In 2011, 7,575 volunteers collected, tallied, and removed over 452,698 pieces of debris from NJ’s shoreline during Clean Ocean Action’s 26th Annual Beach Sweeps. The majority of the debris removed was disposable plastics—items designed to be used once and thrown away. Plastic, including foam, represents 83% of the total waste found. It is clear: disposable plastic items continue to litter beaches, threaten marine life, and impact water quality. The 2011 data marks the first year in Beach Sweeps history that cigarettes have not been one of the three most common items of debris collected during the bi-annual event.
The Beach Sweeps has become New Jersey’s largest environmental event with thousands of citizens combing nearly all 127 miles ocean coastline and additional bay beaches. The spring event coincides with Earth Month to provide citizens with an educational, hands-on, meaningful, rewarding activity to make a real difference.
In 2011, plastic pieces increased sharply, becoming the most collected piece of debris. The prevalence of plastic pieces found at the Beach Sweeps is a symbol of our ‘throwaway’ culture. This upward trend may be due to the increase in use of single use disposable plastics and their persistence. It is important, now more than ever, that we reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics properly.
Plastic does not biodegrade, instead through a combination of chemical reactions and physical forces (including sunlight and waves) plastics can slowly break down into smaller and smaller pieces and in the process release toxic chemicals into the sea, such as Bisphenol A (BPA) and styrene trimer (a liquid hydrocarbon).
Plastic pieces can be deadly to marine life as they can be accidently ingested by or entangle wildlife. During the 2011 Sweeps, 20 animals were found dead due to entanglement of nylon balloon string, fishing line, and six-pack rings. Beach Sweeps volunteers were able to free three entangled animals at the event.
Plastics also pose physical and chemical hazards when ingested by wildlife. Ingestion of plastics can result in starvation, stress, reproductive defects, cancer, and can be fatal to marine life. Plastics also release toxic chemicals as they break down, and they absorb and amass toxic pollutants from the environment.
Another highlight from 2011’s data is the decline in cigarette filters collected— dropping from the top 3 most common pieces of debris for the first time in 19 years. Other smoking-related items (packaging, lighters, cigar tips) also declined.
The overall decline of smoking items may be a result of more smoking bans on beaches, more appropriate disposal and awareness, and an overall societal decrease in smokers. Hopefully, this will be a trend that continues, as cigarette filters are among some of the most toxic items found in the marine environment.