We began our service work early today at Biscayne Bay National Park, where 96% of the protected area is under water. We worked with our learning partners, Arend and Kelsy, to remove trash and debris from sea turtle nesting habitat. Today was a difficult day for me. I felt full of shame and dismay as I looked at long stretches of sandy beach and mangrove coastlines spoiled with our filth and debris. I even cried a little as we bagged soda bottles, flip flops, toothbrushes, fishing nets, tennis balls, light bulbs, seat cushions, plastic doll parts, hypodermic needles, ball point pens, buoys, and thousands of broken up pieces of plastic. Some of the plastic bits were so small that they couldn’t be separated from the sand grains, and I couldn’t help but wonder how all that microplastic was impacting the marine food chain. And the dozens of Mylar balloons we found wrapped around mangrove roots…we learned that sea turtles confuse them with jellyfish, ingest them, and die an agonizing death as a result starvation when the balloon blocks the passage of food.
But our ASB team diligently and reflectively continued to clean up the beach where sea turtles would be nesting in June until we’d managed to remove over 500 lbs of marine debris. The trash filled about 20 giant-sized trash bags, included a 150 lb drift fishing net, and covered the full stern of our boat on the return journey to the park office.
At reflection, some of the students found themselves wondering whether the work we’d done today was worth it, given that the beach would most likely be littered with trash soon after our departure. What could I say to assure them that our hard work was valuable? Honestly, I’d had the same thought multiple times today, but I also know that a defeatist attitude leads to hopelessness rather than productivity and progress. So, can we reframe and refocus our helpless feeling into one that is more empowering?
I believe we can. The truth is that this ASB experience has the power to transform us and to motivate each one of us to take positive action in our own lives. We can be reassured by people like Mava and Kelsy and all the scientists dedicating their lives to gathering data to help us find better solutions. These people may be overworked and underfunded, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. There are other people out there who – like us – care about environmental issues. This also reminds me of a comment Dr. Hope Jahren once made in a blog about climate change. She said, “We are strong and lucky. The fact that we are a group of people with food, shelter, and clean water obligates us not to give up on the world that we have compromised. Knowledge is responsibility.” So, even as more plastic trash is drifting toward the beaches we left clean for the next generation of sea turtles, we look forward to our return journey home and the opportunity to spread the knowledge that we gained during this experience.