Jenna Schwerzmann, Joanna Toole Intern

Part I of this blog post told the story of cleaning up the shellfish flats in Wellfleet.  This part will talk about the Outer Cape Cleanup.

While spending a college semester aboard a research vessel, native Cape Codder and oyster grower Anthony Daley was appalled to see plastic pollution taking over the marine environment.  He thought about how what he could do to help solve the issue at home and came up with the Outer Cape Cleanup.

When Anthony started this initiative five years ago, he designed a cleanup to take place over four days and roughly 25 miles of the Cape Cod National Seashore.  The cleanup crew would start at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and end at Race Point Beach in Provincetown.  Some volunteers joined for a day, others met each morning at the specified start location, and some even camped overnight and did all four days!

This year, of course, was a little different.  The Outer Cape cleanup typically occurs the last weekend of September, but those involved weren’t sure if they would be able to get the appropriate help.  An extensive cleanup requires a plan for the collected trash, and since the National Park Service rangers were short-staffed this year, Anthony and his team had to come up with another solution.  It all came together when a dedicated CCS volunteer offered the help of his pickup truck and an oversand permit!  A group set out from High Head Beach in Truro to clean as much of the National Seashore as they could cover in one day.

The cleanup was proceeding smoothly until the group hit an area of beach that was littered with small foamed polystyrene pieces, which they later nicknamed “Styrofoam City.”  Everyone stopped to pick foam fragments off the dune for an hour and a half, and they still didn’t get it all!  We wondered whether climbing on the dunes to retrieve trash did more harm than good. After consulting the Center’s geology and erosion experts, we learned that climbing on the dune to collect the trash is likely not going to have an effect remotely resembling the erosion effects caused by strong storms each year, and that a brief climb up the dune to pick up the permanent plastic outweighs the havoc on the environment if not collected!  Still, beachgoers should refrain from climbing beach dunes, since some are much more sensitive to human activity than others.

Volunteers picking up small foamed plastic fragments at “Styrofoam City.”

After the abridged 2020 Outer Cape Cleanup, Laura Ludwig arranged a sorting location thanks to a generous friend who let the volunteers use his industrial garage on a Sunday morning.  We divided up areas of the garage floor to create separate sorting stations for each type of debris. A few hours and more Hole-in-One Donuts later, we totaled our collection. The top-ten items collected overall were: polystyrene foam pieces (over 70 gallons!); non-descript rigid plastic pieces (480); rope/twine pieces (291); plastic bottle caps (282); plastic bottles (257); plastic food wrappers (202); mylar and rubber balloons/strings (192); foam lobster buoys and pieces (107); nets and pieces (101); and eking out 10th place just before cigarette butts (39) were the plastic straws/stirrers (86).

After sorting and counting the Outer Cape collection, we had fun with this photo opportunity!  (left to right: Mark Dubois, Laura Ludwig, Leslie Starr, Marie Broudy, Anthony Daley, David Flattery, Genevieve Martin, Angela McNerney and Jenna Schwerzmann. Not pictured is Mike Winkler, garage owner.)

A few weeks later, Laura recruited a handful of CCS Beach Brigade volunteers to tackle “Styrofoam City” once more.  It was a cold October day, but the dunes and sea were just as beautiful – and just as polluted.  We hauled out as much as we could gather, which included another hour-long stint at the famous foam location.  On our journey back, we noticed something interesting: a section of dune slid down after we had walked past, not two hours earlier.  We know this because it covered our footprints! (It is worth mentioning that this was not a section we were climbing on; we only climbed on the dunes with the worst pollution.)

Our footsteps from the trek out, newly covered by the falling dune.

Now that we are mostly beyond the beach-cleaning season, it is nice to reflect on these unique experiences that we got to have while cleaning the Outer Cape.  In such challenging times, it is reassuring to be surrounded by likeminded people, and we get to have an adventure while contributing to an important mission.  I am looking forward to more beach cleaning in the future, maybe even in the winter!

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