If Only We Knew: Bishop’s 6th Grade Hits the Beach with Gloves and Trash Bags

Christina Gaffney (’17) waved her latex-gloved hand at the black water and pieces of trash flowing from a storm drain at Mission Bay Park. “See that?” she said. “I want to help stop that.”

bishopIn December, the Bishop’s 6th grade class joined forces with San Diego Coastkeeperto sweep the beach, collect garbage, and record data on their findings. Within an hour, students collected 41.75 pounds of trash: 307 cigarette butts, 261 pieces of Styrofoam, 189 plastic food wrappers, and 108 plastic bags, among other more exotic pieces of refuse like a pair of navy blue cargo pants, a toy seahorse, a dead duck, and a kite-sized piece of fiber glass, which 6th grader Nico Langlois fished out of the bay as his classmates held onto his limbs to keep him from plunging headfirst into the water.

Data recorder Katie Maysent (’17) explained, “It is important to record data on the garbage we find. If we know all the things going into the ocean, we can know what to recycle and reuse so they don’t go into the storm drains.” San Diego Coastkeeper, the region’s largest professional organization protecting San Diego’s inland and coastal waterways, uses cleanup data to communicate pollution prevention needs to decision makers.

The experience was an eye-opener for these students. Who knew that seemingly innocuous debris discarded miles inland – candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and Styrofoam bits the size of fingertips – can wreak so much damage on our coastal ecosystem? But that’s exactly what is happening, according to San Diego Coastkeeper, the county’s largest professional environmental organization protecting the region’s inland and coastal waters for the communities and wildlife that depend on them. Alicia Glassco, Marine Debris CoordinatorProgram Manager, taught the students that litter and trash blown inadvertently by the wind makes its way to the coast from storm drains, canyons, creeks, and rivers. But the scary part is what happens when it reaches the ocean.

bishop2Researchers estimate that 60-80 percent of all marine debris, and 90 percent of floating debris, is plastic. Plastic and Styrofoam are petroleum-based products that take hundreds of years to break down in the marine environment. Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks into smaller and smaller, sometimes microscopic, pieces. Currents transport this plastic soup to a large gyre in the center of the open ocean, where it is accumulating in a so-called “Garbage Patch.” Here, plastic pieces can outnumber plankton by a ratio of 6:1. This number is likely increasing. The plastic looks like plankton, so fish consume it. Either the fish die or get consumed by something else, thereby transmitting the toxic petroleum on up the food chain.

The implications are dire for our oceans and ourselves, and sometimes it seems that the problem is too big, but as the 6th graders learned, hope lies in each of us. One of the goals of San Diego Coastkeeper is to educate the public and provide opportunities for it to help.  We can become members of and donate to this and other organizations whose mission is to protect our environment. We can volunteer. We can stay informed; knowledge is power. And we can vote accordingly. We can change our own habits – lead by example, carry cloth shopping bags, pick up after ourselves, get metal water bottles instead of buying plastic, use less water, think before we fertilize, reduce, reuse, recycle, ride our bikes, remember and teach that plastic lasts forever.

Bishop’s tries to teach its students that they can make a difference in this world. Small changes help. Spread the word.