ROCKAWAY, New York — Nearly 2,000 volunteers walked the shoreline of Rockaway Beach in the Queens borough of New York City on Sunday and waded through bushes, beyond fences, and under piers with gloves and burlap sacks. They were hunting for bits of plastic as part of a massive beach clean-up effort coordinated by the marine conservation company 4ocean and Global Citizen in honor of World Oceans Day.
Grime-smeared fast food wrappers, bits of styrofoam, juice containers, bubble wands, housing insulation, and countless other types of plastic waste piled up on the sidewalk as people dropped off the litter they found.
As the morning wore on, a mountain of dirty trash accumulated. 4ocean volunteers and employees sifted through the trash and separated it into large blue bins for proper disposal. Some of the waste collected at other 4ocean events is made into bracelets that are sold to fund future clean-up efforts, but this time the garbage was taken to municipal recycling centers.
By the day's end, volunteers collected 3,119 plastic bags, 1,345 plastic bottles, 1,040 plastic straws, 626 styrofoam pieces, 4,695 cigarette butts, and much more.
Michelle Gunn, a local resident of the Rockaways, was spotted hauling a cushion from a beach chair along with a sack filled with garbage. She said that the cushion was stranded on the beach, likely blown out of somebody’s yard by the wind, and would have probably ended up in the ocean. She added that the massive garbage patches that have formed in the world’s oceans show how everyday litter has spiraled out of control.
“We live here, the beach is our backyard, and the amount of trash we see is astounding,” she said. “A lot of locals come out to clean garbage every day and bring back four bags per day.”
Because so many locals are invested in the beach’s health, it wasn’t covered in garbage on the day of the clean-up. Even still, volunteers found lots of plastic that blew onto the beach or had been hidden in hard-to-reach areas.
“This is a huge issue for the world because it impacts all the creatures that live in the ocean — whales, dolphins, sharks,” Gunn added.
Other volunteers said they were moved to action because of news stories of marine animals harmed by plastic pollution and have made efforts to cut down their ecological footprints as a result.
Ravina of Queens, New York, said she has two reusable water bottles, one for home and one for work, and brings reusable utensils with her to cut down on her single-use plastic consumption. She said that while one person can’t make much of a difference on their own, people-powered movements made up of thousands and even millions of individuals have the potential to change the world. That’s why she was so excited to take part in the Rockaway Beach clean-up.
“I’m from the Caribbean and when I visited last July I saw the scale of the plastic issue,” she said. “It’s not just the Caribbean — it’s across the globe.
“When I see animals in despair, it hurts me — you know it’s not them creating the waste,” she added. “We only have one Earth and it’s rapidly declining.”
Guam and Ilona, also from Queens, said they had recently been to two museums dedicated to plastic pollution and learned about the many ways it affects the environment.
“It’s important to us because we understand that nature doesn’t need us, we need it, and destroying it will affect future generations," Guam said.
Most of the people attending the clean-up were affiliated either with 4ocean or Global Citizen, but some people were at the beach anyway and decided to pitch in because they believed in the cause.
Jeannette and Ronnie from Queens were there to surf, but they grabbed a burlap sack to pick up some litter. They had both seen how plastic pollution makes its way into the ocean while out surfing.
“You’ll see plastic bags floating in the [surf] line-up with you and it’s gross,” Jeannette said. “I’ll see a plastic bag in the line-up and think it’s a dolphin and be like, wow, it’s just plastic.”
“There’s nothing more important than the water,” Ronnie added. “We have to keep the ocean clean.”
All around the world, people have organized beach clean-up events in recent years to stem the flow of plastic into marine environments.
Volunteers led by the environmentalist Afroz Shah cleaned up 11,684,500 pounds of litter from Versova Beach in Mumbai three years ago. Not long after, baby turtles returned to the beach after it was cleared of obstacles.
More than 45,000 people attended beach-cleaning efforts throughout Norway during last year’s World Ocean Day. Leading up to the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 in Johannesburg last year, thousands of Global Citizens participated in local clean-up efforts. Earlier this year, a college student traveled to Miami during spring break and decided to clean up plastic rather than party. James Wakibia, an environmental activist in Kenya, got his government to ban different types of plastic after he became fed up with plastic litter in local bodies of water.
Collectively, these efforts are helping to turn the tide on plastic pollution, which has reached crisis levels in various marine and land habitats. More than 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, primarily carried by 10 rivers in countries with lax waste management laws. Marine animals as diverse as whales, turtles, krill, and coral have been killed and injured by this pollution.
While beach clean-up efforts can’t capture every piece of plastic before it enters the oceans, they play a vital role in raising awareness of the problem.
People-led movements like the Rockaway initiative have spurred systemic change in the ways plastic is produced, consumed, and managed, and have motivated governments to take sweeping action.
The United Nations recently enacted a rule to clean up ocean plastic waste, the European Union has banned various types of single-use plastic, and more than 60 nations have taken action to curb plastic waste.
Danielle from Long Island, who was at the beach clean-up, knows first-hand the impact individuals can have on larger systems.
“I went on a cruise ship once and they had their own plastic cups with logos,” she said. “When I went snorkeling, I saw a ton of cups on the bottom of the ocean and I wrote a letter to the company afterwards, and the next year it was cleaned up.”
This article has been updated on June 11 to include figures collected by 4ocean.