker currently earning his master's in Marine Conservation and Policy at Stony Brook University. He has a BS in Film and Television from Boston University, an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College, resides in Queens, and never turns down a burrito.

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