Volume XI, Issue 17 ~ April 24 - 30, 2003

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Blue Crab Blues | Bay Beaches Are Trashy Places

Bay Beaches Are Trashy Places.
It’s Not Their Fault.
In our Bay’s sprawling watershed, 15 million people live,
work, play — and litter.
by Sandra Martin

Plastic vampire teeth, uppers and lowers, chomp at the sand alongside a tampon shield. An exploded shotgun shell rests near an old shampoo bottle, dandruff shampoo. Half a Butterfinger wrapper snuggles up to an empty Pepto Bismo bottle.

The Chesapeake knows your habits.

“The guy who’s driving down the highway and throws out a can or wrapper doesn’t realize that it will be washed by the next major rain into a storm sewer that empties into a waterway that empties into a tributary that empties into the Chesapeake,” said Virginia Beach city councilman Robert Dean, who coordinates an annual Clean the Bay Day.

Update: Chesapeake Bay Foundation now coordinates the annual Clean the Bay Day around Hampton Roads, a metropolitan area including Chesapeake, Norfolk, Newport, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg. Organized town to town by local governments, some 4,000 volunteers turn out on June 4 to clean up the most visible form of pollution in the Bay.

“It’s a great way for volunteers to get their hands and feet wet and get exposed to other issues,” says Chuck Epps, of the Bay Foundation in Richmond. “We try to deliver the message that we all need to redouble our efforts to clean up the less visible types of pollution — nutrients, stormwater runoff, sediment from construction, agricultural pollution — that are handicapping the Bay.”

“Boaters throw their trash overboard. Mothers leave diapers on the beach. People just don’t care. We’ve become a disposable society.”

Washed in on the Tide
In our Bay’s sprawling watershed, 15 million people live, work, play — and litter. All along Chesapeake’s 8,000-mile shoreline, you can read 20th century habits in the evidence the Bay gathers, then abandons. You might find treasures — a whale-size gaff lifted by light-fingered waves or the net Junior dropped overboard. More often, you’ll find plastic.

Update: By 2003, population in the Bay had swelled to 15,709,111 million people. In 2020, growth is expected bring us to 18 million.

Let’s walk a hundred yards down that long shore and see what we discover. There won’t be another human in sight on this isolated Western Shore beach. Beneath our feet, the water has washed the pebbly sand smooth. Lulled by tide out of time and care, we could renew our spirits here. Except that all around us the Bay has flung trash.

Tires — set as firmly in the tidal sands as in concrete — grow barnacles. Some stand upright, as if they had just rolled in.

The broken hull of a wooden cabin cruiser rots in the surf, battered and scattered by this winter’s waves. Chesapeake is wily to have stolen such a souvenir and mighty to have demolished it. Planking is water logged and the sodden polyurethane foam of a seat cushion rides in the tide, but the khaki-yellow pattern of the torn plastic upholstery is as fresh as new. Even so powerful a leveler as Chesapeake is no match for plastic.

“If Christopher Columbus had brought plastic to America, it would still be washing up on our beaches today,” said Karen Hodge of the Center for Marine Conservation.

Tangled with the smooth limbs of driftwood is enough line to have secured Columbus’s ship — and tethered, caught or pulled lots of other things, too. Here’s monofilament fishing line that will catch no more fishes but still might snare a bird; yellow polyrope that once pulled water-skiers; polyester line that tethered dinghies. There’s even an azalea-pink ribbon still tied to the limp bladder of a Mylar balloon.

Plastic sheeting aplenty has come to rest on this beach, half buried beneath the dead weight of sand. Here’s black landscaping plastic, milky sheeting plastic, tan grocery sacks and clear plastic food bags. Useful on land, these bags are ugly on shore and deadly in the water where, mistaking them for jellyfish, sea turtles gobble them and die.

Walking this beach, you want to both toast and curse the achievements of the plastics age. Plastics outlast water, sun and storm. They’re as versatile as they are durable. This little beach is a variety show of objects molded, extruded or squirted in plastic.

Look for yourself — but hold onto your hat as you go, or it may join the collection of caps, underwear, shoes, boots, watermen’s gloves and lifejackets the Bay saves on its beaches.

Plastic toys and tools are here in colorful plenty. In just this hundred yards, you discover pails and shovels, pens and paint brush handles, lids and light bulbs, rattles and whatnots.

This is not benign trash. In production, plastics are laced with chemicals, among them flame retardants and heavy metals that eventually can find their way into the environment.

Above all, you find the containers that held the many fluids that lubricate human life. Now heavy with sand and saltwater, the plastic jugs outlived the oil and oil additives, bleach and laundry detergent that once filled them. Many of the big jugs clearly lived to do a second job as floats or bumpers. Still tied to skeins of knotted line, they now hang like big ornaments from the underbrush.

Commercial five-gallon buckets must have jumped ship after second careers as marine buckets to reach this deserted beach. Those buckets litter other beaches, too. On Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, a whopping 700 washed up in six months, according to the Center for Marine Conservation.

Before it makes land, plastic flotsam makes trouble. A pygmy sperm whale that died on the beach in North Carolina last winter had swallowed a shopping list of plastic goods, including bleach bottles, a Styrofoam buoy and a plastic bucket that lodged in its intestines.

The many containers we drink thirstily from find their way to our beaches after just one use. Plastic jugs and bottles share the beach with Styrofoam, glass and aluminum. Burrowed among fallen limbs into the roots of seagrasses are the discarded containers of beverages drunk by folks of every age, from toddlers to dodderers.

Here are aluminum beer cans; glass soda, whisky and vodka bottles; plastic juice containers made like little, old-fashioned milk bottles; crushed polyethylene milk gallons; polystyrene coffee cups and their free-floating polypropylene straws and lids.

All that trash on 100 yards.

Dumped and Discarded
Just 233 miles — three percent of the Bay’s shoreline — produced 77 tons of trash in 1992’s Clean the Bay day. Most of that heap was plastic. Worldwide, 60 percent of coastal trash is plastic, according to the Center for Marine Conservation, which annually sponsors International Coastal Cleanup days in September.

Distance from people is no safeguard from trash. Plastic is as buoyant as it is vigorous, so it can float with tide and current to wash up on beaches far from where it was dumped. On land, there’s trash aplenty to find. Each of us produces as much as 1,606 pounds of trash a year, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

On water, our habits are just as trashy. America’s 16 million pleasure boaters toss an average one-and-one-half pounds of junk overboard on every outing, according to the Coast Guard. Oceangoing ships dump 14 billion pounds of trash every year.

All this despite Marpol, the four-year-old international treaty that outlaws all dumping of plastic trash into oceans, bays, rivers and other navigable U.S. waters. No trash, even your banana peel, can be dumped legally within three miles of shore.

Trash comes easily to Chesapeake beaches. Its going is not so easy. The only way to get rid of the trash on our beaches is to carry it away.

Update: Citizen volunteers are cleaning up shorelines all over Chesapeake Country this spring. In one of the largest, the 15th annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup 300 volunteers at 138 cleanup sites throughout Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia removed 117 tons of trash from the Potomac River Watershed.

Their haul included 59,400 plastic bottles, 1,448 tires, 1,834 balls, 23 barrels, toilets and toilet seats, mini propane tanks, treated wood lumber, various small appliances and car parts, in addition to the traditional trash commonly found in this cleanup, such as cigarettes, styrofoam, soda cans, bottles, fast food wrappers and containers.

At the other end of the scale, a week later four Fairhaven neighbors hauled two truckloads of trash from the half-mile of shoreline roads circling the Bayside community’s marsh lake.

“It’s bad at the road where drivers seem to be aiming for as far into the marsh as they can hit. But it’s even worse at the shoreline, where the water deposits all it’s collected,” said David Williamson, hauling a tire out of the marsh.

Trashy Stories
Draped in a gown rustling with 3,000 pink and white plastic tampon applicators, artist Jay Critchley looked resplendent at the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty. His Miss Liberty costume, complete with a seven-pointed crown and a torch, was created totally from plastic tampon tubes that washed ashore in New Jersey and on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Critchley calls them “beach whistles.”

According to Critchley, the words of the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the statue’s base, “the wretched refuse from your teeming shore,” no longer refer to the metaphorical downtrodden masses but, literally, to trash.

Update: We’d still love your trashy stories. Write them in 200 words or less and send to editor Sandra Martin, Bay Weekly, P.O. Box 358, Deale, MD 20751 • [email protected].

The editor’s favorite story (received by May 15) wins a Bay Weekly ‘I Get It Every Week … and It’s Always Free’ T-shirt.

The Chesapeake Dirty Dozen
The Bay’s Top Trash in 1992
  1. Cigarette filters
  2. Small polystyrene pieces
  3. Plastic pieces
  4. Paper
  5. Plastic food bags
  6. Metal beverage cans
  7. Glass beverage bottles
  8. Glass pieces
  9. Plastic caps/lids
  10. Polystyrene cups
  11. Plastic straws
  12. Lumber

Update: The Nation’s Dirty Dozen in 2001

  1. Cigarettes & filters: 1,286,116
  2. Bags/food wrappers: 443,259
  3. Caps, lids: 306,428
  4. Beverage bottles (glass): 205,772
  5. Beverage cans: 202,983
  6. Cups, plates, forks, knives, spoons: 196,018
  7. Beverage bottles (plastic) 2 liters or less: 189,591
  8. Straws, stirrers: 151,660
  9. Fast-food containers: 73,477
  10. Cigar tips: 57,792
  11. Rope: 57,591
  12. Clothing, cloth: 50,836

Names on Our Beaches ~ 1993
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
—William Shakespeare

On this 100-yard Western Shore beach, the following products and companies were identifiable by brand name, advertising imprint or distinctive packaging:

Ball-point pen, printed with the name of a Prudential Preferred Properties agent (plastic and metal) Budweiser beer (metal can) • Butterfinger candy bar (paper wrapper) • Dash In (plastic foam coffee cup) • Head and Shoulders shampoo (plastic bottle) • High’s Dairy (plastic foam coffee cup) • Lowry’s Seasonings (plastic jar and lid) • McCall’s Vodka: half-pint (glass bottle) • Mountain Dew (glass bottle with plastic lid) • Old Style beer (metal can) • Pepto Bismol (glass bottle) • Pepsi Cola (metal can) • Playtex tampon applicator (plastic sheath) • Quaker State motor oil: 1 quart (plastic bottle) • Schlitz beer (metal can) • Solo lid (plastic) • Ursa engine oil: 1 quart (plastic bottle) • Veryfine 100% vegetable juice (glass bottle with metal lid).

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Last updated April 24, 2003 @ 2:57am