I found this to be a simple experience, but a profound one. It was a straightforward exercise in observation and action. I spent several hours scanning the sand for garbage, debris and bits of plastic, picking them up, and putting them in a collection bag. However, the repetitive nature of this work led me into a kind of collection-trance, interrupted only by a strong gust of wind or a shout from one of my friends when it was time to head home.
Renowned marine biologist Rachel Carson once described the edge of the sea as "a strange and beautiful place;" it's an "area of unrest" where "the forces of evolution are at work." At times the sea is expansive, serene; other times, it is turbulent and thrashing. I’m drawn there because of this, and also because the waves, the sky, the sand dunes and possibilities for discovery are endless. The margin of understanding is ever-widening and welcoming.
Here are some of the photos from last November. About fifteen people picked up thousands of pieces of trash, most of it plastic:
Here’s the thing: at first glance, the beach seems clean. Pristine even. Strong gusts of wind leave winding ripples in the sand. The ebb tide groups shimmering clam shells and small, ocean-glazed pebbles in delicate piles close to the water. The seagulls rest in groups, snuggling their beaks into tufts of feathers and flesh, bracing themselves against the occasional headwind.
At second glance, garbage lies festering in all corners and crevises. I walked around a half-mile area of beach, and in just two hours, I picked up the following, a collection that I estimate weighed 20 pounds:
14 plastic bags
10 bottle caps
8 tampon applicators
8 plastic snack food wrappers
5 glass beer bottles
4 plastic bottles
4 pill bottles
3 twist-off beer caps
2 plastic toys
2 pairs of flip-flops
2 cigarette boxes
2 Styrofoam cups
1 empty cap-gun round
1 twist-off metal soda bottle cap
1 four-inch piece of plastic fishing bait with a rusty, large, four-pronged hook
47 pieces of unidentified, small bits of plastic that chipped off of larger plastic products.
What I found, but couldn’t pick up:
20 feet of yellow, plastic rope. (It was near a metal fence bordering a construction site. I dug it up and hastily threw it over the fence, under the semi-delusion that the construction workers who (might) return on Monday will find it and discard it.)
10 pieces of treated wood planks, many with protruding rusty nails
I expected to feel disappointed (in human beings, mostly; how can we let our beaches get this polluted and trashed?). I also felt angry and empowered, which I anticipated. What I didn’t expect to feel was helpless, mostly because I didn’t know what to do with the trash I collected. I didn't plan this part of the process. After I analyzed the pieces of trash, I tossed the collection in a trash can on the boardwalk. I did this figuring that the state of this garbage contained in a bin was better than it blowing around on the beach. However, I wasn’t especially convinced that it would be disposed of properly.
This left me wondering: Where does this trash go?
As I was walking back to the subway, I felt chilly. I had a (rather impulsive) thought to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and buy myself a tea to take on the train. Once I was aware of this thought, I stopped walking. Dunkin’ would serve the tea in one of the plastic cups that I just picked up on the beach: a disposable, flimsy, one-time use cup that would never compost or be recycled.
Instead, I sat on the subway sipping the water I brought in my canteen, feeling as nourished as I did confused. I realized that I contribute to this broken system so automatically. My complicity actually feels endemic and—dare I say—privileged. It is a privilege to be able to afford tea from Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts—and I bask in that privilege. Also, this sense of privilege often replaces the personal responsibility I felt when I realized that the cup containing my tea might end up buried in the sand or floating in the surf. Privilege feels nice; obligation doesn't. I know we can do better, but I don’t know how.
This is the only photo I took on Sunday. I captured it in a moment of post-pickup peace and tranquility: