Plastic. Everywhere. Big pieces. Little pieces. Crumbling pieces. Every color. Every shape. Impossible to get all of it. PLASTIC is the word that stays with me when I think back to our Cozumel Beach Clean-Up event. After much planning (read about that process here and here) and the exciting addition of new partners and sponsors, 12 of us set out on January 21st of 2012 to find a beautiful beach in need of some love and to clean up all the junk.
Before I tell you why this event was both heart warming and heart breaking all at the same time, and the numerous light bulb moments I was wholly unprepared for, I’d like to throw a little praise at our sponsors, partners, and participants.
Atkins Scuba – Kari & Matthew couldn’t have been more supportive of this clean up idea and without their encouragement, support, and excellent organizational skills the event never would have happened. They arranged for the resort’s participation, got Chac-Choc Tours on board, coordinated efforts with a local clean-up group, supplied refreshments and garbage bags and were the voice of the event in Cozumel while I was off gallivanting in the Cayman Islands. Thank you for being so completely awesome!
Blue Angel Resort & Scuba School – Resort owner Eva stepped up in a big way and not only joined in our clean-up efforts but also brought with her some delicious quesadillas with fresh guacamole and pico de gallo. After spending a few hours collecting garbage under the hot sun those snacks were much appreciated. Eva also helped out with transportation to and from the beach. You rock!
Oceansports – My local dive shop here in Edmonton blew me away by offering to sponsor the event. Their donation bought us mesh bags that we used for underwater clean up throughout our week of diving and those bags will now live at the Blue Angel to be used all year long. Best. Dive shop. Ever.
Chac-Choc Tours – This local tour company volunteered to provide transportation to and from the beach. That alone would have been awesome, but then Juan also brought with him refreshments and was a total cleaning MACHINE on the beach, so inspiring to watch him in action! I like to think of him as our secret weapon.
The Participants – In addition to Warren and I, Kari, Eva, and Juan, we were joined by Stephanie, Debbie, and Shannon from the Edmonton crew, another guest of the Blue Angel Resort, 2 locals, and a volunteer from the Humane Society visiting from Norway. Everyone worked hard, had fun, and really understood why the clean-up was so important. What an awesome bunch of people!
After introductions in the hotel lobby we all piled into the waiting trucks and headed for the east end of the island. We stopped on a gorgeous stretch of beach and trekked down from the road all gung-ho and ready to leave the place sparkling…at least, that was my expectation. I expected to find garbage originating mostly from Cozumel itself, with the occasional flotsam drifted from elsewhere. I expected to find intact garbage, easily removable. I expected mostly beer cans and food containers, remnants of parties and picnics. I was in for quite the surprise.
What we found instead was evidence of just how huge the marine debris problem is. Irrefutable proof that our consumer culture is clogging up our oceans. Almost all of the trash on the beach was clearly washed up from elsewhere. I was shocked not only at the amount of it, but at the variety. Toothbrushes. Motor oil cans. Shoes. Children’s toys. Pens. More straws and plastic cutlery than I imagined possible. Computer monitors, Styrofoam containers, beverage bottles, syringes, pails. Even a vial of blood, the kind I collect at work all the time. All in about 1 kilometer of beach.
We spread out with bags, each tackling different sections. In no time at all the full bags were piling up. Cleaning that beach became a solitary activity, each of us bent to our task and lost in our thoughts. Wondering how it could really be THIS bad. I was totally caught up in figuring out how I could use less plastic, less STUFF, in my own life. And then I was caught up with the awful realization that much of my own garbage has probably ended up on another beach, in another country, or floating at sea waiting for the currents to push it ashore somewhere. That could be my last toothbrush there, or my discarded flip flop. That might be the bottle cap from the last Coke I drank. How can I be sure that everything I toss into a garbage bag or bin in my every day life actually stays there? Bags rip, bins get knocked over. Trash gets swept away by the wind, its next stop the sea. I was horrified.
I also learned that plastic breaks up, but it doesn’t break down. For every piece of plastic I picked up there was another one that crumbled when I touched it, littering the beach with dozens of smaller pieces impossible to collect. It was distressing. Here I was trying to rid the beach of this junk and instead I was making it harder to remove! Then I wondered how many of what I thought were grains of sand were actually plastic particles, so small we can’t even tell the difference. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists today. It’ll get smaller and smaller and smaller but it’ll never go away. We’re eating our own plastic now… these tiny particles are ending up in the food chain, accidentally swallowed by sea animals and birds because they’re too miniscule to avoid.
That was the heart breaking part. The heart warming part was the people – 12 amazing people who took a whole afternoon out of their vacations or daily lives to help be part of the solution. Everyone worked tirelessly, without complaint, and when we were done (because we ran out of garbage bags, not because the beach was spotless) we all shared in a wonderful sense of accomplishment. I was proud to call these people my friends, proud that we’d done this great thing together. Seeing what just 12 people could do in 2 hours time restored my flagging faith in humanity – we collected 34 large garbage bags of trash and many miscellaneous other pieces too big to be bagged. Imagine what we could do if we started addressing the source of the problem instead of just its symptoms!
Overall the clean up event was a huge success – so much so that the Blue Angel Scuba School is hosting another one in February! There are so many amazing groups out there organizing clean-up events in YOUR local community, all you have to do is look. If you’d like to organize one of your own, I highly recommend asking local businesses and organizations to be involved. You might be surprised at who jumps at the chance, I know I was! Also…bring WAY MORE garbage bags than you think you’ll actually need!
Lastly, here’s a great little video on plastic. What struck me was the fact that every single piece of plastic ever made still exists today. Why are we wasting this incredible product that’s designed to last forever on manufacturing items that are thrown away within minutes?!? Until we get that brain teaser sorted out lets all USE LESS PLASTIC!