Often, we notice the symptoms before we know the cause of a particular problem. After spending some time with Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary as an intern, I have observed this situation with marine debris: people stick to cleaning the beaches when a significant source of the problem comes from land-derived trash. Instead, we should both treat the symptoms and search for answers to the root problem. Roads that are plagued with garbage bags and yesterday’s water bottles are more than just unsightly eyesores for the public, but also potential threats to the marine ecosystem.
Roadside trash does little direct harm to the marine environment until it washes into storm drains and makes its way to the ocean by way of a watershed. A watershed is a region that is drained by a river, river system, or other body of water that eventually flows into the ocean. Thus, when trash is left on the street it can make its way into the marine environment, where real damage can be done.
Marine life is threatened by garbage in numerous ways, especially by plastics. Animals may become tangled in or smothered by debris. Indigestible plastic can be mistaken for food and build up in an animal's stomach until it can eat nothing else and will starve to death. Also, the way plastic photodegrades presents problems to ocean life. Unlike paper, which biodegrades relatively quickly, plastic is broken up by sunlight into minuscule pieces. An accumulation of toxins can result from the repeated intake of these lethal pieces of plastic and is concentrated in animals further up the food chain, harming many different forms of sea life and even causing human health problems.
Stopping plastic and other garbage from entering the water is vital for the health of the ocean and everything living in and on it. Although you might not see the ocean from a roadside, picking up trash anywhere could ultimately improve the quality of ocean waters. Picking up the beach is truly child’s play, for children do it. Just by bringing a garbage bag and cleaning up trash you could save a life, or at the very least, improve the scenery. You could also participate with an organized group to remove litter.
Recently, I volunteered for the Washington Coast Cleanup, where I informed other volunteers how to reduce, reuse, and recycle as another facet of the big picture of ocean health. Small changes in lifestyle such as choosing reusable instead of plastic bags at the store and having a waste-free lunch http://www.epa.gov/osw/education/lunch.htm are two easy things you can do to reduce the amount of garbage out there. If you'd like to volunteer for the Washington CoastSavers Program, visit http://www.coastsavers.org/volunteer.html.