Beneath a clear sky streaked with clouds, tiny waves lapped against the shores of Conimicut Point. Seagulls soared overhead or waddled in clusters by the water’s edge, and small groups of fisherman walked out to the rocks, fishing lines in hand.
But despite the apparent harmony of the scene, something was amiss and causing discord on the beach.
Trash. Piles and piles of trash. Washed up on the shore, buried in the sand, and tangled in the sea grass that separates the beach from the parking lot, trash had taken over Conimicut Point.
“It seems like all the trash in the world just ended up on this beach,” said Connor Callahan, 11, a member of Boy Scout Troop 1.
Connor and his fellow boy scouts joined some 20 other volunteers to help clean up the strip of land that juts into Narragansett Bay for the Audubon Society’s International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday morning. By noon, they’d collected 25 bags of trash, some of which will be recycled.
At the 23rd annual event, held across the world and at 80 sites in Rhode Island and nine in Warwick, volunteers picked up and documented the trash that washed up along various coasts and riverbanks. Local sites included Buttonwoods Beach, Chepiwanoxet, Conimicut Point, Goddard Park, Oakland Beach, Passeonquis Cove, Potowomut and Salter’s Grove.
In Rhode Island alone, volunteers bagged approximately eight tons of trash.
In recording each piece or litter, volunteers provided the Audubon Society with information about the type of trash most common to various areas, while clearing sites of trash that could be dangerous to local wildlife.
This year’s most frequent item? Cigarette butts.
Last year, Rhode Island’s cleanup took place in the wake of Hurricane Ophelia, so volunteer turnout was slightly less than usual. Some 750 volunteers, working either in the gale or throughout the next week, collected four tons of debris. In 2004, approximately 1,500 volunteers counted 61,709 pieces of trash. In 2003, 1,197 volunteers collected nearly nine tons of trash.
“All beach trash is unsightly, and some can be dangerous to wildlife,” said Eugenia Marks, policy director at Audubon and the State Coordinator for International Coastal Cleanup. She said that plastic poses an even larger problem – it does not decompose, but breaks down into ever-smaller pieces of plastic, which can be swallowed by birds and other animals which mistake them for food.
The protection of marine birds was the theme of this year’s cleanup. Birds can easily become entangled in plastic netting, fishing line, or six-pack holders. They also use plastic for their nests, creating a hazard for nestlings. In Rhode Island, Marks said, young ospreys have been found dead, caught in fishing line and dangling from their nests.
At Conimicut Point, a particular problem with the North beach is its position in the water – the point juts out into the bay in Warwick, and the north side catches whatever trash drifts in from Providence.
“It’s amazing in what a small area how much you can really find,” said Jan DeAngelis, digging through the sand in a pair of waterproof gardening boots. “What people think they can throw away is just amazing.”
In the few minutes since beginning the cleanup, she had already found a rusted tin can, numerous plastic bottles, condoms and countless cigarette butts.
Even as the morning progressed and less trash remained on the sandy shore, however, another intruder stayed behind – a rotten scent that pervaded the salty air. Steve Insana, founder of the Buckeye Brook Coalition and Watershed Council, said his best guess was that the putrid odor originated at the sewage plant.
“You don’t see any seaweed,” he said, “so I’m thinking it’s raw sewage in the water.”
He said when the sewage plant overflows in Providence it gets washed away into the bay and collects on the north side of Conimicut Point. The runoff from storm drains often has the same fate, washing off Warwick’s roads and ending up on the beach.
Accompanied by Brenda Pope, vice president of Environmental Management Systems with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), Insana dug through the sand, picking up small pieces of litter and placing them into a paper yard waste bag. After just 20 minutes, he’d already recorded some 30 items.
At one point, he knelt and used a stick to draw a box about a square foot in area at his feet. Digging a few inches under the sand, he pulled out five or six pieces of trash, mostly candy wrappers and plastic soda bottle caps.
The most commonly reoccurring item at Conimicut Point was plastic straws.
“Why do all the straws make it here and not the cups?” Pope asked, as she pulled another handful out of the sand.
Insana noted that many of the volunteers at Saturday’s event, some of them members of the Audubon Society, had traveled from Rhode Island’s landlocked towns to assist at the beaches most in need of cleaning.
“I wish we got more local people, too,” he said. “This is our own backyard.”
Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts stood several hundred yards away, collecting everything from spent shotgun shells to abandoned tires to syringes, which their scoutmasters warned them not to touch.
They also came upon 10 or 12 horseshoe crabs, all dead.
Jim Dean, the troop’s assistant scoutmaster, said he learned of the Coastal Cleanup from the Audubon Society’s Web site and thought it would be the perfect project for his troop because most of the scouts live very close to the beach.
“Hopefully we can teach the boys to appreciate the environment a little more,” he said. “And hopefully they’ll be stewards and take care of it themselves.”
He paused, then added an afterthought.
“After all, someday it’s all going to be theirs.”