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Nine-year-old John was playing on the beach when he suddenly saw fake rose petals, scattered through the sand and across the dunes. John, a budding eco-warrior, recognized that these fake petals weren’t biodegradable, and got to work collecting all of them. “It just came to my head,” John said, “that these were bad for the environment and animals.”

As John figured out, fake flower petals, like any plastic, don’t biodegrade – they photodegrade. When plastic photodegrades, it breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. Because plastics do not break down into simpler compounds, like an apple in a composter would, this means plastic can remain in our environment in perpetuity.

The students lifted and searched in between sharp, heavy rocks and entered the water to catch pieces of trash drifting by the shore. And they were sure to not leave behind the small, nitty-gritty items such as bottle caps and cigarette butts. Many people are not aware that cigarette butts are made of plastic and are neither biodegradable nor photodegradable. According to many sources, including the NOAA Marine Debris Program, cigarette butts are the most commonly collected item during beach cleanups.

We weighed each full bucket before disposing of the trash in nearby bins, and accounted for the weight of the containers themselves when calculating the total amount of debris collected. We placed recyclables in separate bags which I had later took to another location because there were no nearby recycling bins at the park.  Within just 2 hours, the students had collected a total 247.5 pounds of trash, including 265 plastic water bottles.

Some of the water bottles removed from the Biscayne Bay coastline on Sunday

Even with this staggering amount of plastic bottles, many of us believed we collected even more styrofoam. Styrofoam is a particularly problematic type of plastic debris due to both its tendency to break into small beads that are difficult to collect, and due to its buoyancy which allows it to be carried across great distances.

But all plastics pose a significant threat to animal and human health. They are are not broken down by any natural processes. Entanglement and ingestion can lead to countless forms of external and internal harm to animals. Blockage of sunlight by plastics can lead to the death of autotrophs and phytoplankton, which can then lead to the demise of the entire food web of an ecosystem since these organisms are at  the base of food chains.

Plastics have been shown to leach chemicals when heated or worn, and can absorb additional toxins while floating in the ocean. Thus, animals ingesting plastics are often simultaneously ingesting toxins. Toxin concentrations then accumulate in organisms of higher trophic levels with biomagnification up the food chain.

During the process of biomagnification, primary consumers acquire a small initial amount of toxins from consuming plastic or contaminated autotrophs. Secondary consumers then have to eat several primary consumers to meet energy needs, therefore consuming several doses of this initial amount of toxins. Larger animals then have to eat several secondary consumers to meet energy needs, thus consuming several doses of contaminated animals that already contain several doses of the small initial amount of toxins.

And this leaves humans at the top of the food chain consuming these larger animals that have accumulated high concentrations of toxins. Thus, marine debris poses a serious threat to global human health. Plastic chemicals are associated with countless adverse health effects including infertility, birth defects, skin diseases, ulcers, immune system impairment and vision failure. Styrene, a major component of styrofoam, has been found to be carcinogenic.

But this group of students from Palmer Trinity School helped to create a safer environment for everyone. They are currently enrolled in a Social Entrepreneurship elective, a course that is meant to “empower idealistic young people with the necessary skills and experiences to design, launch and manage their own ventures for social change and environmental innovation,” according to Leopoldo Llinas, the Director of Environmental Stewardship at Palmer Trinity.

The students were participating in the Discover Program of the DOOR Network. The DOOR Network is an organization that encourages students to get involved with their cities and local communities through participation in events that emphasize the importance of mutual respect. Current cities with DOOR programs include Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, Hollywood and Miami. In the Discover Program, participants work with local agencies and ministries to serve the local community.

“The experience is about more than preparing a meal at a soup kitchen or playing with children at a day camp,” said Llinas. “It is an opportunity to work alongside local community members, to learn from local leaders and to listen to the stories of neighbors, clients and churches.”

Unfortunately, Margaret Pace Park had been cleaned up on September 17 as a part of International Coastal Cleanup Day. Within just a month, more than 245 pounds of trash accumulated along the shore. Marine debris is a huge problem, with more than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic currently in our oceans. To sign up for a beach cleanup near you or to host your own cleanup, visit VolunteerCleanup.org.