180719 Backyard Pic

Kathy Raposa, president of the Land Conservancy of North Kingstown, and her daughter, Brierley, 8, pick up litter at Compass Rose Beach in Quonset as part of the 32nd annual International Coastal Cleanup event in this September 2017 photo.

It’s the peak of beach season, which unfortunately means that it’s also the peak of beach litter season. And as åunsightly as food wrappers, water bottles and other trash is to human visitors, it’s an even worse problem for marine life and other species.

Last summer alone, Geoff Dennis picked up 2,946 bottles and cans, 2,389 bottle caps, 129 cigarette lighters and 529 straws on just one beach in Little Compton. And that’s just the trash he counted and photographed. There were many, many more cups, plates, cigarette butts, fishing gear, balloons, plastic utensils, take-out containers, plastic bags, and even bags of dog waste that he threw out without counting.

And every bit of it came from people who didn’t care enough about their community or the environment to dispose of it properly.

When I first talked to Dennis about his beach-cleaning activities a year ago, he told me he has been doing it for years, and he is discouraged that the quantity of trash he picks up hasn’t declined.

“It really bothers me. The first time, I came back with over 100 mylar balloons,” he said. “If I can start a conversation with people about it, that’s great. But most people just don’t care.”

Dennis estimates that about half of what he picks up on his nearby beach is generated by local beachgoers and the other half from beachgoers many miles away, since it shows evidence of having drifted on ocean currents for some time.

Thankfully, people aren’t dying from this mass of trash. But we can’t say the same about seals, fish, whales, sea turtles and other animals. That’s because an untold amount of trash gets blown into the water, where it lingers – sometimes for decades – until an unsuspecting animal unwittingly eats it or becomes entangled in it.

Plastic is especially troublesome because it never disappears entirely. It just breaks down into tinier bits that are easier and more likely for wildlife to consume. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, billions of pounds of plastics end up in the ocean every year.

Most leatherback sea turtles that are discovered dead along the East Coast, for instance, have a mass of plastic bags in their digestive system that the animals probably mistook for jellyfish, their favorite food. A young sperm whale was found dead on the coast of Spain in April with 64 pounds of plastics in its stomach, and a pilot whale in Thailand died last month from swallowing 80 plastic bags and other trash. Seals are often photographed with plastic wrapped tightly around their throat, cutting into their skin and causing infections, and seabirds are regularly observed entangled in improperly discarded fishing line.

There have even been cases of restaurant patrons finding plastic particles in the fish they have been served. In fact, a recent study found that a quarter of the fish in markets in California had tiny bits of plastic in their guts.

So, set an example for your friends, family and community. Dispose of trash properly at the beach and make the effort to pick up trash left by others, as Geoff Dennis does. Even better, become one of the 2,600 volunteers who join with Save The Bay for the annual International Coastal Cleanup in September.

The local marine life will appreciate it.

Naturalist Todd McLeish has been writing about wildlife and the environment for more than 25 years. His newest book is called “Return of the Sea Otter,” and was released earlier this year.

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