Maryland Coastal Bays

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No Time for Trash On Our Minds at the Beach - July 24, 2016

We have been taught that trash, simply put, is bad. It stinks, it is unpleasant to see, and humans make more of it than any other animal on Earth – about 1.3 billion tons per year, according to one recent estimate. From landfill seepage to toxic waste to the take-out box we used for dinner last night, trash lurks everywhere.

In the Coastal Bays region, we can all too easily spot trash that has escaped the journey to the landfill or recycling center, washing from the streets and accumulating in our waterways. Plastics, metals, and Styrofoam are among the most recognizable types of pollution fouling the environment, disrupting ecological processes, and endangering wildlife. But there is something else at stake, too, and something extremely important at that.

Our minds.

A recent series of studies out of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the United Kingdom suggests that coastal trash is much more than just an eyesore.  Trash scattered along a coastal scene compromises the stress-relieving, restorative abilities that we associate with the coasts, oceans, and beaches.

To understand, we delve a little deeper into our psychological relationship with nature. Experts use a principle known as the attention restoration theory to explain why so many of us flock to nature to rejuvenate. Natural landscapes launch positive responses in our brain that help us better perform cognitively challenging tasks, simultaneously reducing stress. Studies also suggest that nature is a cost-free antidepressant, as we tend to decrease our scrutinizing introspection (known as negative rumination) and replace it with more uplifting thoughts.

But as soon as trash re-enters the picture, the wellbeing of our psyche begins to reverse. In the UK study, as little as seven percent of a coastalscape filled with trash elicited feelings of anger, concern, and stress in survey participants. The subjects reported feeling “unhappy and less calm,” especially about public trash like bottles and food wrappers. The investigators of this study attribute this phenomenon to our association of trash with urban areas, and of urban areas with stress.

In essence, trash on the coast equals less relaxation on the coast.

We come to the ocean and bays to escape the emotional taxation inextricably linked to our daily lives. So how do we guarantee the trash-free, relaxing experience that we expect each time we pull up to the sand?

We can start by participating in the program, Adopt Your Street. The new program, introduced by the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and modeled after the Ocean City Surf Club’s Adopt Your Beach program, is a cleanup effort that engages the community to keep the Coastal Bays and beaches trash-free. Community members can volunteer to “adopt a street” along the peninsula, to help eliminate trash that would eventually runoff into the surrounding waters. Participants can either form a team with neighbors and friends, or choose to represent an area on their own. All interested participants can register the area they would like to steward online at www.mdcoastalbays.org and commit to at least four clean ups a year.  Participants also have the opportunity to record data on the type and abundance of trash collected, providing valuable statistical information to various organizations. Visit thewww.mdcoastalbays.org/adopt-your-street to garner pride for your block and find out more about Adopt Your Street.

But whether you visit Ocean City for a summer weekend or call yourself a born-and-bred local, we all have a common responsibility; that is, in reducing the amount of garbage we produce. Because when we throw something away, we must think to ourselves about the concept of “away.” Trash is transported elsewhere. Garbage may fall into the streets. Litter may be thrown into the water. There really is no “away,” so we must reduce our use from the start. Avoid disposable utensils, decline a straw in restaurants, or bring your own reusable takeout containers.  Small changes can go a long way.

And small changes have never been more important. Our mental health joins a suite of other entities, like the environment and wildlife, at risk from pollution. Trash of all types is notorious for harming our birds, fish, turtles, and marine mammals as they ingest or become tangled in the material.  Becoming Adopt Your Street stewards and conscious consumers in Ocean City is in everyone’s best interest.

Because there is simply no time for trash on our minds at the beach.

 

Bingaman is the Environmental Intern for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and an Environmental Science and Policy major at the University of Maryland.

 



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