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2015 Nov

Hands-On Education

Beach cleanups and marine debris are my specialty. That’s basically what I do: clean the beach, report data, and occasionally use this data for education. I’ve even created a small business based on that data, which offers alternatives to the more common litter items found on our beaches: single-use plastics.

In this field of work, one of the most rewarding aspects is taking a group of kids (or adults) to a beach for a cleanup, and watching the lightbulbs go off. You can talk about it, show photos, write articles, bring trash from the beach to the classroom, etc. but there is no better way to educate about marine debris than getting your hands dirty and seeing what is really out there.

We are just wrapping up International Coastal Cleanup season. This is a worldwide volunteer effort, led by the Ocean Conservancy, to clean beaches, parks, lakes, rivers, and streams, collect data, and use that data to educate the public. In 2014, approximately 560,000 volunteers in 91 countries cleaned up more than 16 million pounds of trash. Volunteers use a data card and record the items they pick up. Each year, the Ocean Conservancy releases a report about this cleanup, including a top 10 list of the items found. These include mostly plastic items, and many are related to food and beverage.

I work with a Virginia-based non-profit organization called Clean Virginia Waterways (affiliated with Longwood University) to recruit volunteers for this event in Hampton Roads. Last year more than 8,000 volunteers participated in Virginia and this was our Top Ten List:

Cigarette Butts            47,548
Food Wrappers           15,074
Plastic Bottles             13,442
Beverage Cans8,697
Other Plastic Bags      6,911
Plastic Grocery Bags  6,566
Plastic Bottle Caps     5,959
Glass Bottles              5,626
Straws and Stirrers      3,210
Foam cups and plates             2,244

In October 2015, Project Green Teens reported 438 plastic bottles in less than 2 miles on Fisherman Island (an area of remote beach on the southern tip of Virginia’s eastern shore not open to the public). One of the plastic bottles contained a note launched from a Virginia Beach school as part of a research project in 2013.

On November 1st, Surfrider Foundation did a cleanup of the Virginia Beach boardwalk and Atlantic Ave. from 1st to 11th Street and reported 5,887 cigarette butts! The Virginia Beach Hotel Association led a cleanup a few days later and cleaned the boardwalk and beach from 11th Street to 20th Street and reported an additional 3,725 cigarette butts. That’s 9,612 butts in 20 blocks!

In 2014, volunteers from Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the northernmost beach in Virginia, recorded more than 900 balloons. Latex balloons wreak havoc on our wildlife and aren’t biodegradable. (See www.balloonsblow.org for more information.)

There are several organized opportunities to participate in cleanups outside of the International Coastal Cleanup including Clean the Bay Day and the Adopt-A-Spot programs. Many organizations, including Lynnhaven River Now and Surfrider Foundation, conduct monthly cleanups and welcome volunteer assistance.

You don’t actually need an organized cleanup to get out there and clean up litter. All it takes is a trash bag and some time. If you like the idea of collecting data, there is an app for that! Check out NOAA’s Marine Debris Tracker app. Got family coming for the holidays? Start a new family tradition of giving back by cleaning up your favorite outdoor area.

Clean Virginia Waterways has a page on their website (www.longwood.edu/cleanva/Education) which offers resources for educators and students to plan a cleanup and use the information and knowledge gained to educate others and effect positive change at home and school.

Most importantly, take the family, get out there, roll up your sleeves, have fun, and leave the place in better shape than it was when you got there.

Christina Trapani is a marine debris researcher and consultant working on projects throughout Virginia that help to reduce litter in the waterways. She also owns Eco Maniac Company, a retailer of eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastics and can be found at the Old Beach Green Market on Saturday mornings at Croc’s 19th Street Bistro.

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