By Mary Pringle for Island Eye News
With so many people living on the coast, problems for our wildlife are caused by trash that floats in the water or is found on the shore. Not only sea turtles but shorebirds and marine mammals are killed by debris every year.
In April of this year an endangered leatherback turtle washed ashore near Wadmalaw Creek. These huge turtles have shells about six feet long and weigh about 1,500 lbs and their main diet staple is jellyfish which resemble plastic bags in the water. A necropsy showed that it had a large plastic bag in its digestive tract, which was the probable cause of death. In June of 2009 an 800 lb. pigmy sperm whale and her calf were found in shallow water at the harbor end of Sullivan’s Island. Officials at NOAA reported the mother was dying from having a large plastic bag in her stomach, and the baby whale was beaching itself to stay with her.
Turtle Team members who patrolled on July 5 this season reported that some parts of our beach were severely littered after the holiday celebrations.
Normally they carry bags and clean up the beach, but there was just too much for them this time.
According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control each year tons of plastic and other litter are tossed into rivers, left on beaches, or dumped overboard from recreational and commercial vessels. Litter not only looks bad, but can put people and wildlife in danger. Marine debris can last a long time. When several members of the Turtle Team visited the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, Florida several years ago, we saw a display that gave the following information about decomposition times of common beach litter:
• Cigarette Butts: 1-5 years. Of 6.2 million items of beach debris collected worldwide on a single day, 1.6 million were cigarette-related.
• Plastic Bags: 10-20 years. 60,000 plastic bags are used every 5 seconds in this country with a relatively small percentage being recycled. Plastic bags blow out of trash receptacles and landfills often ending up in waterways. Reusable bags can help reduce this problem.
• Tin Cans: 50 years. They are made of tinplate or tin-coated steel. They can and should be recycled.
• Styrofoam Cups: 50 years. Polystyrene is a petroleum based plastic used for making cups, plates and containers. It has been classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA.
• Balloons: Latex 1 year, Mylar 50-100 years. Thousands of released balloons end up in the water every year. Marine animals often mistake them for food and become entangled in the string. Balloon releases have been banned in some states including Florida, California, Virginia, and Texas.
• Aluminum Cans: 80-200 years. These are made from bauxite, a natural mineral. Mining bauxite causes negative impacts on the environment, but it can be recycled endlessly without losing its pure properties.
• Plastic Bottles: 450 years. Two million plastic bottles are used in the US every 5 minutes. These break down into tiny toxic particles that are eaten by fish, shrimp, turtles and other animals eventually reaching all the way up the food chain to humans. Stainless steel bottles are safer for you and the environment.
• Disposable Diapers: 450 years. Each year 450 billion diapers are disposed of each year. A typical infant will go through an average of 8-10,000 diapers. Cloth diapers have a much smaller ecological footprint.
• Fishing line: 600 years. An estimated 100,000 marine mammals as well as sea turtles choke on or become entangled in marine debris, including monofilament line each year. (There are recycling receptacles where this can be deposited. Look for a large white PVC pipe with an SCDNR logo on it at boat landings, Breach Inlet, marinas, and the fishing pier in our area. Every fall I ship a large box of this to Iowa to be recycled.)
What can we do to help? The Marine Debris Fact Sheet of SCDHEC says that reducing marine debris means reducing the amount of waste we generate and disposing of it properly. Don’t litter. If you see litter, pick it up and recycle. If not, dispose of it properly.
Cut the rings of six-pack holders. This lowers the risk of entanglement if the holder makes it out to sea. Participate in local beach, river, and coastal clean ups.
Mary Pringle is the Project Leader for the Island Turtle Team of Isle of Palms & Sullivan’s.