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COASTSWEEP: Altering the Average Day to Reduce Ocean Litter

By Steven Pilis. Published August 2014.

This blog about COASTSWEEP—the annual beach cleanup organized by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM)—chronicles how everyday actions can help reduce trash and marine debris.

A day in the life...

I have been interning with the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) for roughly two months now. A primary part of my job has been to spread the word about COASTSWEEP through social media. COASTSWEEP is the Massachusetts beach cleanup program, which is part of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. Cleanups are held throughout September and October and thousands of volunteers participate each year. My first step was to start reading articles, blogs, fact sheets, and trivia (some fun facts, some not so fun facts) in search of details about ocean litter and ideas on how to reduce it.

Within the first week, I found an almost overwhelming amount of information about marine debris (the official term for ocean trash, which includes not only trash, but fishing line, cargo that’s fallen off ships, and other human-made solid items). The sheer volume in Massachusetts and around the globe is staggering! What was most interesting—and promising—was realizing that many of the sources of ocean litter are preventable and often the result of the average person’s daily routine. The more I learned, the more I saw that there were small, easy things that I could do every day to help. I decided that it was time to take a stand and challenged myself to, for one day, consciously make an effort to change my regular routine. This is by no means an extensive list of everything one can do—just one man’s day-in-the-life routine and observations.

Cue Alarm…

7:50 a.m. This is what time my alarm goes off every morning. I can’t reduce the amount litter I produce in a day if I’m not awake, right?
8:09 a.m. (The time that I actually got out of bed.)
8:21 a.m. As I do every morning, I like to start the day off with a nice, relaxing shower. This is where the first change to my daily habits came in. I had read an article (Know What’s In Your Face Wash: Why Illinois Banned Microbeads in Time) about plastic microbeads, which are often found in everyday personal care products. These microbeads are used to exfoliate skin, but what most people do not realize (including me before I read that article) is that these little pieces of plastic are all rinsed down drains. The beads are very small (hence the “micro”) and, as a result, commonly slip through treatment plants and into open water where various forms of marine life consume them or breathe them in. Not only is this harmful to their health, but humans who consume fish end up ingesting these microplastics as well. (See Ocean Conservancy’s blog, Nowhere to Hide: More Than Fish May Be Impacted by Plastic Pollution.) On a positive note, many companies are working to eliminate microbeads from their products, and Illinois has become the first state to eliminate products with microbeads entirely. (Read more in the Ocean Conservancy’s Ocean Currents Blog.) Well, I realized that the facial cleanser I use every morning contains microbeads. I made an effort the night before to purchase a facial cleanser without microbeads and removed the cleaner from my routine. Microplastics: check.
9:45 a.m. While my morning shower is my initial wake up, I like to jump start my brain with a little caffeine. I don’t really care for coffee, so I like to get hot tea in the morning. Today, instead of accepting my tea in a single-use foam cup, I decided to bring a reusable travel mug. Foam cups and plastic lids are commonly found during coastal cleanups, so I was more than happy to cut that out of my daily routine. COASTSWEEP 2013 STAT: During 2013 COASTSWEEP cleanups in Massachusetts, 2,102 plastic lids were found. In addition, 1,088 paper and 1,166 foam plates and cups were collected, many of which can be attributed to coffee cups.
10:05 a.m. When I get to work, I like to eat a brief breakfast, usually yogurt and fruit salad. I tend to bring plastic utensils with me and recycle them after I’m done eating; one less thing to bring back with me or wash. On this particular day, I brought a standard, reusable, metal spoon. Who knew we had a sink complete with sponges and dish detergent? COASTSWEEP 2013 STAT: 1,345 plastic utensils were found.
11:12 a.m. Once my morning tea is gone, my go-to drink during the day is water. While I usually bring bottled water, I decided to change things up and bring a reusable water bottle. Instead of buying more bottles as the day went on, I only had to refill the bottle at the purified water station in the office. This was not only environmentally friendly, but also very cost effective. COASTSWEEP 2013 STAT: 5,710 plastic bottles and 10,120 plastic bottle caps were found, many of which can be attributed to bottled water.
12:36 p.m. Lunch! One of the many benefits of working near the North End is lunch options. I don’t eat out often and usually prefer to bring my own lunch and save some money, but I was feeling saucy (terrible pun intended). I decided to get pasta for lunch, but instead of allowing them to package it into a foam takeout container, I brought a large, glass food storage container with me. I also (like with breakfast) brought my own utensils. The results? The elimination of a foam takeout container, plastic utensils, and the paper bag for transportation from the waste stream. COASTSWEEP 2013 STAT: 1,171 plastic takeout containers and 984 foam takeout containers collected. See utensil stats above.
3:14 p.m. This is around the time that I, like most, begin to feel the effects of lunch and yearn for the end of the day. While I don’t drink coffee, I do enjoy the pick me up it provides. Every once and a while, I’ll suck it up (another bad pun) and buy myself an iced coffee, and this was one of those days. I decided to wash out the travel mug I used for my morning tea and reuse it for my iced coffee, which created no need for the plastic cup, straw, or lid. COASTSWEEP 2013 STAT: 4,747 plastic straws/stirrers and 1,606 plastic cups and plates (many like those used for iced coffee) were found. See plastic lid stats above.
5:47 p.m. I needed to stop at the grocery store on the way home for some dinner items. When I reached the checkout counter, they asked me if I wanted paper or plastic bags to carry out my groceries. Neither are great options considering the destruction of trees and manufacturing of paper bags releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. In addition, plastic bags have their own production impacts, take a long time to break down, and are harmful to marine life when they make it to the ocean. (This National Geographic web page, Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?, explains.) Instead, I decided to offer up some reusable bags so that these other options were not necessary. As karma would have it, I was entered into a weekly raffle for a gift card for the store because I spent over $25 and brought my own bags. Not bad. COASTSWEEP 2013 STAT: 2,137 plastic grocery bags and 1,119 paper bags were found.
6:13 p.m. My roommate seemingly does not understand the concept of taking out the trash or recycling because the recycle bin in our kitchen was overflowing when I got home. We usually use paper grocery bags to house and transport recyclables, so I grabbed the full bag and brought it down to our building’s recycle bins. With trash day tomorrow, the bin was of course full. Usually when this happens, I either put the bag on top allowing the lid to remain ajar or put the bag on the ground next to the bin. However, from the marine debris reading I’d done, I learned how easy it is for trash or recyclables to escape from uncovered receptacles, resulting in the smaller pieces (like bottle caps or straws as well as paper) to flow into storm trains—which are just a hop, skip, and water slide into the ocean. I took a few extra seconds to rearrange the recycle bin so that my bag fit and the lid closed securely. YOU’RE WELCOME OCEAN! Check out Ocean Conservancy’s common myths and truths about plastics for more on marine debris for more details on how trash travels.
7:31 p.m. A friend of mine’s band was playing a show that night, so my roommate and I (as 22 year old adults) decided to responsibly have a few beers beforehand. I had never really known what to do with bottle caps because they were so small (and are they trash or recycling?) but thanks to some disposal tips from Earth911 I’d read earlier that day, I realized that they can indeed be recycled properly. I took an old soup can, cleaned it out, and started filling it with our loose bottle caps. When the can was half full, I pushed the top of the can closed so that the caps could not escape, ensuring that they would could not slip the cracks in our recycle bin or find a way into storm drains. COASTSWEEP 2013 STAT: 2,170 metal bottle caps were found.
10:14 p.m. When we’re at shows, we like to go outside in between sets to get some air. A lot of my friends are smokers, and while I do not personally smoke, I join them most of the time during these breaks. During this particular show, I was outside with my roommate while he was having a cigarette break. When he was done, he dropped the butt to the ground and put it out. After much reading (including this NOAA Marine Debris blog post on butts), it has become very obvious that cigarette butts are not only the #1 item found during coastal cleanups, they are very harmful in the ocean and coastal environment. Because most people put them out on the ground, they are often washed or blown away into storm drains where they make their way into the ocean. By putting them directly into a trash can or smoker’s pole, it ensures that they do not make it to the ocean, where they are toxic to marine life (read more in Cigarette Butts Toxic to Marine Life from San Diego State University). So, I instructed my roommate to verify that the butt was no longer lit and put it in the trash. Now if only Boston would copy New Orleans in using cigarette butts to their advantage, as this Boston Globe article explains. Check out additional cigarette litter information and initiatives from the Keep America Beautiful Cigarette Litter Prevention Program. COASTSWEEP 2013 STAT: 39,056 cigarette butts were found.
11:55 p.m. After a full day of doing all I could to keep human-made items from entering the ocean, it was time for sleep. I went to bed feeling good knowing that the several simple changes I made in just one day made a difference.


When the day was done, I was actually quite surprised at how many changes I had made, and how simple these changes were and how easily I could incorporate them into my daily routine. Here is the list of litter that I personally prevented from entering circulation: microbeads, foam cups, plastic lids, plastic utensils, plastic water bottles and caps, foam takeout containers, plastic cups, plastic straws, plastic grocery bags, paper grocery bags, metal bottle caps, and (indirectly) cigarette butts.

The ease at which I was able to make these positive changes is not lost on me, nor is the feeling of knowing that I made a positive impact in just one day. If I can make these changes, anyone can, and with a unified effort, the amounts of items that need to be picked up during the annual COASTSWEEP cleanups can begin to fall.

More information on COASTSWEEP can be found on the CZM website, which includes information on how to get involved or find a cleanup near you.


Steven Pilis interned with the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) for the summer of 2014 as the COASTSWEEP Social Media and Marketing Intern. In addition to doing educational outreach and working with volunteers and vendors to make CZM’s annual beach cleanup a success, he worked to do his personal best to reduce man-made waste from ending up in the ocean. For more on Steven’s personal account of a COASTSWEEP cleanup in: COASTSWEEP: An Intern’s First Cleanup. In 2014, Steven completed his undergraduate degree in sociology and environmental studies at Suffolk University and began the pursuit of his Masters in Public Administration at Northeastern University in the fall of 2014.

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