I have written about this same event in the past, but it merits another mention, particularly as we come closer to the official end of summer. It is a way to show our coast some affection and attention after it has provided so much enjoyment for so many people over the last few months. The event I’m referring to is the International Coastal Cleanup, and it is this coming Saturday, Sept. 16. While this is a worldwide event, there are plenty of opportunities to participate either officially or unofficially in Maine.

Having worked for several years for Ocean Conservancy, the organization that initiated the Coastal Cleanup in 1986, I got to learn more about both about its origins and also its scope and purpose. Thirty-seven years later, the cleanup now includes over 16 million volunteers across the globe. As of 2021, those volunteers had collected more than 344 million pounds of trash and catalogued over 350 million items. Since I have lived in and traveled throughout many parts of the United States as well as overseas, I have both observed ocean debris as well as gotten to know the organizations that participate in the cleanups. From boaters to scuba divers to fishermen, people around the world are actively removing debris in the ocean — some focused on the annual September event and others working on debris removal throughout the year.

Aside from removing trash from the ocean and coastal areas, one of the main purposes of the International Coastal Cleanup is to collect data on where trash accumulates and what types are most common in each location. This is equally as important as the cleanup efforts themselves — if not more — because the collection of data provides the information necessary to try to reduce the input of waste at the source. Sometimes, there are simple solutions that can be achieved at the local level, like a town providing tie-downs for garbage cans in coastal areas so that they don’t tip over and spill trash into the water. Other times, solutions require regulations like those that prohibit the use of plastic shopping bags. Still more complex solutions include the creation of legislation that defines how industrially produced waste is dealt with. The cleanup data helps both to identify problems and to convince legislators that there is a problem.

The collection of all that information takes a lot of work, as you can imagine. But community participation makes it possible and is pretty simple. Also, tallying up trash as you collect it can actually be kind of “fun.” Not that you necessarily want to collect more trash than other participants, as it is an indication of how big the problem is, but if you are part of a group cleanup, comparing your finds can be a healthy form of competition. It’s also interesting to see how what you find compares with other places in the world — something you can do by looking at the reports on the Ocean Conservancy’s website at oceanconservancy.org.

There are many ways you can participate, starting with simply picking up trash along your own street. It might not seem to fit the “coastal” definition, but since we live in a coastal community, anything can find its way down a storm drain with a big rainstorm. Or if you want to participate in an official event, the Maine Coastal Program has a place where you can find out more about what’s happening locally. In Maine, the event is more than a single day — it’s a whole week. Coastweek is full of opportunities to volunteer — find them at maine.gov/dmr/programs/maine-coastal-program/marine-debris-maine-coastweek. You can also join in Inland Fish and Wildlife’s Landowner Appreciation and Cleanup Day on Sunday, Sept. 17 (maine.gov/ifw/programs-resources/outdoor-partners-program/become-partner.html#volunteer). Here in Brunswick, you may notice the cleanup efforts of those who work along the shore. As part of the town’s shellfish program, harvesters participate in conservation efforts each year, including shoreline and intertidal cleanups in the areas where they harvest.

Ideally, someday there would be no International Coastal Cleanup because there wouldn’t be any trash to pick up. That’s a big reach, I realize, but if we can address the sources of debris and prevent it from the get-go by asking everyone to collect a bit of data as they clean up, that’s a double win. So, if you are able to participate this year, take a few extra moments to go to Ocean Conservancy’s website to learn how to collect the information that maybe someday will make this event obsolete.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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