Op-Ed: Beach Cleanup Data Needed for Legislative Change

Howard Forbes Jr.

Each year, 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans, and data like that is more impactful than “A LOT OF TRASH IS DUMPED IN THE OCEAN.”

Without data, meaningful legislation can’t be backed by science, and in the USVI this scenario is all too common. The plastic bag ban, for example, was low-hanging fruit, easy legislation that at the time seemed appropriate; however, that bill has not done much to protect our beaches and coastlines.

Plastic bags and single-use plastic straws are consistently not among the top five trash items found during cleanups. Legislation aimed at protecting our beaches and coastlines should instead target the items that are more commonly found: beverage bottles (plastic and glass), and cigarette butts for example. In 2019, between September and October, 5,000 pounds of debris were removed from USVI shorelines; that can be broken down into 45,000 trash items, of which beverage bottles and cigarette butts account for the majority. This is but a snapshot for two months out of the year; there are eight to ten months not accounted for. And that data could be extremely valuable for the territory.

There are a lot of organizations now jumping at the opportunity to conduct beach and roadside cleanups, whether it be for keeping our islands clean or for publicity. In either case, of all the cleanups I have seen taking place over the last few weeks, none of them have collected any meaningful data, which means that organizations like VIMAS and DPNR, when testifying on the Senate floor, have no data from those cleanups to help support legislative action.

I cannot emphasize enough how important that data is to actually making a difference in putting an end to the unsightly state of our islands. We need legislation backed by science and locally relevant data to make a change; you can report on data and statistics for the U.S. as a whole but information specific to the current conditions of OUR islands is and always will be more helpful. I would like to encourage more people to collect data using the Clean Swell app so that we can fill these existing data gaps. This will serve to create better environmental policies to protect natural resources that sustain both our local ecology and economy.