Sum of a Beach

The next time you go walking on one of South Florida's lovely beaches, your shadow shying from the neon-peach of the sunset, the shrills of gulls filling the dusk, twist your toes in the sand and take a deep breath of salt air. Then continue your walk, marveling at the seashells, the seaweed, the car tires, and the light bulbs.

Car tires? Sure 'nuff. Light bulbs? You bet. Two hundred years ago, you might have managed to skip across the sand and find only natural bounty, but then came the Industrial Revolution, pollution, and manufacturing. Now all sorts of things manage to reach the beach. This Saturday, beachcombers will stream out onto the late-summer sand, collection bags in hand, and attempt to pick the nits out of the hundred-plus miles of Dade coastline. Most of the county's beaches are slated for cleanings, from Bear Cut to Matheson Hammock, from Crandon Park to Haulover Park to the Oleta River State Recreation Area. But Saturday's effort -- which will run from 9:00 a.m. to noon -- isn't limited to Dade, or even to Florida. Under the direction of the Center for Marine Conservation in St. Petersburg, more than 100,000 volunteers nationwide will participate in coastal cleanups.

Heidi Lovett, who works at CMC and is serving this year as coordinator of the Florida Coastal Cleanup, says organized beach sweeps have been popular since the mid-Eighties. But this concerted national effort is a beautification campaign with eagle eyes. As a result of data cards completed on-site by the volunteers in last year's cleanup (18,413 statewide, including 1725 in Dade and 1535 in Broward) and painstakingly collected by the center, we know not only know how many discards the state's beaches were reportedly divested of (701,408, give or take), but everything about the trash.

"We're kind of known for introducing the use of the data cards," says Lovett. "For three years, we've handed out standardized cards to all volunteer teams. The cards list over 80 different items, and they're broken down by material types -- metal, plastic, Styrofoam, wood, paper. Volunteers should be working in teams, and as they pick the items up, call out what they've found. That way, we can keep a record."

It's a record, sure, but other than supermarket tabloids, who's interested in sifting through garbage? Cleanup organizers insist that the detailed inventory has more than novelty value. Armed with the facts, environmental groups may find it easier to turn the ears of lawmakers and obtain responsible legislative attention. "Just to give you an example," says Lovett, "past cleanups found that a number of animals seemed to be dying from balloons, that they were stranded with the half-inflated balloons in their gut, or that they had choked on them. Primarily because of the number of balloons found in the cleanup, Florida has passed a balloon law, and since November 1989, the state has prohibited mass balloon releases, which is defined as bunches of more than ten."

Much of the 240 tons of debris bagged from Florida's beaches in 1990 was your garden-variety garbage -- aluminum cans, cigarette filters, plastic drinking straws. But the refuse staunchly refused to be typecast -- last year's volunteers also netted artificial limbs, refrigerator doors, stereo speakers, televisions, pornographic magazines, motorcycles, and diaphragms, as well as a pack of Indian cigarettes that apparently floated from Bombay, and a Soviet ammunition crate. The beaches coughed up everything but the kitchen sink, and even some of those -- ten were recorded across the USA.

Working the coastline isn't all scavenger-hunt fun, though. This year Lovett has instructed Florida zone captains and volunteers to keep some garbage, including tampon applicators, as indicators of sewage waste. And "tidy squads" occasionally run across live animals that have tangled with a six-pack holder and lost.

"That does happen, unfortunately," says Lovett. "I try to encourage people to know where local animal-rescue facilities are, and we have information available instructing volunteers how to deal with injured animals. If dead animals are found, we suggest that people do what's easiest." Sometimes what's easiest is tossing them into a sack; sometimes it's just leaving them beached. "We have found dead turtles and birds," admits Don Pybas, one of Dade's six zone captains and a coordinator for the Key Biscayne and Virginia Key areas. "And we've also turned up some very unusual items, like a catheter bag over here at Bear Cut two years ago."

If some lucky volunteer hadn't plucked the catheter bag from the sea, future archaeologists would probably have excavated it along with the rest of our society's shards. "One of the things that people are not really aware of is that normal plastics have a life expectancy of approximately 400 years," says Pybas. "Say a six-pack ring tangles around a bird or a fish and kills it. You'll have this process in which the animal rots and drops out, and the six-pack ring floats free. They can kill a number of animals." Common monofilament line, the fisherman's friend, does the same damage.

Three years after they first printed and distributed data cards, organizers are optimistic that their perseverance is turning a profit. "In the two years before last year's cleanup, we needed two large trucks to haul off all the garbage that we picked up," says Pybas. "Last year I only needed one truck. I've never really done a hard-and-fast analysis, but it seems like things are going down."

For those hungry for hard-and-fast analysis, CMC will compact the 1991 trash data and release a summary by Memorial Day 1992. They may have to assign a team of translators to the report-preparation team, though -- and not only to negotiate the return of that Indian cigarette pack. The Cleanup, which has included Canada, Mexico, and Japan in the past, will add Greece, Israel, Norway, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic, among others, to its roster of participants.

In one of her last lucid moments before plunging into eight grueling months of number crunching, Lovett points out that the annual reports may not accurately reflect the condition of the nation's coastline, especially given the vastly different patterns of beach care: "In some places, the Coastal Cleanup may be dealing with only two months of garbage; someone may have come through and taken care of it at the beginning of the summer. But there's the flip side of that also, the fact that in other places, we're cleaning where no one ever goes.


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