Ingredients for a great day: spectacular fall weather, a boat ride through Casco Bay, crashing surf, sunshine, yummy sandwiches, hot cider, homemade pies, good company, and 430 pounds of garbage. Garbage?? That’s right! On a late September weekend last fall, a group of 10 USM students, faculty, staff, and alumni spent the day picking up trash from the rocks and beaches of Long Island in Casco Bay. USM’s new Office of Environmental and Economic Sustainability sponsored the outing as part of International Coastweek Cleanup. This annual event, now in its seventeenth year, draws participants from around the world. In 2001, three quarters of a million people in 77 countries collected over 12 million pounds of garbage. Mainers contributed nearly 17,000 pounds to this total!

You may be surprised to find out what sorts of items were found in last year’s 12 million pounds. The most frequently reported item was cigarette butts (no big surprise if you’ve been to the beach lately). However, the nine next most frequently occurring items were all related to casual food and beverage consumption (i.e., food wrappers, bottles, straws, plastic cutlery, etc.). Our own little haul of 430 pounds largely confirmed this observation. It appears that careless littering by beachgoers and other recreational users may be a major culprit in the generation of garbage on the world’s beaches.

International Coastweek Cleanup is sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation of the world’s oceans and the creatures that live in them. Although the event is highly successful at removing garbage from the world’s shorelines, the Conservancy has a broader goal. Participants in the Cleanup are asked to keep careful records of every item they pick up. While this may seem like a lot of extra work, it allows the Conservancy to analyze the source of the debris and implement strategies to reduce pollution from these sources. Cleanup data sheets have been used by the Conservancy to successfully influence public policy and legislation on waste management issues.

If you’re heading into the sunshine for spring break, try taking food in reusable containers and avoid plastic bags, which have a tendency to run off on their own despite one’s best intentions.

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