Why Beach Cleaning Does(n’t) Matter
Joe Labriola is a professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University in New York. His recent TEDx Talk, “Beach Cleaning to Make a Difference,” was released in May 2020.
As someone who’s cleaned a literal ton of beach trash over the past several years, let me tell you something about whether beach cleaning really matters. It does — and it doesn’t.
I’m not going to sit here and type about how if you just clean up your local beach that you’ll save the world. You won’t. In fact, perhaps the most reasonable reaction to someone telling you that you should beach clean remains the simple yet resounding rebuttal of “What difference does it make?”
It’s a good question because the answer is a complicated one. Like so many similar questions, the challenge becomes defining key terms — in this case, what do you mean by “difference” and “make”?
New beach cleaners often suffer from a phenomenon I dub “cleaner’s anxiety” — a sort of emotional dread that arises in many do-gooders’ psyche as they quickly realize on their first few beach clean outings that, not only won’t they have the time nor energy to pick up all the trash there is to collect, but they won’t even come close to collecting it all.
But should this realization really feel all that discouraging? This sudden awareness does indeed seem daunting — that no matter how much you clean, this same stretch of sandal-printed sand will be daily retrashed by a fresh tidal surge of plastic debris. And so we arrive back to our earlier question of “What difference does it make?”
Will your efforts be recognized? Will they help to save the world? Are you making a difference? In some ways, yes. You just can’t see it.
On the surface, progress can sometimes be difficult to gauge — especially the more complex the problem. But all that really means is that the problem needs addressing that much more desperately. No, your seasonal, or weekly, or even daily beach clean won’t make a dent in a fraction of a slice of a drop of the total amount of ocean plastic pollution plaguing our planet.
But it’s still something. And it’s sure as hell not nothing.
Remember that sea turtle straw video that kick-started a global anti-plastic straw campaign? If not, just google/youtube “crying turtle plastic straw nose” — or simply breathe for a moment as you let those words sink in.
Each piece of plastic you remove from a coastal environment is a potential marine creature’s life saved. Fishing lines and soda pack rings snag around seagulls’ feet. Microplastics clog the intestines of whales, dolphins, and countless other mammals and fish alike. The healthier these beings are, the healthier larger ecosystems become.
And regardless, they are each an individual life. They can’t thank you for beach cleaning, but they would if they could.
Of course, none of these points address the plastic elephant in the dump — the fact that extracting, refining, producing, packaging, transporting, and then leaving plastics to degrade for hundreds of years in giant mounds or holes isn’t great for the environment either. But it’s arguably slightly better, and that’s sure as hell better than nothing.
Ultimately we (and I say “we” very much as meaning all of us) need to come together to rethink single use plastics as we know them — to formulate alternatives at the highest levels of global government and transnational corporations.
All too often I am asked “Who are these horrible people tossing their trash at the beach?” Or I’m told “If only people picked up after themselves.” Sadly, while these questions and points are true to some extent, they’re only part of the issue. Some estimates peg the majority of ocean plastic pollution as coming from storm drains, waterways, and roadside runoff.
Deciding that this is a solvable issue if everyone just doesn’t leave their crap at the beach is not only incorrect — it’s detrimental to acknowledging the much more fundamental problems underlying this pandemic.
Admittedly, not all plastics are bad. You’ve probably heard the various clichés about how they make our modern world possible. And clichés exist because in some senses they are true. Such is the case with plastics. There are good reasons why they have become ubiquitous in our lives. But this over-reliance — packaged as a miracle for humanity’s common good, but in reality an oligarchical scheme for the sake of short-sighted profits — is utterly unsustainable and hugely detrimental to our collective well-being. But we have another choice: figure out how to live more harmoniously with plastics by respecting their relative merits, while also admitting that we’ve let this genie-out-of-the-bottle pollute amok for far too long.
Some of these solutions already exist — like our good ol’ friends: recycle, reduce, and reuse. But these steps alone can’t clean our way out our ocean plastic pollution problem — not even in a best case scenario. Ultimately, there are fundamental changes in processing, packaging, and industry that need to occur — again, some of which need further research, like biodegradable alternatives.
Oh yeah, have I mentioned that microplastics are in the air now too? This isn’t some crackpot QAnon conspiracy — but rather, recent research confirming what many scientists have suspected will happen as plastics continue to break down rather than degrade entirely (some bits may take hundreds of years to do so). In our air. In our water. In us all.
Taken together, in addition to constantly seeing newly trashed beaches, these harrowing facts can indeed discourage a would-be beach cleaner — which is why I say with all sincerity that beach cleaning does(n’t) matter. At least not on its own.
Again, the point is not to discourage you. On the contrary. You should recognize the vital work that you are doing for local habitats while acknowledging that there’s still much larger change to accomplish. These two notions are not mutually exclusive despite their seemingly paradoxical nature to each other.
If you need further encouragement, consider some other positive societal change of your choosing. It’s likely that whatever example you can think up resulted over a long period of struggle — not overnight. Many (if not most) who engage in such worthy causes never even live to see the change they seek. It’s not right. It’s not fair. But they fight all the same — and they help those who they can along the way.
We desperately need to keep learning, keep sharing, and keep fighting.
Each piece you bend down to pick up is indeed a pivotal step toward that world we need your help reaching. And in this way, each beach you clean very much does matter.