Last Saturday volunteers from the Surfrider Foundation South Jersey Chapter set out to clean up the small beach by the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Atlantic City, an area along Absecon Inlet, where the ocean connects to the bay.

The group chose the site not only because it is heavily littered, but because fast-running tides carry the trash out to the ocean.

Most of the material collected during the cleanup was plastic. It included water bottles, bags and food wrappers in addition to plastics from a variety of products from toys to building materials.

Plastics are a particularly serious problem. Plastic is light, versatile, and can be molded into a variety of useful products. However, it breaks down into small parts that are difficult if not impossible to pick up.

In the natural world, things like wood and plants are broken down by bacteria and biodegrade back into the soil, but this is not the case with plastics. Petroleum-based products are not consumed by bacteria. Through a process called photodegradation, ultraviolet rays from the sun break down the molecular chains that bind plastics together. Plastic is broken down into smaller particles, but never to a safe level.

The remaining particles are toxic chemicals with names like bisphenol, phthalates and polyvinyl chloride. In the ocean, these chemicals get absorbed by fish and other marine life and end up in their tissues. These chemicals become part of the fish we eat.

To combat the growing plastic waste problem, scientists are working on creating biodegradable plastics. There are two types being produced now, plant-based hydro-biodegradable plastics and petroleum-based oxo-biodegradable plastics. There is also research being done with bacteria that can break down petroleum-based plastics.

To reduce plastic waste, cities and countries around the world are enacting laws limiting plastic use. We can help by changing our behavior. The best way to combat the problem is to properly dispose of waste. Roadsides and beaches should not be trash sites.

We can also greatly reduce the amount of high-density polyethylene that is ending up in our landfills and oceans by bringing our own shopping bags to the market and refusing plastic bags at the grocery store. By spreading awareness and doing what we can to keep the planet clean, we will ensure a sustainable future for generations to come.

Sustainable Downbeach is working toward creating a healthier, friendlier community with an eye on protecting the environment. For information or to get involved see Sustainable Downbeach on Facebook.

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