In July 2018, I began a blog post with the photo above and these words: “I came across this scene the other day. I won’t divulge my reaction to it! Outdoors men and women often search for vistas. Landscape photographers often do the same. But few, except perhaps the occasional nature blogger, seek out anything like this.” Here’s what I observed: our trash-filled world in miniature.
This is a place that locals refer to as “the curve,” where Bainbridge Boulevard in Chesapeake, Virginia, takes a sharp bend. The dirt pull-off there is large enough for multiple parked cars. “The curve” is popular with crabbers, fishermen, and boaters, as Mains Creek, which flows into the Elizabeth River, is just a short slope away. But this place, like so many others, regularly fills up with trash. And trash is deleterious, especially to wildlife.
I continued posting: “This jumbled mess of a trash pile was just feet from an Elizabeth River tributary. And that’ll be its destination following a rainstorm, a higher-than-usual tide, or some other event. Heck, all this trash could eventually reach the bay or the ocean. And some, or some parts, may reach the digestive systems of unsuspecting animals or humans.” Those words were followed by more foreboding words: “Animals belong here. People belong here. Most everything belongs here. But trash does not. Trash is an eyesore. Trash pollutes. Trash destroys habitat. And trash kills.”
Trash is an eyesore. This is one reason why so many organizations devote resources to removing it. For example, the Friends of the Indian River, a Chesapeake-area nonprofit, sponsors quarterly cleanup days in and around the river. I interviewed Rogard Ross, the Friends’ founder, who told me that cleanups are important because pollution affects quality of life. Who wants to see trash everywhere? But he also explained that they’re important because trash alters habitat and drives away wildlife, especially ecologically important birds and bees.
Here’s an extreme example of habitat alteration. The tires in the above photo were dumped in a Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge ditch. My wife and I spent an entire day hauling them out and carting them off to a dumpster. Physical habitat changes like these are disturbing, of course. But even more disturbing are structural changes brought about by the toxins in carelessly disposed waste. These toxins contaminate soil and groundwater, and they impact plants and animals as well.
Ross went on in our interview to zero in on the trash component: plastic. He expressed concern that plastic trash “gets into the food chain” and harms animals. He and his team do find tires, plywood, pieces of dock, strollers, and toys, some of which are in this recent cleanup junk pile. (Abandoned tires have become part of the landscape, haven’t they?) But by far, volume-wise, they find more styrofoam (actually polystyrene foam), plastic bottle caps, cigarette butts and filter tips, ketchup packets, food wrappers, straws, and other single-use plastic items.
Other organizations, like the Elizabeth River Project, another local conservation nonprofit, or much larger organizations like the Ocean Conservancy and the Environmental Protection Agency, see the same trash assortment. Here are a few more photos from my area, scenes that are most likely familiar to birders everywhere.
Kat Fish, Elizabeth River Project Volunteer Coordinator, reports that volunteers find a disproportionate amount of plastic during their cleanups, everything from food wrappers and fishing line to water bottles and take-out containers.
Plastic trash is a particularly menacing problem, especially when it reaches our rivers and oceans, as so much of it does. I stated as much in the blog excerpt above.
Some plastic is inherently toxic. But some plastic becomes toxic when lethal chemicals like PCBs and DDT attach to it. Over time this plastic waste breaks down into tinier pieces, known as “microplastics.”
These plastic pieces, found up and down the water column, are then ingested by organisms like plankton and fish. And fish are eaten by birds and other animals higher up the food chain. Once ingested by birds and other species, the particles can damage organs, increase susceptibility to illness, or interfere with reproductive health. Per the EPA, almost half of seabird species are affected.
Toward the end of our interview, Ross and I agreed that it’s not all doom and gloom, though. Yes, there are challenges, and there’s a lot more work to be done. But individuals and organizations like the Friends, the Elizabeth River Project, and the Ocean Conservancy, are facing the challenges head-on.
And this year, World Migratory Bird Day is calling attention to plastic pollution and its impact on migratory birds and their habitats. You can get involved by starting or attending a WMBD event, displaying the 2019 poster, and ordering a cleanup kit for a family or a group.
“Studies show that local projects on the management of plastic waste produce results in a short period of time,” according to WMBD organizers. “Thus, common sense and awareness can help to curb the giant tide of plastic. The international community needs to take urgent action to mitigate unnecessary injuries and mortality of migratory birds due to plastic pollution. World Migratory Bird Day 2019 is a unique chance to join efforts to address the serious problem of plastic pollution and to highlight its negative effects on migratory birds. Let’s unite our voices to address this rapidly growing environmental concern!”