December 20, 2014
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Sandy’s ring of debris is a warning

Sandy and last week’s nor’easter did us a favor.

That seems hard to believe, seeing the devastation along South County beaches and the complete leveling of entire neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey – but you look for a silver lining wherever they can be found. And while the storms left a wake of fallen branches and scattered debris, the one-two punch pretty much swept the trees of leaves.

The switch from autumn to winter has been thrown and, to emphasize the point, last week’s storm sent us a frosting of snow. But before we break out the snow blower, rummage though the closet for the window scrappers and boots, it’s time to wield the rakes and clear away the leaves.

Carol set the pace Saturday, quickly amassing a mountain and a collection of smaller foothills. With no wind, the work went quickly and it seemed the transition of seasons would be relatively easy.

That was until we got to the front yard. It was virtually devoid of leaves, but Sandy’s surge left a line across the yard like a giant bathtub ring. The waves crested over the seawall sweeping logs, boards and seaweed to within 30 feet of the house. We were lucky. The waters stopped there. The surge actually came about two hours earlier than a moon high tide. Had the two coincided, there’s no question we, along with much of Warwick, would not have fared as well as we did.

I started by pulling logs and planks to the sides of the yard. Then it was down to the fine stuff and what only a rake could collect. Raking seaweed from the lawn is something I’ve done several times since we moved here in 1975 and it continues to strike me as something out of an absurd dream. It’s a no-win situation. The weed and the sea creatures it harbored are dead. And the grass where it landed is dead, too, from its salty watering. It’s all dead. Along with the weeds and water, sand was washed ashore, making for inhospitable terrain for grass, although by next August, hardy crabgrass will establish itself.

Sandy brought so much more.

Plastic bottle caps outnumbered anything else. They were multiple colors and sizes. Next were plastic bottles and containers (even a plastic milk crate, which I was glad to get). The list included plastic pens; plastic forks and spoons (no knives); drinking straws; a comb; a whiffle ball; a yo-yo; a shotgun shell; Frisbee; tube of sunscreen; tampons; and more plastic bottle caps, lots and lots of caps.

I wondered where they came from. It’s not as if there’s some depository of plastic bottle caps that was overwhelmed and washed into the bay. And from my perspective – maybe I’m not looking close enough – there isn’t a lot of litter, certainly not plastic bottle caps along the shore.

Narragansett Bay is not known as a collecting place – a backwater – like some sections of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, where mariners have found a sea of debris – most of it plastic. Occasionally – maybe a couple of times during the summer – I’ll see a plastic bag undulating like some giant jellyfish below the surface and, of course, plastic detergent bottles, favored for marking lobster and snail pots. But generally, the bay is free of debris. People are paying attention. There’s a conscious effort to preserve the environment, and for that I thank Save the Bay and other groups.

So, where did all these bottle caps come from?

I looked for answers on the Internet and came across Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International. From what he has to say, is that what Sandy left on my front yard is far more serious than a bathtub ring of debris; it is symptomatic of a far greater global problem.

"The ocean is like a soup of plastic, mostly composed of fragments invisible to the human eyes, killing life and affecting dangerously our health," Fidenci writes.

The ESI website goes on to say, “Since 1950, plastics have played an omnipresent part of our daily lives. They are everywhere and globally we use more than 260 million tons of plastic each year. Most of the marine debris in the world is comprised of plastic materials (between 60 to 80 percent of total marine debris). Field studies have shown that mega- and macro-plastics have concentrated in the highest densities in the Northern Hemisphere, adjacent to urban areas, in enclosed seas and at water convergences. The longevity of some plastics is estimated to be hundreds to thousands of years.”

If this is not enough to scare you, the report says plastic debris affects wildlife, human health and the environment.

“The millions of tons of plastic bottles, bags and garbage in the world's oceans are breaking down and leaching toxins, posing a threat to marine life and humans.”

I didn’t find an answer to where all the bottle caps came from, but I suppose it’s obvious. I can say, if my 100 feet of shoreline is an accurate sample, then there must be millions of them just along the Narragansett Bay coastline.

Think of it this way, while you’re raking those leaves – wonder what would happen if leaves didn’t decompose?

Sandy left us more than one warning that things are changing … and the reality that we had something to do with it.


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