Volunteers can celebrate estuaries by joining CT Cleanup

A girl leaps across a sandbar at low tide at Rocky Neck State Park on Sept. 15.
A girl leaps across a sandbar at low tide at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme on Sept. 15. Rocky Neck is one of 21 coastal and inland sites where volunteers can sign up to participate in the Connecticut Cleanup.

Story and photos by Judy Benson

Pam Thompson of Niantic paints the jetty at Rocky Neck on Sept. 15.
Pam Thompson of Niantic paints the jetty at Rocky Neck on Sept. 15.

You don’t have to live near the beach to do your part on International Coastal Cleanup Day this Saturday Sept. 19.

Picking up and documenting litter anywhere in the state that day will contribute to keeping all our lands and waterways clean, including Long Island Sound. Coinciding with the cleanup day is the start of National Estuaries Week, and what better way to celebrate the estuary called Connecticut’s most valuable natural resource than collecting trash before it finds its way there?

That’s one of the main messages Save the Sound, the nonprofit environmental group that sponsors the annual cleanup event in Connecticut, is trying to get out this year, even as the COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges to keeping the 12-year-old tradition going.

“This year we’re calling it the Connecticut Cleanup,” said Anthony Allen, ecological communications specialist for Save the Sound. “We’re moving away from talking about this as something that just happens on the coast, because trash does travel. Everyone lives in a watershed, so it has a pathway to get to Long Island Sound.”

This year, Connecticut Sea Grant is joining Save the Sound and other groups encouraging people to join one of the 21 cleanups at specific locations from Greenwich to Stonington, or do a “virtual” cleanup close to home.

“We all have spots in our towns that are dear to us where we can pick up trash, or recognize a place where trash accumulates,” said Allen.

To participate in a virtual cleanup, just pick a location and decide to go on your own or with up to four others, with bags, gloves and wearing face masks. Take photos of your cleanup and share them on social media with the hashtags #CTCleanup2020, #trashtravels and #DontTrashLISound. That’s the name of the annual anti-litter campaign sponsored by Connecticut Sea Grant, the Long Island Sound Study and other partners that started in August this year and concludes on Saturday.

Cleanup volunteers are asked to especially vigilant about picking up plastic trash, including small plastic pieces like this one on the beach at Rocky Neck.
Cleanup volunteers are asked to especially vigilant about picking up plastic trash, including small plastic pieces like this one on the beach at Rocky Neck.

“In time, we hope we can reduce the amount of marine debris entering our waterways, making cleanups less necessary,” said Nancy Balcom, associate director of Connecticut Sea Grant. “That can start to happen if people employ their purchasing power to reject over-packaged products, reduce their use of single-use plastics and rely more on reusable items.”

As part of the #DontTrashLISound campaign, CT Sea Grant is distributing Long Island Sound wildlife stickers for reusable water bottles and travel mugs. In a complementary initiative, it is working with New York Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program.

“We are pulling together a bi-state group to develop a marine debris action plan for Long Island Sound,” Balcom said.

This year, Allen said, due to COVID-19 concerns, the number of cleanups at specific locations is about half what it was last year, but already more than 250 people have registered to participate. To find a site and register, visit: https://www.savethesound.org/2020Cleanup/

That’s also where people can register for a virtual cleanup.

One of the most important ways to make your cleanup effort most effective, Allen said, is to document the trash collected. People are encouraged to download the CleanSwell mobile app from the Ocean Conservancy and use it to record how many plastic bags, disposable water bottles, cigarette butts and other trash they find. A new category added this year, he noted, is PPEs – personal protective equipment such as face masks and disposable gloves.

“This data is critically important for us in a lot of the advocacy work we do, not just for the shock and awe factor,” he said. “Being able to track various kinds of trash is important to helping enact legislation, like the plastic bag fee.”

The proliferation of PPE litter is just one of the troubling trends of the past year that highlights the need for volunteers to join the cleanup, Allen said.

“We’re also seeing a lot of Mylar balloons, because people are having more outdoor events that used to be indoors,” he said.

Volunteers are also urged to be especially vigilant about collecting all types of plastic trash, even tiny shards that will continue to break down into microplastics that can harm wildlife.

“This is a way to have a tangible impact to remove plastics from getting into our waterways,” Allen said. “The more of us understand and engage at a basic level, the more influence we can have.”

The CleanSwell app can be found at: https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/international-coastal-cleanup/cleanswell/