A chat with a marine biologist
June 23, 1999
The following is an edited transcript of a chat about coastal waterway cleanup with marine biologist Seba Sheavly, the Center for Marine Conservation's (CMC) Director for the Atlantic Region. CNN.com provided a typist for Ms. Sheavly who joined us via phone from the CMC Atlantic Regional office at Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Chat Moderator: CMC press release - The Dirty Dozen on our coasts: cigarette butts, 1.3 million; plastic pieces, 337,000; foamed plastic, 317,000; plastic food wrappers, 299,000; paper, 235,000; plastic lids, 229,000; glass pieces, 212,000; rope, 170,000; straws, 162,000; glass bottles, 161,000; beverage cans, 152,000; beverage bottles, 149,000.
"The popular perception is that most beach trash washes ashore from the maritime and cruise industries," said Seba Sheavly, Director of CMC’s Marine Debris Prevention Program. "However, analysis of the U.S. data reveals that land-based sources generate nearly 60 percent of the trash our volunteers pick up. When someone deliberately leaves their trash behind or thoughtlessly lets a food wrapper or a paper napkin fly away, it can be carried by wind, water, or even wildlife and eventually deposited on the beach. To put it simply: Trash travels."
Check out the CMC's website at http://cmc-ocean.org/ for their latest press releases and pointers to coastal cleanup efforts.
Chat Moderator: Welcome Seba Sheavley from the Center for Marine Conservation's International Coastal Cleanup. Please give us an overview of the International Coastal Cleanup.
Seba Sheavly: Well first of all, the International Coastal cleanup is a really good opportunity for local citizens, civic groups, businesses, Boy Scout troops, and church groups, to get involved in a very important environmental activity which can really help preserve the marine environment and, at the same time, have a direct impact on a worldwide pollution problem.
Chat Participant <Zack>: Is beach trash a greater or lesser problem than it was 20 years ago?
Seba Sheavly: That's a good question, Zack, because technologies have changed over 20 years. Packaging issues related to convenience items, and people having more awareness about solid-waste management has shown us that trash does impact every waterway worldwide, but it's also a problem that we can solve if people use common sense and take personal responsibility on how they handle their own solid waste.
Chat Participant <Zack>: Actually, looking at those numbers it doesn't look like that much stuff.
Seba Sheavly: Well, you have to remember, Zack, that we have a three-hour event that happens one day a year, and people pick up what materials they find along a favorite waterway, and that information is tabulated, and people weigh the trash bags, and we also count item for item what is being picked up. Take that one day, multiply it over the course of a year, and solid waste is a very large problem worldwide.
Chat Participant <Muppet>: Are certain areas of the world more prone to beach waste than others?
Seba Sheavly: Every waterway all around the world has problems. It's very difficult to say which area of the world has more problems. It's good to look at this regionally. In countries that depend upon recreational tourism that are islands, their problems are different than continental areas.
You have differences in countries that are more developed than others where they have better systems established to handle solid waste.
Chat Participant <manbeachtrash>: Is the amount of beach trash a cultural thing?
Seba Sheavly: The presence of trash along our world's beaches is very representative of local cultures, as well as their level of industry and their economies. Many regions of the world have a system for managing their materials that varies. Island communities, for instance, that normally depend upon transportation of all their materials in and out via planes or shipping, have restrictions on what types of materials they can handle. In some parts of the world, you have natural access to materials you don't have in other parts of the world. And based upon culture and based upon their level of industrial development, some materials are more prevalent in certain areas than others.
In countries where they're more industrialized, you tend to have access to more packing materials, which in turn, should require that you have a more integrated system in terms of management of solid waste. Those don't always run hand in hand. It is our experience with the International Coastal Cleanup that people become very complacent in dealing with the materials they've always had, and when you introduce new materials, they do not have a system to handle it and it soon becomes a problem. Access to consumer goods should stay in step with strategies to manage solid waste. And that's not always the case.
Chat Participant <Fisher>: How much of coastal pollution is caused by increased run-off due to land development?
Seba Sheavly: Statistically, our cleanups show that a large majority of all the debris that is found in the coastal areas is coming from land-related activities.
Chat Participant <can>: Are we in Bermuda more prone to other people's trash proliferating in our waterways due to our location?
Seba Sheavly: Trash does travel. Currents, winds, and other activities do move trash all over the globe. Islands such as Bermuda are very susceptible to other communities' trash. That is why it is so important for communities from country to country to be more conscientious.
Chat Participant <Rory>: Many people in America do not live near a beach or visit the beach. How has your organization tried to show people that we are all affected by beach pollution?
Seba Sheavly: The International Coastal Cleanup takes place all across the country, along riverbanks, even lakes. So you don't just have to live at the oceanfront to participate, or to care.
Chat Participant <TQ>: Who participates in this event?
Seba Sheavly: Each year, over a half million people in all walks of life participate, young and old. We have school groups, church groups, Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, general citizens, and families. The Fire Department and the Police Department will come out. You have employees from all kinds of companies that will come out to show their civic pride. The International Coastal Cleanup is very much an activity that everyone can become involved with, and should become involved with.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any numbers of past cleanup participants?
Seba Sheavly: We started out in 1986 with a cleanup in Texas that involved 2800 people. In 1998, we had over 500,000 people in 75 countries. Some of the cleanups involved thousands of citizens in one beach area, like we have in California. Other cleanups involved three or four people that represent a state or even a country.
Chat Participant<Wst>: What is the heaviest type of waste found on beaches?
Seba Sheavly: Probably the heaviest relates to appliances and cars and engines.
We even had an airplane that was found in Jamaica one year that had crashed on a beach.
Chat Participant <Doris>: Are the tourist ships cooperating with you?
Seba Sheavly: The data that we collect from the cleanup shows us that a small portion of the trash that we tabulate is coming from maritime sources. That includes shipping, cargo ships, commercial fishing vessels, and we also have some trash coming from passenger ships. What's important to remember is that when you're in our territorial waters here in the United States, we have a strict law that prohibits all dumping from ships, and that law is called MARPOL. It's illegal to dump anything related to trash in our waters. There are over 104 countries worldwide who have adopted this law. We need to continue efforts to expand implementation of this law worldwide.
Chat Participant <Rody>: How can you control the laws?
Seba Sheavly: Unfortunately, not very easily, but it can be done. The United States and other countries have had some success with good enforcement, good regulations, and most of all, intensive public awareness. As with any law, you have to catch people that are breaking the law to leverage any punishment.
What's unfortunate is that that takes more time and more effort and it would be more productive if public awareness were increased so that violations would not occur in the first place.
Chat Participant <Zack>: So, do you propose government regulations that would prohibit new consumer goods unless there were plans filed with the government about how to handle the waste?
Seba Sheavly: Most solid-waste management becomes a personal commitment issue.
And through education, along with partnerships in industry and government, solid-waste management can be successfully controlled. There must be a commitment on a community's part to invest resources to provide solid-waste management strategies and to work with the public to use them properly. This cannot be a one-sided approach. All facets of the community must be involved.
Chat Participant <Rody>: Wouldn't it be easier to fine the companies, such as oil companies?
Seba Sheavly: CMC has had a lot of experience in working with industries to combat pollution problems. In cases where industry was at fault and did not conduct appropriate practices, efforts need to be expended to bring them in compliance. Overall, however, it is our experience at CMC that industry can be proactive and, as part of their civic responsibility, they can work with local community groups to prevent pollution incidents related to their industry. It is in their best interests to work with the community before there is a problem and not afterwards. Prevention is always better.
Chat Participant <Doris>: I hear people complaining about the beaches along the Louisiana coastline being dirty. Is this being addressed?
Seba Sheavly: We have a very strong program in Louisiana. The State Department of Environmental Quality has an adopt-a-beach program. The state of Louisiana also has a strong state-education program. They also work with communities to develop recycling projects, and they work with local business and industry to conduct good environmental programs. The state of Louisiana has a lot invested in its marine resources, and the state government is very committed to those resources.
Chat Participant <TQ>: Don't cigarette butts degrade?
Seba Sheavly: The problem with cigarette butts has become a very interesting issue. Cigarette butts or filters are made of a substance that is cellulose acetate which is a polymer and does not degrade. When people do not discard their cigarette filters properly, they pose a threat to the environment in several ways. One, they become a potential food for unsuspecting wildlife, and we've actually found remnants of cigarette filters in the stomachs of sea turtles, birds, and fish. So we know that they have eaten them accidentally,
thinking that they were food. We also know from our underwater cleanups that cigarette butts are found on the bottom. Most people, I think, would be surprised at that. So they're very persistent. What we need to do is focus the public's attention on being aware that their cigarette butts can be harmful and need to be deposited correctly in receptacles.
Chat Participant <TQ>: How does beach trash affect animals?
Seba Sheavly: Probably one of the saddest things that's related to this whole pollution issue is the tremendous impact that marine debris can have on sea life. We know from thousands of necropsies that birds and marine mammals such as whales, seals, dolphins, and manatees, along with over 300 species of sea birds, have been documented to either ingest different types of debris, or they actually get caught in it. They become entangled. This entanglement and/or ingestion problem is very severe when many of these species of animals are endangered to begin with. This brings the issue straight to the forefront in terms of responsibility. When people do not handle their solid waste properly, it can cause severe impact on the marine environment in terms of its wildlife.
It also costs us money, as there are many economic impacts related to marine debris, and it poses a human health and safety factor as well.
Chat Participant <Rory>: Has coastal pollution deeply affected the more sensitive estuary habitats?
Seba Sheavly: Coastal areas are very susceptible to ocean pollution as well as non-point-source pollution coming from land. Estuaries serve as a breeding ground for many species and these nurseries are very susceptible to changes in temperatures, water clarity, and other environmental parameters such as nutrients. Coastal habitats provide a border between what lives on land and what lives at sea, and it is a very delicate balance they have to maintain. Large blocks of population centers impact these areas even more, and as a result we need to be very careful as to how we function within these regions.
Chat Participant <ANGELINA>: A beach one hour from me had needle scares and I won't go there anymore. It's sad. How can people get involved locally to make beaches safe?
Seba Sheavly: That's a very good question. I would encourage you to contact the Center for Marine Conservation and join our Ocean Action Network so that we can contact you to help increase awareness in your area related to ocean pollution issues. Other ways to become involved would be to go online and look to identify local environmental groups that are in your community and contact them to see how you can become involved locally.
Chat Participant <Daphnia>: How can a one-day effort make a noticeable difference?
Seba Sheavly: The International Coastal Cleanup is more than a one-day beach cleanup. It is really a call to action to get people involved in their community, to allow them to put their hands directly on a pollution problem, which they have probably contributed to.
Chat Participant <Muppet>: How bad off are the Great Lakes?
Seba Sheavly: The Great Lakes are our Northern coast, which many people don't really think about sometimes, but the boat traffic and the shipping in those areas are very significant. There are many areas within the Great Lakes region that are heavily impacted by the presence of solid waste coming from inland areas and washing down storm sewers and also coming from shipping activity in the area. The Great Lakes represent a very valuable resource to this country, and a resource that we need to protect. As always, we have some efforts in the area, but of course we could always use more. That activity can only be garnered by public interest and citizen involvement.
Chat Moderator: What are some of the areas that have significantly improved and what areas need the most work?
Seba Sheavly: We find a dominance of marine debris regionally related to specific activities such as commercial fishing, recreational beach activity, storm sewer, sewage treatment plants, manufacturing plants, and offshore oil platforms. Those activities will precipitate the presence of certain forms of garbage and trash. The earliest efforts for the marine debris issue in this country were primarily focused on ocean-related sources. And what we've discovered is there is also a significant amount coming from inland sources, and we have to put our efforts towards dealing with garbage that is moving from inland areas along rivers, bays, and estuaries.
Chat Participant <Wst>: Should a tax be levied against the local source, i.e., if McDonalds containers are the major trash on the beach, should all of the local McDonalds be taxed? Fined? In Florida, some local towns have proposed such to cover cost of cleaning up of the highways near McDonalds.
Seba Sheavly: When you are looking at the source of a type of trash, you have to be very careful as to how you define responsibility. While McDonalds does produce and sell their food in packaging, it's the consumer who assumes the responsibility for handling their product when they purchase it. Fighting McDonald's is not really addressing the proper focus in terms of the problem.
What we have to do is create public awareness with the consumer, that it is their responsibility to handle their consumable products responsibly. McDonald's can handle that through advertising and publicity, but it's not McDonald's responsibility to make consumers behave.
Chat Participant <MarcInSF>: Are efforts made to trace industrial pollution like medical wastes back to the sources so laws can be enforced at the point of production?
Seba Sheavly: During our cleanups, when we receive information as to the labeling on different types of debris, we make an effort to contact that company to let them know that their materials have been recovered. Pressure is applied through local groups to get that company to respond and to work cooperatively in that area to help prevent the problem from occurring again. Sometimes our research tells us that materials have been deposited in one area and through some kind of weather event or storm, materials have gotten moved to another area, especially in landfills. And we have to be careful as to how we go about trying to solve that problem. For example, in Mexico, we were discovering bags of medical waste that were showing up after rainstorms in areas along the coast that were not near the hospital of record. What we found, was that the company that was hired to take the hospital's solid waste from their facility was depositing the bags in dried riverbeds and when the rain came, it flushed those bags from an inland area out into the river itself and out into the beach. The hospital was paying a company to handle their solid waste properly. We discovered the solid waste company was not doing it correctly. So we were able to work with the hospital to select another company to handle their waste properly.
Chat Moderator: Does the CMC have any locations of particular success or concern?
Seba Sheavly: I can almost take the entire roster of all of our state and country coordinators and give you a success story just by the sheer activity that they have each year for this event. How about Arizona? Arizona is not a state that most people would think about for a beach cleanup, but in reality, they have a lot of waterways with the Great Salt Lake and the Colorado River.
Arizona has a good statewide anti-litter program that has extended into their waterways as part of the International Coastal Cleanup.
Chat Moderator: Are there any states or beaches that you are most concerned about?
Seba Sheavly: We are concerned about every beach, every waterway, every shoreline, every lake, and every river. Wherever you have a habitat that can be hurt by the presence of solid waste, that's important to us. California has a very strong program to deal with pollution prevention. Florida has a very strong program related to the preservation of marine resources. Every state in our country has a vested interest in conserving marine resources, because all the waterways are connected. If we do not have productive coastal resources in Florida or Georgia or Louisiana or Texas, it has an impact on Montana.
Just as if Montana has a problem with its waterways, it has an impact on everyone else.
Chat Moderator: Time for just a couple more questions.
Chat Participant <BB>: Why is the International Coastal Cleanup held in the fall instead of in the spring when the beaches would be more in need of cleaning, i.e., before the summer beach season?
Seba Sheavly: The origins of the International Coastal Cleanup lies in the Annual Coast Week celebration that begins on the third Saturday in September.
The purpose of the cleanup is not to just physically cleanup the beaches prior to the summer event. The purpose of the cleanup is to:
We encourage communities to use the beach cleanup activity any time they want to use it. Our function is to create public awareness, and this is our 14th year. It is the largest event of its kind in the world, and continues to be a primary source to create other programs that operate within the communities that work to solve local marine pollution issues.
Chat Participant <BB>: What can the average person do to get the word out about the effects of littering?
Seba Sheavly: Well first of all, they need to become involved with the cleanup in September. They need to have a first-hand experience at walking along a favorite waterway or beach, and actually pick up materials that are found in their area and tabulate information on those materials. They will gain a new insight on just how this problem looks in their community, and what they need to do so that they will not continue to be a contributor to this problem. We can help you become involved locally by calling a 1-800 number, and that is 1-800-CMC-BEACH. Live operators will help you get connected to a local person so that you can be involved in September and have your voice heard.
Chat Moderator: Thank you, Seba Sheavley, from the Center for Marine Conservation, for joining us today and educating us all on coastal clean up efforts.
Seba Sheavly: Thank you very much.
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