Florida’s environmental disaster hits the beaches
By Cheryl Blackerby
Early on a beautiful Saturday morning, 59 people hit the beach at Ocean Inlet Park in Ocean Ridge, but this event, sponsored by the Sea Angels, was all business and not at all pleasurable.
With buckets and hand-held grabbers, they picked up debris, the vast majority of which was plastic.
After only two-and-half hours, they had collected a mound of plastic fishing line, nets, lures and bobbers, and had filled a 5-gallon container with plastic bottle caps; a bucket with Mylar balloons; and a 5-gallon jug with plastic straws. A 5-gallon container overflowed with cigarette butts, made of a plastic called cellulose acetate.
The trash also included 12- and 20-gauge shotgun shells, plastic containers from the Bahamas, a complete IV kit with syringe traced back to New Jersey and plastic medical waste from Haiti.
That trash haul was the tip of the iceberg of the ocean’s plastic garbage, which tumbles onto South Florida’s beaches with every wave.
A week later, the plastic trash was back. Even the Sea Angels’ organizers, Robin and Mike Halasz, agree it’s a futile effort.“The primary purpose of the clean-ups is to educate people,” said Mike Halasz. “We want people to see what’s being thrown into the ocean.”
The plastic debris is more than unsightly, it is killing birds, turtles, marine mammals and coral reefs.
Annual reaf cleanups sponsored by the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative and the state Department of Environmental Protection, reveal reefs choked with plastic bags and fishing nets, and coral slashed by fishing line and destroyed by larger plastic items such as lawn chairs and, ironically, plastic garbage bins.
In only 60 years since plastics have been mass-produced, it has caused incalculable damage:
• A state study, done 10 to 20 miles offshore from Palm Beach County, collected turtle post-hatchlings, and found 80 percent had plastic in their stomachs, said Dr. Kirt Rusenko, marine conservationist at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton. Plastic usually kills turtles if not treated. He showed a photo of a hatchling turtle 20 miles off the coast resting on sargassum inundated with plastic shards of bottles that once held cleaning fluid.
• In the world’s oceans, scientists estimate there are six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton, Rusenko said. Whales consume the plastic, lose weight and die. And scientists are worried about the toxins in plastic released as they break down in the food chain.
• Sea birds die after swallowing fishhooks and plastic monofilament fishing line. Dead pelicans hang in the mangroves on islands off Hypoluxo Island. Pelicans injured by plastic fishing line wrapped around wings and feet is a familiar problem for the South Florida Wildlife Center in Fort Lauderdale, says Sherry Schlueter, the center’s executive director.
• In the Pacific, scientists estimate about 50 percent of boobies and other seabirds die from plastic ingestion. “The parents collect plastic in the ocean and bring it back and feed it to the chicks. Probably the same thing is happening with seabirds here,” said Rusenko.
Varied sources of debris
Most commonly-used plastics, including so-called biodegradable bags, do not go away in the ocean and instead break down into smaller pieces called “microplastics,” less than 5mm long, according to a report released last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study. Experts speculate that the vast majority of plastics made in the last 60 years are still with us.
A state study showed 80 percent of the plastic in the Atlantic off the South Florida coast comes from inland sources via rivers and waterways; 20 percent from coastal cities, boats and other states and countries, according to NOAA. The sources of the garbage are individuals throwing it in the water, one soda bottle or cup at a time, and illegal trash dumping on a larger, institutional scale.
Debris gets pulled from the west through the gates of nine canals from Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade, especially after a lot of rain, said Randy Smith, spokesperson for South Florida Water Management District.
His office got numerous complaints in January and February from Boca Raton residents who saw piles of white plastic gallon-jugs, plastic lawn chairs and water bottles in the Hillsboro Canal. All of it ends up in the ocean.
The piles of plastic in the canal in February prompted Susan Whelchel, Boca’s mayor at the time, to write to Gov. Rick Scott for help.
“This situation has become critical,” she said. “The impacts to the water system, the disturbance to the environment, and the unsightly accumulations are not acceptable.”
But the district’s primary concern, said Smith, is that nothing interferes with the flow of water out, not how much plastic goes into the ocean.
Floating garbage patches
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous trash vortex about the size of Texas, is well-known, but the Atlantic Ocean, too, has a huge gyre that collects an unfathomable amount of plastic from the East Coast. Although its east-west span is unknown, the patch covers a huge region roughly between between Cuba and Virginia, according to National Geographic.
The Sea Education Association has been doing extensive research on the Atlantic Garbage Patch. Nearly 7,000 students from the SEA semester program have dragged nets through the Atlantic for more than 22 years and found plastic marine pollution similar to that in the Pacific.
The most common sources of plastic debris, according to NOAA are: Illegal dumping, accidental losses at sea, unsecured garbage bins, improper disposal, cumulative small-scale sources, carelessness, onshore industries, fishing, offshore oil and gas operations, recreational boaters, commercial vessels and event balloon releases.
“We’re kind of behind the game and need to catch up quickly,” said Lourdes Ferris, executive director of Keep Palm Beach County Beautiful, which sponsors coastal cleanups and recently drafted a position statement for the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs called “Reduce Marine Plastic Pollution.”
“More research from NOAA and the Ocean Conservancy is coming out and a lot of groups are concerned about the issue,” she said.
Plastics have a very short history; they’ve been mass-produced only since the 1940s and 1950s. Dow Chemical invented polystyrene in 1954, which is one of the most widely manufactured plastics in the world, used for building insulation, packaging, cups and Styrofoam take-out food containers.
Polystyrene does not biodegrade for hundreds of years, say experts, and is resistant to photolysis (chemical decomposition induced by light or other radiant energy). Scientists say the oceans are full of it.
What can we do about plastic pollution, an environmental disaster off Florida’s coast? Most experts say ban it. Miami Beach has banned Styrofoam containers and plastic straws at restaurants. California has banned plastic bags, which have a lifespan of centuries, according to NOAA.
More oversight and harsher penalties for illegal dumping and littering; and education about the harm of plastic garbage are other options. In the Pacific, scientists are considering harvesting plastic with big conveyer barges, but they can't do that in the Atlantic without scooping up sargassum and turtles.
Environmentalists say the answer is simple: Don’t throw plastic into drains and water; don’t use it, and don’t buy it.
COMING NEXT MONTH:
Plastics — The effect on Florida wildlife and what to do about it
according to NOAA:
Six-pack holder (plastic rings): 400 years
Plastic bottle: 450 years
Monofilament fishing line: 600 years
Cigarette butt: centuries
Plastic grocery bag: centuries
Mylar balloon: centuries
Fishing nets: decades to centuries
Styrofoam buoy: 80 years