A coordinated beach restoration project drew hundreds of volunteers to Lake Michigan last weekend. The annual Adopt a Beach Program brought together environmentally conscious people from four states.
Now that the summer heat is gone, sunbathers and swimmers have left beaches across the Great Lakes with fewer people, but full of trash. Packets of mayonnaise and baby wipes are just some of the strange items people found recently at Grand Haven State Park during the Alliance for the Great Lakes Adopt A Beach Program.
The alliance started the cleanup in 2003, but has participated in the annual International Coastal Cleanup since 1991. Each year it partners with agencies in Ohio and New York for the annual September event. On Saturday morning volunteers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan collected trash on 243 beaches across the region.
Nearly 50 volunteers swerved up and down the beach at Grand Haven State Park, gathering items including plastic, food and cans. Ken Larson of Grand Haven participates in cleanups throughout the year as a member of the group CORE, or Clean-Up Our River Environment.
"This is a worthwhile endeavor for the community and for the environment," Larson says. "We should have more people that get involved, giving of their time, two hours is nothing. Saturday is great, rain shine or otherwise."
Volunteers at Grand Haven collected 43 pounds of trash. Highland Park Rosewood Beach volunteers, in Illinois picked up 84 pounds, while at Washington Park Beach in Indiana they gathered nearly 300 pounds.
However, the event is not just about how much trash is collected. It's also about what is collected. While some volunteers gathered garbage, others made detailed list of trash they found.
Vince Deur is the co-chairman of the Surfrider Foundation, a group dedicated to protecting oceans, waves and beaches. He partners with the Alliance for the Great Lakes throughout the year. He says tallying what you pick up makes the event more meaningful.
"It's one thing to do beach cleanups and to just end up with a bunch of bags and send them to the dumpster and people forget, but when we take the few extra minutes to tally what we are actually doing, we are providing them with a lot of usable data," Deur says.
Data from the clean up is aggregated and shared with beach health officials in hopes of improving conditions.
So what do people find most on the beach? Cigarette butts.
On Saturday at Grand Haven alone volunteers found 2,290 cigarette butts. Adopt-a-Beach program manager Jamie Cross says cigarettes are an issue throughout the region.
"Cigarette litter is the number one thing that we find on our beaches and shorelines," Cross says. "We have communities that have banned smoking from the beaches or restricted it from the beaches, because of the litter issues and it really helps to educate people that cigarette debris is litter also."
Cross says tallying individual items of litter offers researcher and policy makers a look at the local picture.
"For example in some communities like Cleveland, tampons are on the top 10," Cross notes. "Also cigar tips are the number one item and they are nowhere else in the Great Lakes, the number one item and that is probably a result of issues related to storm water and sewage. So knowing, looking at the local community and seeing what's on their list is really important to understand the problems and try to combat them."
The data is not only available for experts to analyze. The Alliance for the Great Lakes also gives the public access to the information they collect, through an online archive.