By Abby Bender
The Long Island Explorium beach clean-up team collected 34 pounds of marine debris in just under two hours during its 2023 Earth Day celebration with the Brookhaven NAACP, on April 22nd.
The Long Island Explorium, a children’s science museum located in Port Jefferson had the goal of engaging and educating the greater community of Long Island in climate and marine action.
“The Earth Day Celebration is an annual event that we hold every year. And each year we hold a special program for the community focused on raising awareness in the community about the Earth and developing strong environmental stewardship skills among the younger generation,” Angeline Judex, executive director of the Long Island Explorium, said.
This year there was a special guest, the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, which led a beach clean-up around Port Jefferson Harbor.
“The Long Island Explorium does an amazing job at engaging the public and we are proud to partner on these events,” Robert A. DiGiovanni, Jr, Executive Director and founder of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, said
“[The Earth Day Celebration] has always been part of the Long Island Explorium’s DNA,” Judex said.
Earth Day’s history dates back to 1970 with the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States. At the time there was no governmental regulation protecting the environment which led to an estimated 20 million Americans nationwide participating in inaugural events for the first Earth Day on April 22nd 1970.
Three months after the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) was established in response to the public’s demand for cleaner water, air, and land.
Adjacent to the Long Island Sound, Long Island residents are no strangers to protecting their environment. In addition to the Long Island Explorium, Earth Day events took place all over the island.
Adults and children alike celebrated the Earth at the Jones Beach Energy and Nature Center, Quogue Wildlife Refuge, the Port Washington Public Library, Rockefeller Park, and more.
“The kids who were participating [in the beach cleanup] went the furthest along the beach and were out for the longest, and it was amazing to see them transform the act of picking up trash into something fun,” Ibuki Iwasaki, beach participant, said.
While the Earth Day events often take place in person, The Brookhaven National Laboratory took the educational route by hosting Zoom sessions with topics around energy, climate, and wildfires.
“Earth Day is a celebration of our planet and all the incredible ecosystems, habitats and species that live here,” Donielle Stevens, a Contractor with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service said. “When we come together with friends and family for Earth Day events in our communities, we’re reminded that stewarding the land is both meaningful and fun.”
Earth Day events, like these, can be used as a tool to promote the marine health of the Long Island Sound.
“The major obstacles are related to awareness and understanding of a changing environment,” DiGiovanni said.
One of the main problems in the sound is marine debris. Marine Debris is any trash found in the water or pushed ashore.
“Every time I’ve been out on the [Long Island] sound I’ve seen a balloon or a tide detergent bottle just floating,” Maddie Foley, graduate marine scientist said.
The most common marine debris are cigarette butts. According to a collection done by the Long Island Sound study, there were 338 pounds of marine debris per mile of beach along the Long Island Sound in 2022.
“Cigarette butts in Long Island Sound, there were 2,394 last year. And that’s just New York that isn’t counting the Connecticut numbers” Jimena Perez-Viscasillas, the Long Island Sound Outreach Coordinator said.
The Long Island Sound Marine Debris Action Plan was funded in 2022 to combat the marine debris problem. The plan has three main goals to take place over the next five years: To understand, prevent and mitigate the impacts of single-use plastic, abandoned and lost fishing and aquaculture gear, microplastics and microfibers.
“In the [Long Island Sound Marine Debris Action] plan, we got together a bunch of different organizations that were working on different pieces to the marine debris issue, which is a huge issue with different types of debris and different things that need to be addressed. So we have all of these different entities and organizations working on different pieces,” Perez-Viscasillas said.
Marine debris is a product of human activity and mostly originates on land. It makes its way to waterways through poor waste management and storm water runoff. Abandoned fishing gear can also be considered an ocean originating debris.
“I find that marine debris can be a really disheartening topic for most people. We don’t want to see all the harm we’ve caused by creating and using single-use plastics,” Mairead Farrell, Marine Science Communicator said.
The American Littoral Society catalogs the type of marine debris found during beach clean ups and publishes their ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of the top 12 types of marine debris. The Northeast chapter lists the Dirty Dozen of New York State in 2022 as Cigarette butts, plastic bottle caps, plastic pieces, foam pieces, food wrappers, metal bottle caps, straws and stirrers, plastic beverage bottles, glass pieces, beverage cans, other plastic bags, and other plastic or foam packaging.
“One beneficial thing with beach clean-ups is that people have the chance to see all the trash on the beach,”Monique Escalante, Marine Science graduate student said. “Residents on the island are desensitized to the trash and just expect others to clean it up.”
Much of the debris found during beach cleanups is recycled or sent to an appropriate landfill, but artists have recently been using collected marine debris to create lasting art.
“Creating art from marine debris provides a space for people to really look at all the things we are putting into our ocean. On a surface level, we can look without judgment and simply enjoy the pieces created,” Farrell said.
Groups like Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea, Artopia, the NOAA Marine Debris Program art contest, and the Gulf of Maine EcoArts all work to use art and marine debris to promote the idea of health and wellness of our oceans.
“We see pieces of ourselves in the art: A detergent container that’s the same brand as the one you use at home; A can of your favorite soda; A shopping bag from a store you frequent. And as these things pile up, as we see more and more from our everyday life, we begin to think more about our impact on the world and our contribution to the growing lumps of trash found on land and in the water,” Farrell said.
With many of us out on beaches this Earth Day to help clean up, others have chosen to take the longer lasting path of policy reform.
“As with any policy, enacting policy on marine debris requires a strong coalition of actors that will support development, adoption and implementation,” Susan Ruffo, the Senior Director and Senior Advisor for Ocean and Climate at United Nations Foundation, said.
Despite knowing that there have been plastics in our waters since around the 1970s there weren’t large policy movements focused around marine debris until Jenna Jambeck, a researcher from the University of Georgia, published an article, in 2015, estimating the true scale of marine debris for the first time.
“Until then it was hard to get policy makers to focus on the issue, or know what to do to address it. Then it still took time and advocacy for it to become a mainstream issue that policymakers were willing to take on,” Ruffo said.
The Bipartisan infrastructure law was passed by congress in 2021. This provided a once in a generation opportunity to improve water quality, address the climate crisis, and advance environmental justice.
“Under the legislation, the EPA is awarding $21.2 million per year over the next five years beginning in 2022 ($106 million in all through 2026) to fund local Long Island Sound initiatives to improve the environmental health, climate resiliency, and economic vitality of the Sound in an equitable manner,” Mark Tedesco, the Director of the Long Island Sound Office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said.
Earth Day can be a helpful reminder to take care of our planet but it doesn’t stop there. Whether it be through beach cleanups, education, art, or policy, make everyday Earth Day.
“At the end of the day we all have the same goal and that is that we want to make the future a better place for future generations,” Judex said.