As the sun peaked over the Atlantic’s horizon on Sept. 23, it warmed not only the sandpipers and crabs scuttling about the tide, but dozens of volunteers along the Palm Beach shoreline picking up litter.
This particular group of beachgoers were there for the International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event localized by the organization Friends of Palm Beach.
Palm Beach was one of hundreds of locations around the world that took part in this event. When asked about the turnout, Diane Buhler, founder of Friends of Palm Beach, expressed her contentment.
“We had a record turnout this year with 111 volunteers! I was so very pleased with the turnout, as the trash was abundant after Irma,” Buhler said.
Trash was not the only thing Hurricane Irma moved around when it passed through Florida in September. The original worldwide event took place earlier last month, but due to Irma, Friends of Palm Beach had to reschedule. Despite the rain-check, volunteers mobilized to join in the efforts. Stephanie Hatchie, one of the volunteers, was actually spurred into action by Irma.
“After all those storms… we needed to show some love back to the world. I know that whenever we have these storms, lots gets washed up onto the shore, so I figured they could use some extra help,” Hatchie said.
Volunteers spent the morning combing through sand and seaweed for trash. By the end of the event, they had filled dozens of garbage bags with the debris they uncovered. Their most abundant find? Plastics.
“I notice a ton more plastics than anything else. It boggles my mind but then we have become a society of single-use plastics,” Buhler said. “[Plastic caps] are the most dangerous of all… I’ve learned that plastics in the ocean take on a certain coating that attracts the marine life right to it.”
Research backs Buhler’s observation. A study out of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States discovered that 88 percent of the ocean contains plastic debris.
An additional study in 2015 revealed that the number of microplastics, plastics small enough for marine life like fish to ingest, had ranged from 15 to 51 trillion pieces. In an interview with news site Plant Experts, marine biologist Roman Lehner commented on what this means for human health.
“If we eat, for example, a fish that has eaten microplastic, the problem is not really that the microplastic will get stuck in our human body… the main problem is toxification. Those small hydrophobic microparticles are binding to organic pollutants such as DDTs, PCBs, human carcinogens, and this is really a big issue,” Lehner told Planet Experts.
In the face of this big issue, Friends of Palm Beach works in small ways to break the cycle of ocean litter. Robyn Kennedy, team manager for Friends of Palm Beach, explains how they go beyond picking up trash on the beach.
“We actually recycle the plastics. We send them to a company in New Jersey that recycle them into shampoo and conditioner bottles,” said Kennedy.
After the International Coastal Cleanup, you will still find local volunteers on the beach five days a week to pick up trash, many motivated by an appreciation for the sea.
“The ocean is our lifeblood,” Buhler said. “It supports our oxygen, our fresh water system relies on the cycles of the ocean and the weather it creates… I don’t get that people do not get that.”