When we think about garbage at all, we think of throwing it away. But as the saying goes, “There is no away.” And in the case of plastic, there isn’t a lot of recycling happening either. Plastic or otherwise, a lot of garbage makes its way into our oceans, forming massive garbage gyres and sometimes even washing back up on beaches. Beaches are sensitive liminal ecosystems in their own right. Beach cleanups protect both the beach itself and inaccessible ocean areas, and make visiting the beach more enjoyable, too.
To honor 52 years of action inspired by Earth Day, Earth911 is presenting 52 Actions for the Earth. Each week from Earth Day 2022 to Earth Day 2023, we will share an action you can take to invest in the Earth and make your own life more sustainable.
This week, you can invest in the Earth by cleaning a beach – even if you don’t live anywhere near water.
Action: Clean a Beach
Even the most remote mountaintops and deepest undersea trenches have a litter problem. Past generations sailed the seven seas; today it’s the five great garbage gyres. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch pollution zone is roughly the size of the western United States. By mass, nearly half of the waste is lost fishing nets. Microplastics make up only about 8% of the mass, but more than 90% of the plastic pieces floating in the ocean. Most of the plastics traveled through watersheds on land to reach the sea. Items like plastic straws, shopping bags, cigarette butts with plastic filters, and increasingly, PPE like gloves and masks, all contribute to beach and ocean pollution.
It is important to work towards a post-plastic world and take steps upstream to help protect the oceans. But this week, help clean up the pollution that is already there. Many coastal environmental organizations host organized beach cleanups. The International Coastal Cleanup, an initiative of the Ocean Conservatory, has one of the biggest beach cleanup programs. EarthDay.org’s Great Global Cleanup campaign removes trash from beaches as well as neighborhoods, rivers, lakes, trails, and parks – all places from which plastic can work its way towards the sea. If you can’t find an existing beach cleanup near you, EarthDay.org has resources to help you plan and register your own event.
If your travel plans include a beach vacation, dedicate one morning – or even one hour – of your beach time to picking up trash. Joining a beach cleanup on vacation is a great way to connect with locals. Many coastal communities, like Kauai, and even some resorts have programs to support visitors who want to give back to their host community. Even if you go solo, you can be mindful of your own garbage and pick up any litter you run across while you’re on the beach.
About a third of the U.S. population lives in coastline counties, and many more live within driving distance of a beach. But even if you are not among them, you probably live near some body of water. Litter is just as harmful to these inland lakes and riverfronts, and can eventually make its way to the sea from them. Even in the desert, you can protect waterways by picking up litter (especially along roadways) – plastic and cigarette butts can travel great distances to reach the sea.