WESTERLY — Local residents, out-of-towners, middle school students, families and seniors clustered at the Weekapaug Bridge on Saturday morning, eager to hit the breachway. However, theirs was not a typical summer visit to the beach. Instead of lunch coolers, towels and beach balls, they carried black garbage bags and wore latex gloves, ready to pitch in as part of the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup Day.
The annual event, organized internationally by the Ocean Conservancy and locally by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, encourages volunteers worldwide to come together on one designated day — this year on Sept. 21 — to collect trash from beaches and document their findings. The records become a part of an annual report designed to highlight issues in shoreline waste and propose corresponding solutions.
About 20 volunteers came to the Weekapaug Breachway, one of several beach cleanups in the Westerly-Charlestown area, on this year’s cleanup day.
Westerly resident Laura Miguel stooped to pick up stray cigarette butts in between rocks as she explained that her concern for the coast brought her to the cleanup for the third year in a row.
Miguel, who works for the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, said she sees trash on local beaches as a major problem for the community.
Dara Boland, of Hartford Conn., who also owns a house in Misquamicut, agreed. However, both Boland and her husband, Jim McPherson, said they were puzzled by why beachgoers would leave their trash behind at all.
“It’s a great question,” Boland said. “We have this beautiful beach we all can share, and it breaks my heart when I see people litter.”
Connecticut mother and daughter Teri and Mallory Thompson, who have a trailer near the breachway, had some other ideas.
“I think sometimes people are just lazy,” Teri said. “Or they think it’s just going to disappear.”
“If they don’t see it blow away, they just leave without it,” added Mallory.
However, even leaving behind a water bottle cap or a cigarette butt can have an impact.
“People think that one candy wrapper might not make a difference, but it does,” said Westerly Middle School student Gabriella Celico, who chose to participate in the cleanup to complete required community service hours for the National Junior Honor Society. “It could hurt the animals, and it’s not really good for the environment.”
Along with bottle caps and cigarettes, fishermen’s calamari and squid containers are frequently found littered along the breachway, according to Westerly resident Mark Burbelo, who has captained the Weekapaug Breachway cleanup since 1989.
Since the bridge and breachway are popular fishing areas, many volunteers agreed that fishermen were in part responsible for the trash in that area.
Steve Cersosimo, conservation chairman and board member of the Rhode Island Mobile Sportsfishermen Club (RIMS), said that his group sometimes gets a bad rap for this, when in fact many members of RIMS work alongside Audubon for the cleanup day, as well as organize its own cleanup events.
“We care about the beach more than anyone else,” Cersosimo said. “We’re here year-round.”
He added that the RIMS charter specifically calls for members to understand and promote not only fishing, but conservation and access. RIMS enforces this strictly among its more than 500 members in the area, and will suspend or even revoke membership for fishermen who do not act in accordance with conservation laws and standards, Cersosimo said.
Miguel also said that the lack of trash receptacles in the area is a potential explanation for the unwanted litter left by beachgoers and fishermen every year.
Several other volunteers, including Burbelo, agreed that trash cans placed in key areas could alleviate the problem; however, Burbelo said that the issue is not as simple as it may appear.
“Once you put it a dumpster in, you need to have someone to monitor it regularly,” he said, explaining that the receptacles must be emptied regularly to prevent overflow and cause further problems.
According to Burbelo, several dumpsters or trash receptacles used to be stationed around the beaches, but have since been removed, most likely because of the problems he suggested.
Perhaps the best answer is to place a sign in the area notifying visitors and local residents of a central depot where they can take their garbage, said Burbelo.
A clear-cut solution may be difficult to reach, but the help of volunteers like those in Weekapaug can certainly have an impact. Community members collected than 25,000 pounds of trash in last year’s state coastal cleanup event, according to a news release from Audubon.
Boland also said that she hopes her efforts will motivate those not currently involved to contribute in some way.
“We all have a personal responsibility to our part,” she said. “It’s model behavior: We can teach our kids, our youth, and maybe that will inspire others, too.”
Burbelo added that keeping future generations in mind is a huge motivator for him to preserve the area.
“We’ve always enjoyed the scenic vistas of the area,” he said. “It’s just something we have to work to maintain and keep clean for the next generation.”