Plastic Trash Tops Haul from 2nd ‘Great Mangrove Cleanup’

CUTLINE: Volunteers puzzle over how to transport a large piece of plastic docking to shore during Saturday’s cleanup. (April Knight photo)
CUTLINE: Volunteers puzzle over how to transport a large piece of plastic docking to shore during Saturday’s cleanup. (April Knight photo)
Volunteer Owen Clower weighs a bag of plastic trash on the garbage boat. (April Knight photo)
Volunteer Owen Clower weighs a bag of plastic trash on the garbage boat. (April Knight photo)

Data from Saturday’s Second Annual Great Mangrove Cleanup shows that land-based plastic pollution – including water bottles, cups and grocery bags – comprise the majority of marine trash that gets caught in the mangrove forests around the St. Thomas East End Reserve.

The data, compiled by the University of the Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, shows that among the 1,800 total pounds of trash collected were 246 plastic beverage bottles, 133 plastic pieces, 114 other plastic bottles, 113 plastic cups and plates, 92 plastic grocery bags, 89 other plastic bags and 83 other plastic or foam packaging.

“Like last year, the most common item we collected were plastic beverage bottles. What that tells me is that plastic beverage bottles are a consistent marine debris problem for St. Thomas, so we should all be thinking more about what we are drinking out of, where we dispose of it, and where it may end up,” said Kristin Grimes, assistant professor at the Center for Marine and Environmental Science.

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Event organizer Kristina Edwards, who is education and outreach coordinator at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Coastal Zone Management Division, said most of the haul was land-based pollution, stressing the need for a change in lifestyle among residents.

Cleanup volunteers try to get deep into the mangroves to get trash out of the complex root systems. (April Knight photo)
Cleanup volunteers try to get deep into the mangroves to get trash out of the complex root systems. (April Knight photo)

“We found a few parts from boats, but not very much. This isn’t boaters out there throwing trash into the water. This is trash that’s coming from our island, from our landfill that’s blowing in the wind, and the shape of the mangrove roots catches the debris, so it makes it an accumulation spot,” Edwards said.

This year’s Great Mangrove Cleanup follows last year’s successful post-hurricane effort, according to Edwards. Last year’s cleanup saw 3,000 pounds of marine debris taken out of the mangroves by roughly 150 volunteers, she said.

Saturday’s haul – some 1,200 pounds less than last year’s – could mean that the 2018 cleanup did not get all the trash out, but could also mean not much new trash was deposited into the area.

“This is a really big yearly effort to get out into the mangroves, which are really important for our ecosystem but are hard to get to so they don’t get cleaned very often.,” Edwards said. “This yearly cleanup is really for us to get out there into those really hard to reach spots and get out still more hurricane debris, if you can believe it or not.”

This year’s event drew droves of volunteers. Even before the event started, roughly 195 people signed up for the cleanup on the event website. Half an hour after the scheduled start of the cleanup, 50 people had already registered at the site. According to UVI, volunteers spanned a wide age range – from 9 to 70 years old – and represented various institutions, including UVI, Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Charlotte Amalie High School, Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School, Ulla F. Muller Elementary School, Joseph Sibilly Elementary School and home school students.

Local tour company V.I. Ecotours, situated near the St. Thomas East End Reserve, provided a starting point for the group of volunteers of all ages. Some volunteers chose to do a land-based cleanup, traversing the dense mangrove forests with gloves and buckets in hand. Others hopped on kayaks in teams, disappearing under leafy overhangs as they attempted to get into hard-to-reach debris among the complex root systems.

Patrolling the waters around the mangroves were volunteers Steve Prosterman, a professor at UVI CMES, and student Owen Clower on a UVI research boat. Prosterman coordinated with other organizers, who directed him where the boat was needed the most. When the kayakers’ buckets were full, Prosterman and Clower would take the contents and place smaller items in bags.

On top of various plastic trash, volunteers also hauled in strange items, including two refrigerators, one television set, one Polaroid camera, 11 tires and 15 life jackets. One volunteer could be seen wading across shallower areas dragging a large white sheet while another carried what looked like a large plastic part of a boat. A team of UVI students had to tow to shore what appeared to be an old piece of plastic docking material at least 10 feet in length.

White egrets nest amid mangrove branches in the St. Thomas East End Reserve. (April Knight photo)
White egrets nest amid mangrove branches in the St. Thomas East End Reserve. (April Knight photo)

Edwards stressed the importance of protecting mangroves, which protect the inland areas from surges during storms. They also protects the ocean from chemical runoff coming from land, according to Edwards. Prosterman circled patches of mangrove removed from shore, pointing out many juvenile white egrets nesting among the dry branches, one of the many reasons that mangroves must be preserved, he said.

While the Great Mangrove Cleanup was only on its second year, Edwards said past experience taught her that large-scale cleanups do make a dent in the environmental trash problem. In her 15 years of participating in underwater cleanups at Water Bay, for example, she went from helping collect more than 100 old marine batteries on the first year to only two on the second year, she recalled.

“So that’s something where it was a long-scale historic debris that we took care of,” Edwards said. “For big, large-scale annual cleanups, we absolutely see a difference.”

For Edwards, the amount of trash collected is only one measure of success. The other effect of the Great Mangrove Cleanup is the awareness it spreads about fragile marine ecosystems and the small lifestyle changes people can make to protect them.

“It’s new kids that come every year. It’s the same kids who come again. It’s showing up to an event and having students recognize me and remembering a marine debris presentation that I’ve done before. So those are the highlights that keep me out here on my day off,” Edwards said.

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