By: Alexander Bakirdan and Vaidik Trivedi
Over 50 miles from home battling bone-chilling winds on a Sunday morning, 52-year-old Joseph Consoli digs soda cans out of the white sand.
He drags a garbage bag with him, struggling to walk straight, and fills it with waste: plastic plates, soda cans, tissues, condoms.
“It’s like you can scan garbage in the sand now,” Consoli, said as he dug out a plastic bottle. “You will be surprised by what we find.”
The Riverhead Foundation For Marine Research And Preservation (RFMRP) held ‘Pick It Up,’ a coastal cleanup, on 17th March at Fire Island National Seashore. Four volunteers picked up more than 10 pounds of garbage that day.
Since it started in 1996, RFMRP has rescued and rehabilitated more than 3,900 marine creatures throughout Long Island.
A part of ‘The Pick It Up Initiative To Eradicate Debris From Long Island Beaches,’ the beach cleanup initiative was started in 2016 by The Riverhead Foundation For Marine Research And Preservation. More than 1,300 volunteers like Consoli collect trash along the coastal line to preserve local wildlife.
“Eight out of ten times, you are going to end up digging garbage on your treasure hunt on the beach,” Consoli, said.
Every first Saturday of the month, no matter the weather, a few volunteers get together to collect garbage that poses a threat to the marine ecosystem, turtles and sea lions. In the past two years, the “Pick it Up” initiative saved almost 700 sea turtles on the island, Nicole Valenti Education & Volunteer Coordinator at Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation said.
“The aim of the initiative is to help eradicate marine debris from some of our local coastal areas,” Valenti said. “In the last three years we have averaged about 4,000 pounds of trash collected each year.”
Marine debris poses a huge danger to the environment. Each year, 100,000 marine creatures die from plastic ingestion or entanglement according to the Ocean Crusader Organization.
“Seabirds (like cormorants) are often found with plastic in their stomachs because the plastic adsorbs the smells of the ocean,” Nick Wehner, Director of Open Initiatives at Open Communications for The Ocean, said. “When the plastic bits smell like fish, critters tend to think ‘if it smells like a fish, it must be a fish,’ and they eat it.”
Microplastics have even started to appear in the seafood that humans eat, as a study published in Environmental Pollution found that both mussels and oysters had a significant amount in their systems too. The study was unable to estimate potential risks to human health thus far.
“We are the only organization that is allowed on Long Island to rescue, relocate and rehabilitate marine animals,” Jonathan Yankus, 15, a member of the RFMRP said.
He and his mother managed to pick up 260 pounds of garbage along with clocking in 780 hours of beach cleanup last year alone.
“We are doing a lot of wrong with this planet,” Yankus, said. “If everyone does just a little bit [disposing of garbage] each day, then we might be able to live on this plane a bit longer.”
Depending on how many volunteers shown up, RFMRP members invest upto two hours into beach cleanup despite harsh weather conditions.
“We feel like superheros after filling bags with garbage,” Consoli said while struggling to walk in 22 mph cold winds. “I feel satisfied after watching the beach clean for other people to use.”
RFMRP urges community members to join the ‘Pick It Up,’ initiative to clean the five most garbage prone beaches on Long Island.
“I think it really brings a lot of community members together in just trying to help create something better for our beaches,” Valenti said. “We live on Long Island we are an island, we are surrounded by water and so I think everyone really likes to enjoy the beach and nobody wants to go to the beach if it’s covered in garbage.”
In October 2018, the Trump Administration passed the ‘Save Our Seas Act,’ which will help confront the marine debris crisis by granting more funds to assist with marine cleanup and reauthorizing Marine Debris Programs through 2022.