ST. AUGUSTINE — Maia McGuire was leading middle-schoolers on a local beach clean-up when she noticed a cluster of deflated balloons on the sand. It’s not unusual to find balloons on the beach, McGuire said, but these were different: Each balloon was printed with the name of a nursing home in Texas.
“Those balloons were probably the weirdest thing I’ve found on one of our beaches,” McGuire said. However, this discovery made it clear that, while beach clean-ups are often done by locals, keeping beaches clean is everyone’s responsibility, she said. That’s because, in the environment, trash travels, and one person’s trash can easily become another person’s clean-up hundreds of miles away.
McGuire works in St. Johns and Flagler counties as a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Sea Grant agent. Part of her job is to help the community keep its beaches and oceans clean. You can do your part this summer by following these five tips.
1. Don’t bring single-use plastic items — such as plastic shopping bags, disposable straws, plastic water bottles, zipper-seal bags or Styrofoam dishware — to the beach. “Many animals will mistake plastic items (and balloons) for food and will eat them,” said McGuire. “This can result in starvation because the animals’ stomachs become full of plastic. Eating plastic may also cause toxic chemicals to leach into the animals’ bodies.”
Furthermore, “since plastic never degrades, it is important that we try to reduce the amount of plastic that we discard,” she said.
2. Don’t let helium-filled balloons “go free.” When the helium leaks out, the balloons might end up in the ocean. “In addition to eating balloons, animals can become entangled in the ribbon or string that is tied to the balloon,” McGuire said. This ribbon or string can injure an animal and even take off a limb. Entangled animals may also drown, she said.
3. Pick up after your pet. Pick up your pet’s waste and throw it away in a trash can, McGuire said. Pet waste adds viruses and bacteria to the environment—and who wants to swim in that?
4. The beach is not a big ash tray. Dispose of cigarette butts properly. Nicotine from cigarettes can get into the environment, said McGuire.
5. Throw your trash away in a designated trash can. Do the same for any other trash you come across on the beach. “The more trash we can remove from the environment, the better,” McGuire said. “Often, trash can leach chemicals into the sand or sediment. Many of these chemicals can trigger harmful environmental impacts, such as algal blooms or bacterial growth, which may cause beach closures.”
However, always use common sense when picking up trash on the beach, she said. Don’t pick up anything that may injure you (such as sharp objects) or make you sick.
Finally, McGuire said, bear in mind that keeping beaches clean starts in your neighborhood, even if that neighborhood is nowhere near the beach. If balloons from Texas can end up on the eastern coast of Florida, who knows where your trash might wash up?
“People often assume that trash on the beach either was left there by beachgoers or came from boats,” she said. “What they may not realize is that trash that is on the ground can end up blowing or washing into storm water systems, where it can be transported into coastal waters.”