Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the person who walked alone on a beach, meticulously placing thousands of starfish, one at a time, that had been washed ashore by a bad storm back in the sea. Another person comes across this sight and incredulously asks the other, “Why are you bothering with that? You can’t possibly save them all.”
“No, I cannot,” the helper replies before scooping up another starfish. “But I can help this one.”
The allegory presents an age-old dilemma posited to humans from every generation: What can I, alone, do to help a situation much bigger than myself? When defeat seems unavoidable, and the task ahead seems daunting beyond solution, do you try anyways? Does it even matter?
The example of the starfish on the beach can be substituted for another huge problem we face today, especially in the Ocean State, but also abroad everywhere there is coastline – the enormous amounts of trash and litter strewn about on our shores.
Take a walk down any beach in Warwick, Narragansett, Newport, or all the way out on an uncharted island in Belize, and you’ll find evidence of humans even when there are none for many miles to be found. Studies estimate that 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a monstrous accumulation of marine debris that has collected at the terminus point of coastal currents, grows larger every day.
To think of the impact this is causing on our ecosystem – the fish and waterfowl that perish due to eating large amounts of small, sometimes nearly microscopic bits of plastic, the coral reefs that are becoming bleached due to disease that some hypothesize is exacerbated by the presence of plastics – it can be cripplingly depressing to the point of abject apathy.
However, while one person cannot solve the world’s littering crisis on their own, a group of many thousands, many millions ideally, might be able to make a difference after all.
This Saturday will mark the second annual start to the International Coastal Cleanup, a worldwide effort to clean up debris on our coastlines to prevent them from being washed out to sea and contributing to the larger problem of ocean pollution.
In its first year, over 100 nations consisting of over 800,000 volunteers removed more than 20 million pieces of trash from beaches and various waterways throughout the world. They collected over 2.4 million cigarette butts, over 1.5 million plastic bottles and over one million plastic bottle caps. They picked up about 4.7 million little pieces of foam, plastic and glass that may have gone into the system of a marine animal or bird, possibly killing them.
Rhode Island, despite its size, contributed its fair share to this massive global effort. Coordinated through 90 cleanups around the state organized by Save the Bay, 2,629 Rhode Islanders picked up 156,537 pieces of trash (weighing a total of 16,484 pounds) that littered our beautiful coastlines.
The effort began anew on Tuesday, as a dozen people volunteered their time to help clean up Salter Grove Memorial State Park. They picked up 86 pounds of trash in just two hours, with one group alone picking up over 1,000 little shards of glass.
The cleanup brought about some interesting concepts. One being the frustrating inevitability of scale. There are simply so many people on our planet that, simply over the course of time, litter is going to happen just by accident – such as a bag flying out of a trash can when a garbage truck lifts it to be emptied. If that happens just a few times every trash day, over the course of a year it adds up to a mind-boggling amount of garbage in our environment.
When you approach the problem from this standpoint, rather than the more traditional, “I don’t litter, so therefore I’m not part of the problem” mentality, it makes the case that this is not just an issue caused by careless teenagers and ignorant adults. This is all of our problem, and we can all be part of the solution simply by making more responsible choices and being more aware.
These solutions have been around for decades – use reusable bags when you go grocery shopping; don’t utilize one-use plastics like plastic cups, plates or silverware if you can otherwise avoid it; don’t buy products that contain plastic microbeads; recycle properly and consistently.
If you’re not able to change your lifestyle to help protect our amazing resources, you can always roll up your sleeves, throw on some work gloves and join a coastal cleanup. Go to Volunteer.savebay.org/international-coastal-cleanup/ to find one near you.
After all, you may not be able to clean up every beach, but being in Rhode Island means you aren’t far from one locally – so you can at least help clean up that one. And yes, it does matter.