Handcuffs, Butts, And Citizen Science

Imagine a shout-out-loud freakin' gorgeous blue Saturday at the ocean, powdery soft sand dunes, gentle shushing waves and 6 million tons of garbage. See the blonde babe in tight jeans strolling along the beach with her elegant Italian greyhound, lugging an enormous, yellow trash bag and jotting down figures on a data sheet. Imagine hundreds of thousands of volunteers on coastlines all over the globe doing the same thing.

International Coastal Cleanup Day. Third Saturday in September, every single year since 1986. >From Trinidad to Russia, Ecuador to Egypt, people are falling in love with their beaches all over again. Earthwatch joined this year's action by teaming up with Ocean Conservancy, a sister organization paralleling what we and our scientists do: research, education, and science-based advocacy to support a healthy planet.Citizen science usually means getting your hands dirty, and it's always about making a difference. Real people + real scientists + awesome research = solving environmental challenges. (Like, how the heck did all that trash get into our oceans?) With Earthwatch you can zip off to foreign lands to do real sexy, sweaty stuff like tracking crocodiles or glaciers. Or you can immerse yourself in super-fine yet still adrenaline-charged work, like unearthing fossils or pottery shards. Or you can do Science that Rocks right in your own backyard, monitoring and protecting our precious remnants of nature and wildness.

This particular blonde couldn't fit chasing crocodiles into her schedule for Fall 2008. But she was still itching to get out there and do something that made sense, involved fresh air and fun, and satisfied her inner nerd. Believe it or not, picking up and counting hundreds of pieces of trash was the next best option.

So last Saturday, after scanning the north end of Salisbury Beach (Massachusetts) for Everything That Shouldn't Be There, I won the prize for "most unusual item" found. One pair of slightly salt-encrusted handcuffs, missing the key. (It's my aura. I tend to attract these sorts of things.) Oh, and a motley assortment of the usual plastic straws, bottles, wrappers, ropes, toys, and unidentified icky stuff. Even Mito (the dog) was getting the hang of it, using his long, tapering, canine nose to poke at trash bits for his human to pick up.

At the other end of the beach, ten other Earthwatch homies collected 530 cigarette butts. Apparently that's equal to thirty packs of cigarettes, smoked by hundreds of [insert your choice of descriptor word here I personally like "bleedin' eedjets"] who said to themselves, "oh, I'll just throw my butt here."

Last year the International Coastal Cleanup Day involved 378,000 volunteers collecting 6 million tons of garbage along 30,000 miles of coastline. Hoo doggy!! Houston, we have a problem. Which begins and ends with us.

Now imagine a continuum — on one end, the bleedin' eedjets. On the other end, the über-hip get-out-there-and-do-the-dirty-work volunteers and citizen scientists. Earthwatch. Ocean Conservancy. Hundreds of other awesome environmental organizations. So, um, where are you? And what are you waiting for?

by: Jeanine Pfeiffer

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