On a bright, warm Saturday morning in the middle of the summer, you can often find a group of the New England Aquarium’s live blue™ Service Corps volunteers combing local coastlines in search of marine debris and litter. From Newburyport to Provincetown, our sandy beaches, rocky shores, and coastal marshes become magnets for trash, namely plastics. A two-hour cleanup with 15 volunteers can often remove a couple hundred pounds of trash, but by the next month there is already more work for them to do.

a volunteer shows off a load a trash picked up during a cleanup event.
Volunteers from the live blue Service Corps filled a truck with debris found in Winthrop in spring 2018.
a volunteer shows off a load a trash picked up during a cleanup event.
Volunteers from the live blue Service Corps and Neponset River Watershed Association remove thousands of pounds of debris from coastal marshes during the annual Earth Day Cleanup along the Neponset River.

Cleanups undoubtedly have a huge impact, removing otherwise harmful debris from the ocean. We continually host cleanups throughout Massachusetts, and you can join us July 20 at Revere Beach and Belle Isle Marsh for cleanups for Plastic Free July. Simply join our volunteer community by attending a one-hour orientation! But cleanups are really a last resort when it comes to solving the plastic pollution challenge.

After a typical cleanup, volunteers share what they found, what they learned, and what they hope to do next. Given the number of plastic straws we find, it’s no surprise that many swear off the use of straws in the hopes of seeing fewer next time they are at the beach. Switching to reusable bags, water bottles, and take-out containers are also popular actions that our teams tend to commit to.

trash found in a coastal area
A stormy winter and spring brought lots of debris – chip bags, plastic bottle caps, straws, and thousands of plastic particles – to the Squaw Rock area in Quincy.
trash found in a coastal area.
Nickerson Beach, nestled between Squaw Rock and Moon Island in Quincy, catches debris large and small; volunteers have begun to clean up the area on a regular basis.

But how much of a difference can one person truly make? Is one person’s commitment to living plastic-free enough to save the ocean? If all 15 volunteers on this team make the same commitment, is that going to get us any closer to a plastic-free ocean?

In a word, yes! Our work toward a clean ocean doesn’t end after a cleanup. If those volunteers share their experiences with friends and family, post photos on social media, or even contact their local officials about their concerns, this small team of volunteers can push for community-level solutions to the problem. Community-level solutions might include bans or fees on single-use plastic bags to limit their use, improving waste management and recycling infrastructure at the regional level, and creating new markets for plastic-free living, such as stores that sell items in bulk … just to name a few!

Big change can happen if we use our voice, individually and collectively, to influence business and manufacturers to make the changes we’d like to see. Going plastic-free isn’t about buying more things, it’s about having the right options available to us.

What can you do?

So what can you do to contribute to community-level solutions that will take us closer to a plastic-free society and a cleaner ocean? The key is to think about the society we want to live in, and get involved to help us move toward that society. 

  • You can start by joining an existing conservation-minded organization. Become a member of the Aquarium, and take a look at our volunteer opportunities for adults and teens.
  • Join the Aquarium’s Plastic Free July EcoChallenge team, select some personal challenges, get points for our team, and peruse the resources offered on the website. There are some great tips on how to write an email to your local officials, for example.
  • If you aren’t local to the Boston area, consider joining your local Association of Zoos & Aquariums institution, watershed association, or park group.
  • You can write a quick email or letter to your elected officials voicing your concern about plastic pollution and other environmental issues. Consider writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper too!
  • Try to plan a meal or a day of meals that are free of plastic packaging. Share your experience with your social networks and the stores where you shop. Raise awareness and ask for change.
  • Simply talk to your friends and family about single-use plastics and encourage them to take action. Build the movement within your own home.
  • Become more aware of all the plastics that pass through your hands each day. Do an inventory on what can be reduced or refused in the future. Set goals for yourself and your family.