By Andy LaBar
Last month, an endangered sea turtle washed ashore on the North Coast of Australia. On the surface, this was a simple and unfortunate turn of events. However, upon closer inspection and study by the Australian Seabird Rescue, the story of this turtle’s life and subsequent death reveal a startling truth about modern humankind.
Lodged within the turtle’s lower intestine were things that should not have been there–317 things to be exact. “There is no question what caused the death of this animal,” Rochelle Ferris, General Manager of Australian Seabird Rescue told International Business Times in July. Three hundred seventeen pieces of plastic is more than double the previous highest known concentration of marine debris ingested by an endangered animal, and there is no evidence that the ceiling has been reached. So what does this have to do with humans?
Like many people in the Bay Area, I go to the beach to find respite from the bustle of the city. The tranquil sound of waves, warm sand between my toes, and the views of an unobstructed coastline are priceless. I feel a sense of ownership when I go to the beach and wish to preserve the sanctity of it for the rest of my days. So why is it that on my last visit, I saw soda cans, plastic bags and a long forgotten toy shovel, and I turned a cold shoulder? I recognized the objects and how out of place they appeared, and yet something inside of me said, “That’s dirty, there’s no garbage nearby,” and “it’s not my responsibility.”
However true those statements may be, my failure to act is part of what’s endangering sea turtles and countless other animals.
When trash is left on the street, in a front yard, at a park, or on the beach as I observed, it doesn’t just stay in that location. Litter travels. It’s pushed from land into waterways, the beach, and ultimately the ocean. And if it’s plastic, it never disappears.
In their 2011 Marine Debris Report, the Ocean Conservancy revealed data they have collected solely on Coastal Cleanup Day over the past 25 years. The numbers are startling: 13,585,425 plastic caps and lids; 10,112,038 plastic utensils and plates; 9,549,165 plastic bottles; 7,825,319 plastic bags; 6,263,453 straws. In the past 25 years, volunteers have collected at least 47 million plastic pieces. If we pretend that 317 pieces of plastic is the average amount it takes to kill a large marine animal like a sea turtle, that data reveals the debris picked up SOLELY on International Coastal Cleanup Day has the potential to kill nearly 150,000 animals.
And that’s just trash on the shore. There’s no telling HOW MUCH plastic is out there in the ocean. The Ocean Conservancy data also reveals more than 4,000 entangled animals found during Coastal Cleanup Day, 500 alone in 2010. Remember, this is one day a year and only on select shorelines.
Point Reyes National Seashore, just outside of San Francisco, receives an estimated 2 million visitors per year enjoying its serene shoreline. Yet nationally, the United States only has about 245,000 volunteers for Coastal Cleanup Day. The discrepancy is too large. If we wish to eliminate marine debris, and preserve endangered species, we need to do our part. We need to inspire all those around us to not only care, but to take action.
Making excuses for not picking up trash on the beach won’t cut it. It IS our responsibility. We can take action by picking up trash while at the beach, picking up trash upstream in polluted waterways, and we can make decisions as consumers to buy items that produce less waste. If you need a kick start to be a part of the solution, join us on Coastal Cleanup Day.