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Plastic litters US coastlines after July 4th: Experts share tips on protecting beaches, marine life

Fireworks, foam coolers, cold drinks, beach chairs and flip-flops all sound like the perfect recipe for a beachside Fourth of July celebration.

When abandoned along the shore, however, these items can quickly transform beautiful coastlines into polluted eyesores.

“Sometimes, [people] purposely leave them behind,” said Dr. Beth Christensen, director and professor of Adelphi University’s Environmental Studies program.

“They’re done with their vacation, and they’ll leave them there rather than dispose of them,” she added.

Polluted beach in Thailand

This image shows pollution coating the coastline of Thailand's Tarutao National Park. (Photo/Utopia_88/Getty Images)

Each year, Clean Beaches Week is held from July 1-7, a time during which beaches are particularly vulnerable to vast amounts of litter.

“Typically, the week before [Independence Day] and for several weeks after, we do see and remove quite a bit of fireworks debris from our beaches, bay waters and salt marshes,” said Rob Weltner, president of Operation SPLASH.

Over the past three decades, the organization’s volunteers have collected more than 2 million pounds of trash and marine debris from the beaches and waterways of Long Island, New York.

“The public brings couches they don't want and abandon them on the beach after they watch fireworks,” said Ken Beckstead, founder of Cigarette Pollution Solutions.

“Paper, plastic, metal, discarded food, dirty diapers, umbrellas, broken chairs…they leave it all,” he said.

When the litter makes its way into the ocean, marine life bears the brunt of the negative impacts, and creatures often end up consuming and ingesting it.

Plastic, one of the worst types of coastal pollution, has been found in 62 percent of all seabirds, in 100 percent of sea turtle species and in 25 percent of fish sampled from seafood markets around the world, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

Scientists have estimated that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic pollutes the world’s oceans.

“Mostly all of our food is wrapped in this material,” said Kathryn Kellogg, blog curator of Going Zero Waste.

“[Plastic] doesn’t biodegrade – it photodegrades, which means [it] never goes away, it only gets smaller and smaller,” she said.

According to Kellogg, plastic acts as a sponge, absorbing toxins present in the water.

When sea creatures consume the plastic, those toxins are then released into their bloodstreams.

“Many organisms, including sea turtles, will mistake plastic for jellyfish and ingest it,” said Christensen.

Because they can’t digest plastic, she said, it prevents marine life from processing other food and essential nutrients.

As part of the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers collected more than 18 million pounds of pollution from coastlines around the world in 2016.

Cigarette butts, which also contain a form of plastic, topped the list.

Top 5 litter items collected along beaches

“The cigarettes that are left in the sand contain hundreds of chemical compounds that leach from the filters as soon as they get wet,” said Beckstead. “These compounds have been found to be harmful to Daphnia, which are at the bottom of the food chain.”

Many communities in the United States host annual fifth of July beach cleanups to restore coastlines to their natural states after Independence Day celebrations.

Minimizing beach pollution during the Fourth of July holiday can be as simple as ensuring that all potential litter leaves in the same way it arrived.

“All those little Zip-lock bags that people bring for their beach snacks need to go home with the people who brought them,” Christensen said.

Kellogg recommended avoiding bringing non-disposable items to the beach, being vigilant about trash that might fly away in the breeze and picking up after oneself.

Keeping any bags brought to the beach tied and closed will also keep items from escaping, she said.

Christensen’s advice to beachgoers is to think ahead.

“Take food in containers with lids instead of a bunch of little plastic baggies, because those are hard to keep hold of,” Christensen said.

“If you put them in the trash can, it’s also really easy for the wind or a seagull to take them out,” she added.

Kellogg said that trash cans at beaches are often not emptied daily.

“By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean if we continue at the rate we’re going,” Kellogg said. “It’s a huge problem.”