On Saturday morning, April 29th, about sixty teens and adults gathered together on the wharf at the New England Aquarium to begin one of the largest beach clean ups the New England Aquarium’s live blue™ volunteers have taken on so far. Thanks to support from the Massachusetts Service Alliance, National Park Service, and the MA Department of Conservation and Recreation, this time we would be working on one of the Boston Harbor Islands, a park made up of 34 islands and peninsulas in and near Boston Harbor.
The volunteers came from all over the greater Boston area and beyond; the people I met included students in high school and university, a woman who worked at a law firm, an economist at a fair trade non-profit, and a digital archive librarian from a university in Cambridge. After introductions and a warm welcome from our service coordinator Ryan Kingston, we learned a little about the fascinating geology, rich history, and ecological importance of the Boston Harbor Islands from one of the National Park Service park rangers, Marc, who accompanied us for the day. Excited to see these islands up close, we loaded up our boat with gloves, trash bags, data collection clipboards, and more, and left the Boston skyline behind us as we headed out of the harbor.
We spotted countless gulls, cormorants, and other birds as we steamed out of the harbor. From on deck, one of the rangers, Val, pointed out the other islands as we passed them. After about 45 minutes on board, we came to a beautiful, secluded island with a sign posted on the dock that read “Grape Island.”
Grape Island does not have any (human) residents, but it does have plenty of beautiful places to camp, walk, and swim from the beach. One of the volunteers who works in water quality explained to me that the coastal waters around here haven’t always been clean enough to swim in, but they are today thanks to efforts over the past few decades to improve wastewater treatment and disposal in the area.
One of the rangers, Andrew, gave us a safety briefing and explained that we should put medical sharps in a special box to be disposed of at a certain facility. He also gave us a heads up about poison ivy and ticks, and how best to avoid them. Andrew also explained the general rule of “thumb” in regards to wildlife; to ensure you are giving wildlife enough space, you can extend a thumbs up towards the animal, and if your thumb fully covers them then you are far enough away.
We then broke up into smaller teams to tackle different parts of the beach on Grape Island. Our team hiked to the north shore of the island, which apparently hadn’t been cleaned up in about 15 years or so. Though the Harbor’s water quality has improved, and the island seemed surprisingly wild for being so close to downtown Boston, we quickly realized that this place was far from being in pristine condition. Dozens of soda cans, plastic bags, and broken up pieces of polystyrene foam littered the coastline. We rolled up our sleeves, abandoned any hope of looking fashionable by tucking our pants into our socks to keep out ticks, and started picking up the trash piece by piece.
“Ten polystyrene pieces, a plastic take out container, two glass bottles, five food wrappers, and a couple straws.” Each time we picked up several pieces of trash, a couple volunteers in charge of data collection would tally how many pieces of trash we had found in each category. This kind of data can be useful for figuring out where ocean waste is coming from and for calculating how much plastic we’re adding, whether intentionally or accidentally, to the oceans each year.
We found all kinds of trash—cigarette butts, paper bags, food wrappers, and even a couple City of Boston parking tickets—but by far the most common type of trash we found was plastic in various forms, shapes and sizes ranging from polystyrene coffee cups to plastic shopping bags. We separated hard plastics as we went so that they could be sent to Terracycle for recycling. By the end of the day, we filled eleven 50-gallon bags with recyclable plastic materials, and dozens of bags more of miscellaneous trash and debris.
So just how much plastic is there in the ocean? In 2015, a research study estimated that around 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year. About 80% of that comes from land, so even if we’re not boaters ourselves, we on land are in large part responsible for this waste. Personally, I can’t wrap my brain around a number that huge. So to put it into perspective, this is about equal to the Empire State Building worth of plastic entering the oceans twice every week. Twice. The ocean’s huge, but that’s enough plastic that researchers and citizen scientists are finding it everywhere these days—on the ocean floor near our coastal communities, on the sea surface hundreds of miles from shore, and even in some of the most remote places on earth, including frozen into Arctic sea ice.
Grape Island certainly isn’t remote, but it is still an important nesting ground for species like the piping plover that spend summers throughout New England, and wildlife like turkey and deer that depend on the island as a year round home. We did our best to remove the debris while treading lightly on their habitat, and thanks to our park rangers’ knowledge, we steered clear of nesting locations of birds that lay their eggs in the sand on the island.
The sad truth is that we will probably never be able to remove all the plastic floating on the surface of the ocean or sunken to the sea floor. But we can take part in beach clean ups to remove at least some of the plastic that washes up on shore and degrades the quality of coastal habitats that many animals (including humans) depend on. Even more importantly, no matter where we live on the planet, each one of us can do our part to “turn off the faucet” in the plastic waste stream entering the oceans by saying “no thanks” to single use take-out containers, cups, plastic bags, and straws.
The kind of legacy we leave behind is up to us, so if we’re up for the challenge to reduce our plastic footprint, we can do our best to use reusable materials instead. We can try bringing a lunch kit with our own snazzy reusable fork, plate, and cup to our next cookout, ordering our next hot drink in a mug or our own thermos, packing reusable bags on our next run to the grocery store, avoiding products with excessive packaging, or going straw free next time we’re sipping our favorite iced drink this summer. If you have other ideas, please feel free to post them in the comments section! I can’t speak for the marine life and other coastal communities besides my own, but if we can do our part to clean up the oceans, I can at least tell you that beach cleanup crews around the world will be grateful.