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Volunteers Clear Trash, Making World's Oceans Cleaner, Healthier

The ocean is our planet's life-support system, but it's getting clogged with trash. Discarded beverage bottles, plastic bags and cigarette butts kill countless seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles each year. But each September, on the third Saturday of the month, the volume of trash decreases a bit, thanks to the Ocean Conservancy's annual cleanup. As VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports, the International Coastal Cleanup Day is part of a year-round effort to keep the world's oceans and waterways clean, safe and healthy.

On Sept. 20, 23-year-old Jamie Romeo joined other volunteers to pick up trash on a local beach. She's been doing that every year since she was 8 years old, when she participated for the first time in the International Coastal Cleanup Day.

"After reading about it in the local public library, I had gone to my parents and said, 'This sounds interesting. How do we participate?'" she says. "My parents always said, 'If you want to do something, you got to do the work for it.' So, we contacted the American Littoral Society and the Ocean Conservancy, and that year we had about eight or 10 of us neighborhood kids go down and cleaned the beach."

Romeo is now coordinator for the Annual International Cleanup event in Monroe County, New York, and beach captain of the Durand Eastman Beach.

"When we first started doing this event, that particular beach wasn't open to public swimming," she says. "It wasn't really well maintained. We used to find a lot of what I refer to as 'intentional debris,' where you find tires, some construction debris. Now since the beach is open to some public swimming, there is more attention to this area. But, we're still finding a significant amount of garbage, but now it's more of coastal debris, cigarette, disposable dinnerware, the garbage that one person might think, 'Well, if I put a little bit of this, it's not going really to hurt anything.'"

But those little bits of garbage have a huge cumulative impact. Ocean Conservancy President Vikki Spruill says every year, volunteers around the world clear away tons of trash that pose a serious threat to the marine ecosystem.

"To give a very specific example," she says, "a sandwich bag that seems innocent when it's being packed into your lunchbox, when it's discarded of improperly and ends up in our waterways and ultimately in the ocean, can be mistaken for a jellyfish. Something like a sea turtle, for example, sees that bag, eats it, and it results in death."

What's now a trash collection day in 127 countries and all 50 U.S. states and American territories began as a cleanup of a single beach in 1986.

"The International Coastal Cleanup began about 23 years ago with an employee from the Ocean Conservancy who lived in Texas and who was very frustrated by the conditions of her beach in her community," Spruill says. "And she started a cleanup. A quarter century later, we have almost half a million people participating around the globe, which makes it very, very exciting for families, individuals, friends and children to go out and really make a difference in a very hands-on way in helping to solve this global problem.

"This is not just about our beaches. It's about our waterways, our rivers, our lakes and streams, because they are all connected and everything ultimately ends up in the oceans."

The Palisadoes -- a long strip of sand that almost completely encloses Jamaica's Kingston Harbor -- is littered with thousands of plastic bottles and other trash, and every September, it's cleaned up. Carlette Falloon, of the Jamaican Environment Trust, says this year 300 volunteers helped in the effort.

"The majority of them are from high schools, teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18," she says. "We do have older volunteers from service clubs and general members of the public and staff members of our corporate sponsors. We were very excited about this year's cleanup because we were able to have a lot more groups doing cleanups across the island, another indication that interest is growing and more persons are really concerned about the health of our coastline."

The event itself, Falloon says, is another educational opportunity for the volunteers and their communities.

"Before the event, we had two training sessions for the volunteers," she says. "So we brought together site coordinators and train them on how to collect the debris. We conducted a survey. We asked them questions about what they knew about marine debris, what effect did they think it has on marine life and the marine ecosystem. Then afterwards, we asked them the questions again to see what they learned about what they saw on the [Palisdoes] Strip."

Documenting what volunteers find is an important part of the cleanup, according to the Ocean Conservancy's Spruill.

"We don't only pick up the trash. We count it and we publish a report every year," she says. "We tend to look at the collective and accumulative impact, because the purpose of this event is to provide a global snapshot, if you will, of a moment in time to help us continue to tell the story every day of the year about why this is an important problem in our oceans."

Spruill says distributing this information to government officials, environmental advocates and journalists is key in explaining the hazards of ocean debris and in urging every person to take responsibility for protecting shorelines and waterways all year long.