By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008
At 11 a.m. yesterday, John Dunnigan bent over and picked up a broken foam cup on the banks of the Anacostia River, put it in a garbage bag and made an inventory of trash.
A time zone away, in Brazil, Leonardo Rodrigo Viana gathered plastic grocery bags and bottle caps from the surfing beach at Arpoador.
In Iran, Mohamed Bagherian donned scuba gear to haul old tires out of the ocean near Kish Island.
And in Guam, Tom Quintana scooped plastic dinner plates from Paseo beach on Agana Bay.
Around the globe yesterday, people cleaned up the oceans for the 23rd annual International Coastal Cleanup. People in the Washington area joined thousands of others in 80 countries, from the Little Blue River in Nebraska to Watamu beach in Kenya, to stoop and pick up the cigarette butts, food wrappers, juice boxes, straws and drink bottles of our careless lives. The Coca-Cola Co., whose products make up much of the trash collected, helps sponsor the cleanups.
Except for the occasional toilet, motorcycle or message in a bottle -- or the rusty shopping cart, stereo speakers, bicycle and old barbecue that were pulled from the Anacostia yesterday -- most of the garbage they found was the same: the stuff of everyday life, as mundane as it is ubiquitous. The sandwich bag that blows away from the beach picnic on any continent. The cigarette butt that is flicked out the car window on any street, in any country.
Volunteers in Hawaii have been finding plastic spacers from Japanese oyster farms in recent years. And cleaners in Brazil have found scraps of paper with Korean writing.
Sometimes the detritus is more sinister: Yesterday, Alejandra López de Román made sure that all volunteers cleaning the lake near Tampico, Mexico, had gloves because the water is so polluted.
Everywhere, people said they wanted to do something because the oceans are dying.
Images of the shorebird or sea otter strangled by the plastic six-pack ring, or the sea turtle that choked after eating a plastic bag it thought was a jellyfish, are familiar to many people. But what many have not seen is far more chilling.
In the Pacific Ocean, just east of the Hawaiian Islands, lies the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. It is a place the size of Texas where currents of the world meet and form a lazy, whirling vortex. It is choked with acres and acres and acres of trash. And it is only one of about six such debris-clogged gyres.
Scientists are finding that the millions of pounds of plastic dumped into the ocean in the last half century do get smaller, small enough for zooplankton to eat and clog their digestive systems and even die. But biodegrade into something harmless? That may take thousands of years.
"The human impact to the ocean is not just along the edges but in the open ocean," said Raychelle Daniel, a conservation scientist at Ocean Conservancy, the organization that is the primary sponsor of the cleanup. "There is no ecosystem in the ocean, no species that is untouched by our activities."
At the cleanup last year, volunteers picked up 6 million pounds of trash, much of it plastic, and sent it to local landfills or recycling centers. In Washington, of the 2 1/2 tons of trash cleaned out of waterways, cigarette butts and filters alone accounted for 480 pounds.
In Nebraska, cleanup coordinator Jane Polson spent the day thinking about how her inland state has more miles of river than any other in the United States. All rivers lead to the ocean, she thought, and all the litter travels along with it.
On Kahala beach in Hawaii, Lori Arizumi surveyed the dismaying mound of plastic grocery bags at the high water mark and thought about how great it would be to ban them, like the island of Maui has agreed to do. No more plastic bags by 2010. "I think we need to do that," she said.
Across the globe in Iran, Bagherian, a scuba instructor, and 50 other volunteers picked up 400 pounds of trash on Kish Island. "In the Persian Gulf, we have so many big, big vessels, supertankers and cargo ships going through, and the sailors throw garbage into the sea," he said. "We're trying to get them to stop. But it's really hard."
By the end of the morning on the Anacostia, the tallies had grown on Dunnigan's garbage inventory. As director of the National Ocean Service for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he has seen the gyre of trash in the Pacific. He has seen mounds of old soccer balls, fishing nets, tennis shoes and Styrofoam cups, like the one he fished out of the Anacostia, washed onto Pacific coral reefs and piled 10 to 15 feet high.
"You have to believe that this is making a difference," Dunnigan said. "That's why you come out and do it."
In the river, just out of reach, a bright blue water bottle label slowly drifted by, making its way through the Chesapeake Bay, to the ocean.
Staff writer David Montgomery contributed to this report.