This Saturday, Sept. 15, is the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. The Smithsonian Marine Station and Ecosystems Exhibit at the St. Lucie County Aquarium, Fort Pierce, is hosting a participating local cleanup from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.
“The idea is to clean up the trash on the beach before it gets in the ocean,” said Erin Lomax, education specialist.
The annual international event has been around since the mid-1980s. An Ocean Conservancy staff member organized the Texas Coastal Cleanup in 1986. The inaugural event got a surprising 2,800 volunteers. Within three years the event went international and became, according to some sources, the largest all-volunteer ocean cleanup around.
Today the cleanup includes more than 100 nations and every major body of water on the planet. Last year about 800,000 volunteers removed more than 20 million pieces of trash from the world’s beaches and waterways. There were 21,000 Florida volunteers last year. They collected about 174,000 pounds of trash along 3,000 miles of the Sunshine State’s river, lake and ocean coastlines.
Lomax said the annual cleanups and research are increasingly showing that one of the biggest problems facing oceans today is hard to see without a microscope.
“I would have to say it’s micro-plastics, small pieces of plastic,” she said.
Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, previously told St. Lucie Voice that plastic is increasingly showing up in wildlife in and around the Indian River Lagoon. He said as plastic breaks down, smaller and smaller creatures end up eating it. Things that eat smaller creatures ingest the plastic with them. They, in turn, get eaten by larger creatures, and the plastic — which can’t be digested — works its way to the top of food chains. He said rescuers are discovering birds that stopped eating, because they couldn’t digest anymore due to plastic in their guts.
Lomax said wildlife isn’t the only secondary consumers of micro-plastics.
“If you’re eating an ocean fish, if that animal has eaten micro-plastic, then you’re eating micro-plastic,” Lomax said.
The Ocean Conservancy reports that micro-plastic seems to be affecting the reproductively of zooplankton, the animals that form the base of the ocean food chains. A lot of the plastic comes from boats and ships, of course, but not all of it. One of the big sources of plastic going into the ocean is surprising.
“We find a lot of cigarette butts on our beach,” Lomax said.
The majority of filtered cigarettes have cellulose acetate, a synthetic fiber that’s plastic. Last year, cleanup volunteers picked up 95,700 cigarette butts in Florida. It was the most common trash item along the state’s shorelines. The second-most frequent trash item was plastic bottle caps — 74,400, followed by food wrappers, 37,700.
Lomax said plastic items we can see are unfortunately also visible to many marine animals. Unlike us, those animals can’t tell they are plastic.
“Even things like plastic bags,” Lomax said. “Sea turtles eat a lot of plastic bags. They think they’re jellyfish.”
While volunteers will be out for two hours, Lomax said most will spend 45 minutes to an hour cleaning up. Folks can filter in and out at their convenience.
“Really, all they have to do is show up,” she said. “We’ll make sure they have gloves, pickers, buckets to use. Then we’ll be using some bags that have been repurposed to be trash bags.”
She did, however, say volunteers need to be mindful of what they’ll be doing and where. Lomax said volunteers should dress in comfortable, cool clothes with enclosed shoes and hats to keep the sun off their heads. Sunscreen is also called for.
Bottled water … ah, how about a container instead?
“We encourage people to bring reusable water bottles as well and we’ll have water here they can put in their bottles,” Lomax said.
She said people don’t have to get out to pick up trash to contribute to efforts to clean our oceans.
“If you are a beach person, be very careful not to leave anything behind,” Lomax said. “I know plastic bags can get away from you on the beach.”
The cleanup will be at Museum Pointe Park, 414 Seaway Dr., Fort Pierce. Folks can park at the aquarium, 420 Seaway Drive.