Over the last few weeks, 382 volunteers proactively worked to remove 27,936 pieces of debris from the coastlines and waterways of the territory’s beaches. The cleanup was hosted by the V.I. Marine Advisory Service at the University of the Virgin Islands.
The Marine Advisory Service takes part in the yearly Coastweeks cleanup that is internationally coordinated by the Ocean Conservancy. The organization works with the Virgin Islands community to raise awareness about natural resources and to also foster environmental stewardship.
According to Howard Forbes Jr., coordinator of the Marine Advisory Service at the University of the Virgin Islands, Coastweeks mobilizes volunteers across the world to not only remove trash from our coastlines and waterways but also document what and how much trash is collected.
“This year, we had 382 volunteers across St. Thomas and St. Croix during this 6-week period, most of whom were high-school-aged students,” said Forbes.
“Coastweeks is a bittersweet time of year,” said Kristina Edwards. She is the outreach coordinator for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Coastal Zone Management and took part in the cleanups. “It’s wonderful to see the community and a wide range of organizations working together to improve our VI environment.”
The cleanups started on September 18 and continued until the end of October. Six beaches on St. Thomas and six beaches on St. Croix were cleaned.
Marcia Taylor, the Marine Advisory Service coordinator on St. Croix said that “Cleaning our beaches is always extremely important. We didn’t have as many cleanups as most years due to COVID, but I expect the number of volunteers will continue now that COVID cases are on the decline.”
The Marine Advisory Service tallied and categorized the data for the items collected. According to their findings, about 90 percent of marine debris comes from human activity. The 27,936 items of collected trash weighed 2,997 pounds. About 88 percent was food and beverage related (plastic cutlery, straws, plates, to-go containers, beverage bottles, and food wrappers). About 75 percent of all the trash removed was single-use plastic waste. The top 5 trash items removed were metal bottle caps (6,876 pieces), plastic bottle caps (3,916 pieces), cigarette butts (3,196 pieces), food wrappers (2,146 pieces), and plastic beverage bottles (2,077 pieces).
Of the single-use plastics, Forbes said that “These plastics never fully go away. They break up into smaller fragments called microplastics which have negative consequences just as a plastic bag does for wildlife for example.”
He also said that while single-use plastic bags and straws are often seen littered in the community, they are rarely among the top five items removed during cleanup efforts, and suggests that consumers utilize reusable options as an alternative to plastic packaging.
“A majority of the trash removed during cleanups consist of smaller items like bottle caps and cigarette butts though on occasion we have found larger items like appliances and construction materials. While they may seem small, every piece, no matter the size, should be removed as they too pose risks to our wildlife, habitats, and human health,” said Forbes.
Of the debris, 988 glass beverage bottles were collected and recycled, being turned into sand for sandbag use.
“Supporting existing recycling efforts is great, but be mindful of plastics labeled as compostable as they are actually only compostable under the right conditions, which our landfills do not meet. In this sense, these compostable plastics, bioplastics, are not much different than petroleum-based plastics,” Forbes said. “The biggest misconception with recycling is that most people assume that once you put something in the blue bin with the recycling logo, that it automatically gets recycled and this often times is not the case.”
According to Forbes, only 9 percent of plastics created have been recycled, due to some plastics being more difficult to process than others. Resin identification codes on consumer goods can be used to help consumers know what types of plastics were used to manufacture that product. Resin identification codes one and two are usually accepted at most recycling programs but three to seven are usually not accepted and can sometimes be shipped outside of the U.S. for processing.
Forbes also wants to share three key tips people can practice to reduce beach litter. They include:
- Disposing of that trash into the proper waste receptacle.
- Finding a nearby receptacle to use if the bin(s) on the beach is full.
- Walking with trash bags to dispose of waste properly.
Edwards said that, “It’s time we think proactively and stop using these toxic products that are harming our health. After over 15 years of leading cleanups in the territory I’m getting really tired of picking up the same single-use plastic items at every event. We have to refuse, reduce, and reuse to keep our Virgin Islands clean and healthy.”
Officials with the Marine Advisory Service expressed thanks to the University of the Virgin Islands, Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, Cleanup VI, Blue Flag / Virgin Islands Conservation Society, Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, St. Croix Sea Turtle Project, the environmental club of the Good Hope Country Day School, St. Croix Educational Complex, and the St. Croix Environmental Association for supporting this year’s cleanup efforts.