Editorial

Are beach clean-ups worth it?

Friday, September 27, 2019

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Like they've done for the past 11 years, hundreds of volunteers, shepherded by Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), picked up garbage from miles and miles of coastline around the country last Saturday as part of International Coastal Clean-up Day.

The data showing how much they collected is not yet available but, if the general trend holds, it should be in the region of 200,000 lbs.

That would be 40,000 lbs more than the biggest haul to date — the 160,000 lbs in 2017. It would also be in line with the increased amount bagged over the years — with the exception of last year when turnout, and therefore collection, dipped in the face of the threat of Hurricane Isaac. There were also slight fall-offs in 2009 and 2015.

Going by the numbers alone, it would appear that there is much to celebrate; for solid waste has no place in the natural environment, let alone along beaches and other waterways where it inevitably drifts into the ocean. But those same numbers give rise to a fundamental question: Is the annual beach clean-up a futile exercise?

JET, the national coordinator for the project, is the first to point out that all it takes is a heavy downpour to wash garbage into Kingston Harbour, effectively undoing, within a matter of days, the mountain of work volunteers accomplished in the three hours dedicated to the event.

We fear the consistent heavy showers this week have already proven the non-governmental organisation right, but it remains undaunted, telling us recently that the annual clean-up is primarily for public education and data collection purposes, both of which serve to inform its advocacy efforts, and, hopefully, Government policy.

The behaviour change, JET said, will come.

“Every year we have people who come to beach clean-up — and I'm actually surprised that it still happens — but they are shocked at what they see; they just did not know it was that bad,” JET CEO Miss Suzanne Stanley said.

And, according to the data, it is that bad.

In 2008, JET's first year as national coordinator, the haul was 23,000 lbs. The following year it dipped slightly to just shy of 20,000 lbs In 2010, it moved to roughly 30,000 lbs; then to 38,000 lbs in 2011; roughly 58,000 lbs in 2012; approximately 65,000 lbs in 2013; and around 85,000 lbs in 2014. It dipped again in 2015 to just shy of 80,000 lbs, then surged to around 110,000 lbs in 2016. The haul recorded for 2018 weighed 102,851 lbs and filled almost 7,000 garbage bags.

We're sure there are those who argue that the increased haul of garbage is proportional to the number of volunteers who comb the beaches in any given year, but it could also be argued that a day dedicated to cleaning beaches would be unnecessary had improperly disposed solid waste not been an issue to begin with.

We are inclined to agree with JET that ICC Day is not the solution to our garbage problem; the solution lies in behaviour change, and will come when we stop throwing our garbage out our car windows, into gullies, and by the side of the street.

Each year, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, and foam feature in the top 10 list of items collected.

The Government ban on single-use plastic bags, styrofoam and plastic straws is an encouraging first step in that nationwide behaviour change. We harbour optimism that deeper, self-directed change will kick in over time.


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