Exploring Plastic Pollution Solutions on St. Croix

Plastic Pollution Coalition joined organizations including NOAA, Pew Charitable Trusts, PangeaSeed, Oceana, DPNR, University of Florida, University of the Virgin Islands, Big Blue and You, The Last Plastic Straw, and more over the past week for events focused on creating and maintaining an environmentally sustainable future for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Events included public art, the creation of public murals, panel discussions, a screening of Straws film, and the ‘Sea Walls St. Croix Environmental Symposium’ which were held at the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts on Dec. 15.

Danni Washington of Big Blue & You and her crew lead the New Wave After School Art & Stem Program for local students throughout the week.

For the public art project Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans by PangeaSeed Foundation, PangeaSeed collaborates with renowned contemporary artists to create large-scale public murals that address pressing environmental issues the oceans are facing.

The panel: ‘Organizing for Change through Public Art and Beyond’ featured Melody Rames, Public Affairs Officer VI Waste Management Authority; Tre’ Packard, PangeaSeed; La Vaughn Belle, Artist; Paulita Bennet Martin, Oceana; and Dianna Cohen, Plastic Pollution Coalition, with moderator Peter Tewinkle. The panel ‘Plastic Pollution Solutions’ included: Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw and Program Manager at Plastic Pollution Coalition; Howard Forbes, University of the Virgin Islands/ Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service; and Jennifer Valiulis, St. Croix Environmental Association.

Events were organized by Virginia Clairmont, Founder, Clean Sweep Frederiksted and Project Director, Sea Walls St.Croix.

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Hawaii’s Plastic Beach

By Hannah Testa, age 16, founder of Hannah4Change

The first time I saw the beach, I was enchanted.  I was resting on a beach in Florida and ran my hands through the sand, saying “beach” for the first time.  I splashed in the waves with my dad and said hello to the tiny fish jumping out of the water.  It was right at that moment that I fell in love with the ocean and all of the life that it supports.  However, that beautiful beach I visited as a toddler might not exist by the time I’m a mother.  

Recently, I was visiting Hawaii at Kahuku Beach in Oahu and was shocked at how much plastic washed up along the shoreline there.

Joining my dear friend, Robbie Bond, age 11 and founder of Kids Speak for Parks, and also the hardworking organization called Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, we cleaned up about a half-mile stretch of beach in about 2 hours.  Us kids used handmade screens to filter out the sand and retain plastic particles while other volunteers picked up the larger pieces with their hands.  We collected about 500 pounds of plastic in a short period of time!

What is most sad is that this beach is cleaned often by volunteers, and yet we know the plastic is expected to return.  On one hand, cleaning up the beach seemed frustrating because we know unless we tackle the source of the problem and turn off the tap, plastic will wash ashore again.  But on the other hand, we can’t just leave the plastic there either!

What did we find?  The most common items we saw today were bottle caps, pieces of fishing nets, and toothbrushes.  There were also a lot of unrecognizable plastics.  One of the interesting things I picked up was the bottom of a plastic bottle that had dozens of little bite marks taken from it.  It was apparent that fish were eating from this plastic bottle!  I’m glad I am vegan and no longer eat fish!

In fact, we saw four large sea turtles resting on the beach.  One of them was resting on a big piece of plastic trash.  It illustrated for me that plastics are a common threat to animal species in our oceans.

What didn’t we see?  We didn’t see anything that wasn’t made of plastic because any biodegradeable products had already broken down. The problem with plastic is that it isn’t biodegradable, meaning it can’t be broken down into organic compounds. Instead, it breaks up into small, toxic microplastics that are eaten by fish.

Our dependence on plastic products needs to end if we want to protect our oceans and our beautiful beaches. We all need to see what we can do as citizens and consumers to reduce our plastic consumption, to recycle properly, and to voice our concerns loudly to politicians and business leaders about this growing environmental crisis.

No matter where we live, the health of the ocean affects all of us. By taking the steps to curb our plastic consumption and “turn off the tap,” we can help ensure that future toddlers will have an ocean to fall in love with.

Hannah Testa is a sustainability advocate, international speaker, and founder of Hannah4Change, an organization dedicated to fighting issues that impact the planet. Hannah4Change is a project of Plastic Pollution Coalition.

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Take the pledge! Refuse single-use plastic.

By Dianna Cohen, CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition

We recently returned from the beautiful island country of Palau, located in the western Pacific Ocean, where Plastic Pollution Coalition co-hosted an expedition with Oceanic Society, Drifters Project, and Heirs to Our Oceans with support from Mission Blue, to work together with local Palauans to explore potential solutions to plastic pollution.

The Plastic Pollution Forum, hosted by Heirs to Our Oceans, was held at the end of the week, where representatives from three local high schools came together with visiting Heirs from the U.S., business leaders, educators, and elected officials to brainstorm solutions. Dr. Sylvia Earle was a special guest speaker at the Youth Forum and spoke to the great beauty of Palau as a mighty island country in the vast blue still unexplored Pacific Ocean.

The students were able to set some benchmarks for ways to reduce plastic pollution that they want to see come to fruition within the next year. One idea was to take a look at each of their own school’s plastic footprint and ways to reduce it.

Palau has a long history of advocating for the environment. The Rock Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Marine Protected Area, and the country banned single-use plastic bags last year. Over the summer, Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau signed an executive order banning single-use plastics from all government offices and agencies. In early November, Palau became the first country to ban harmful sunscreens that are toxic to coral reefs.

“Palau was surprisingly clear of plastic in the water—nothing like the amounts we saw and removed in Indonesia in 2016,” said Pamela Longobardi of Drifters Project and a PPC Support Artist Ally. “Several reasons could account for this: it’s a much smaller island chain, and Palau has made immense conservation steps in creating the vast marine sanctuary around it, which in turn has perhaps made the population more environmentally conscious.”

As part of the expedition, our groups participated in a beach cleanup and brand audit hosted by Heirs to Our Oceans with local Palauan students and business leaders. A fascinating find, in addition to the 77 single-use plastic cups labeled Aqua by Danone, was an old Coca-Cola bottle cap extolling it’s “quality product.” (Coca-cola was the number one plastic polluting company identified in the recent #breakfreefromplastic global cleanup and brand audit.)

As Pam noted, we found most of the plastic pollution in the forested shores and mangroves of the islands, which unfortunately makes it less visible and therefore less likely to be cleared.  

“The brand audit showed identifiable names on the items,” said Wayne Sentman of Oceanic Society. “It was also interesting to see that one of the items we frequently see in Indonesia beach clean ups—single-use servings of water labeled Aqua and produced by Danone were also abundant on the beaches of Palau. We wonder if this plastic has a local source or has washed up in Palau from Indonesia.”

Pam led a “forensic beach cleaning” training with the group, which was followed by plastic retrieval of material from hundred-meter ropes and nets down to micro-scale plastic, then sorting, counting, removing colored material for the creation of the art piece, and finally loading the bags onto the boats for transport.

“One of the most meaningful parts of the trip for me was working with the Palauan Heirs and citizens on a new version of the State of Koror flag made out of ocean plastic collected in a mass beach cleaning on a remote island,” said Pam. “We worked in the Public Works woodshop where dozens of kids from local high schools, park rangers, public works employees, local artists, and expedition guests all stopped by to contribute to its construction. The completed work was presented at the Plastic Pollution forum in the State House of Koror, where it will be permanently displayed. For me, it signified Palau’s commitment to becoming a Plastic Free Island. It was also shown to the President of Palau and the UN Ambassador of Palau, who were both very excited by the work.”

Wayne was similarly encouraged by the community and Palauan Heirs to Our Oceans members. “Over our time there it became obvious to us all that many of the young woman and men we worked with and got to know are destined to become leaders in their community. As a group, they were already organizing successful efforts to reduce single-use plastics in local stores and schools, and in general promoting awareness about the importance of protecting their marine environment.”

In addition to being inspired by the youth, we appreciated the opportunity to speak with the President Remengesau and his ministers about the plastic pollution reduction achievements the country has made so far and to brainstorm ideas together as Palau prepares to host the Our Ocean conference 2020.

We commend the Palauan government, the local Heirs, and business and community leaders and members for their great work and commitment to protect their environment, and we look forward to continued partnership toward a world free of plastic pollution.

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Photo by Ian Shive of a dolphin off the coast of Midway Atoll

By Torben Lonne

Scuba diving has an amazing way of hooking you from the first moment you jump in the water. Scuba diving allows you to be a visitor to world that is full of mystery, beauty, and colors like you have never seen before. 

In the past decade, scuba diving has changed dramatically. There used to be a time when divers could travel to pretty much any location around the world and be met with stunning underwater scenery, rich, diverse marine life, and crystal clear waters. Unfortunately, pollution has bought our oceans to a critical state.

In the Pacific Ocean, there is a tiny island that is as remote as tiny islands can get called the Midway Atoll. I spent 3 weeks diving within the waters surrounding Midway Atoll to see just how far out plastic pollution has penetrated our oceans.

On my very first dive, we approached a stunningly beautiful, untouched coral reef that can only be described as ‘awe-inspiring.’ With a quick glance around the reef, I was happy to see little to no trash at all, that was until the surrounding currents changed.

Within seconds this idyllic location turned into what can only be described as a cesspit of plastic and trash. Straws, bags, and tin cans drifted in front of us and flooded the reef. Observing the fish pecking away at the free-floating straws pushed me to become an advocate for the ocean. I now strive to ensure that we build a sustainable, plastic-free future for not only us, but also our children.

Did you know that more than 8 million tons of plastic and waste enter the ocean every single year? This amount is growing rapidly due to our consumer lifestyle. Companies are producing too much plastic. Recycling rates are down, and the vast majority of plastic ends up in our environment (whether landfill or waterways and the ocean).

Plastic bags can look remarkably like jellyfish to turtles, which are a viable food source. Sadly, turtles consume plastic, which cause blockages within their digestive tracts, which can cause a slow and very painful end. The impact that ocean pollution is having on marine life is staggering: fatalities as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement.

If you would like to make a difference in the world, here’s what you can do:

REFUSE

Refuse single-use plastics whenever possible. To start, bring your own water bottle and shopping bag with you.

Limit Your Takeaways

Takeaways are often packaged in copious amounts of plastic, which will likely not be recycled. If you do plan to get a takeaway, make sure to go and collect it with your own reusable containers.  

Recycle

Recycle everything you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse. Check with your local services to see what is accepted. 

Join A Beach Clean Up

If you find yourself walking down the beach and see plastic, make sure to pick it up and bin it appropriately.

Become An Ocean Advocate

Tell your friends and family about the epidemic that is ocean pollution. Once people begin to see how devastating the effects of ocean pollution are, then they will start to make changes to their lifestyles.

Torben Lonne shares his expertise on DIVE.in for all passionate about diving. He’s also an avid ocean advocate and tries to educate people about the damage plastic pollution does to our ocean and the world as a whole.

Researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science
and Technology
(SOEST) discovered that several greenhouse gases are emitted as common
plastics degrade in the environment.

Mass production of plastics started nearly 70 years ago and the production rate is expected to double over the next two decades. While serving many applications because of their durability, stability and low cost, plastics have deleterious effects on the environment. Plastic is known to release a variety of chemicals during degradation, which has a negative impact on organisms and ecosystems.

The study, published yesterday in PLOS ONE, reports the unexpected discovery of the universal production of greenhouse gases methane and ethylene by the most common plastics when exposed to sunlight. The science team tested polycarbonate, acrylic, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, high-density polyethylene and low-density polyethylene (LDPE)—materials used to make food storage, textiles, construction materials, and various plastic goods.

Polyethylene, used in shopping bags, is the most produced and discarded synthetic polymer globally and was found to be the most prolific emitter of both gases.

Additionally, the team found that the emission rate of the gases from virgin pellets of LDPE
increased during a 212-day experiment and that LDPE debris found in the ocean also emitted greenhouse gases when exposed to sunlight. Once initiated by solar radiation, the emission of these gases continued in the dark.

“We attribute the increased emission of greenhouse gases with time from the virgin pellets to photo-degradation of the plastic, as well as the formation of a surface layer marked with fractures, micro-cracks and pits,” said lead author Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a post-doctoral scholar in the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) at the time of this investigation. “With time, these defects increase the surface area available for further photo-chemical degradation and therefore contribute to an acceleration of the rate of gas production.”

It is also known that smaller particles, termed ‘microplastics,’ are eventually produced in the environment and may further accelerate gas production.

“Plastic represents a source of climate-relevant trace gases that is expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulated in the environment,” said David Karl, senior author on the study and SOEST professor with C-MORE. “This source is not yet budgeted for when assessing global methane and ethylene cycles, and may be significant.”

Greenhouse gases directly influence climate change—affecting sea level, global temperatures, ecosystem health on land and in the ocean, and storms, which increase flooding, drought, and erosion.

“Considering the amounts of plastic washing ashore on our coastlines and the amount of plastic exposed to ambient conditions, our finding provides further evidence that we need to stop plastic production at the source, especially single use plastic,” said Royer.

Now, Royer is working to develop estimates of the amount of plastic exposed to the environment in oceanic and terrestrial regions, globally, in order to constrain the overall greenhouse gas emissions from plastics.

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By Tara Bennett-Goleman

The seagull had a piece of white Styrofoam in its beak, and I wondered how to help. If I walked toward it, the seagull would be afraid and maybe fly off. And I didn’t have food to offer instead. My heart sank.

My friend and I had come to a peninsula jutting into the middle of the Hudson river to join a river sweep. We were equipped with rubber gloves and trash bags. Most of the debris we found was plastic and Styrofoam – items that will never decompose back into nature.

Then I noticed that lone seagull walking toward me, innocently looking like he wanted to put the Styrofoam he was clutching in his beak into my bag. I assumed he would eventually swallow it, thinking it was food. To this day I wish I could have taken that bit of petrochemical debris from that friendly seagull. But I’ll never know what happened – that seagull flew off with the Styrofoam.

My failed attempt to help has been a motivator for me to do what I can to help protect nature’s creatures. That encounter was a microcosm of the ways innocent wildlife, and the entire natural world, suffers because of manmade materials like Styrofoam that interfere with the planet’s ecology.

In Martha’s Vineyard, fishermen Stan Larsen and Erik DeWitt are concerned about the plastic pollution – straws, bags, balloons — tangled in seaweed that they collect when they go out fishing.

Melissa Knowles, who teaches art to kids on the Vineyard told me when she asked her summer students what they wanted to work on, they said “plastic pollution.” So I introduced Melissa to the fishermen, so they can give the plastic they collect out at sea to the kids in her art group, to make art out of plastic – a statement in art.

A lawyer friend offered to get permission for the kids to make their art-from-plastics in the parking slots next to the Harbormaster in Menemsha. This unexpected set of coincidences testifies to the power of community and collaboration of people who join forces to help in a larger mission.

I used to assume the Vineyard was pristine, but now I know about the plastics floating offshore that harm sea life. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s an epidemic locally and globally.

Mr. Rogers said, “As a kid when I would watch scary items in the news and get upset my mother would tell me, ‘Look for the helpers. There will always be people wanting to help.'” It’s been inspiring to see how when you look for the helpers, they are there, ready to take action.

Weather permitting, you can watch Melissa’s students at work on their art projects from 11 am on this Saturday at the Menemsha pier, right next to the Harbormaster’s shed on Martha’s Vineyard.

And you are invited to a gathering August 14, 5:30-7:30 pm, at Bad Martha’s in Edgartown, Massachusetts. Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen will speak on PPC’s Plastic Free Islands program and what might happen next here on the Vineyard.

The kids’ artwork will be displayed at the event and Melissa will give a recap of the project. The fishermen offered to talk about what they find out at sea. And we’re hoping island environmentalists will also be there and share what they have been doing – and hope to do in the future. 

Tara Bennett-Goleman is a teacher, psychotherapist, and author of ‘Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind can heal the Heart’ Learn more.

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