Fishing and boating Styrofoam is everywhere

Styrofoam is cheap, buoyant, durable, and environmentally unfriendly.

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Suzanna Nickerson made a collage of Styrofoam she found on South Beach after just two walks. — Suzanna Nickerson

One year, when Islander Suzanna Nickerson was walking along the beach near the old lobster hatchery looking for seaweed, she noticed the sand and surf was filled with pieces of Styrofoam of varying sizes and colors.

Nickerson moved to the Vineyard from New York City, and was surprised by the sharp contrast of the pristine beaches paired with old, dirty Styrofoam.

“I was kind of caught off-guard by all the plastic and Styrofoam spread across the beach,” Nickerson said. “I have been against Styrofoam ever since I was a little girl.”

Because of its buoyancy and resistance to moisture, Styrofoam is used in buoys, markers, and moorings. The “blue board” Styrofoam is also used heavily in docks and floats, and many watercraft are filled with floatable foam.

After seeing all the litter, Nickerson thought she would make a statement about Styrofoam pollution on the Vineyard by collecting the broken pieces of foam and creating a poster.

The poster consists of 900 Styrofoam pieces, collected from South Beach over the course of two two-hour walks. Some of the pieces are broken down to the size of a penny, while others are large shards of broken takeout containers and long-lost boogie boards.

The poster provides a startling realization that our fishing and boating industries are a major contributor to the Island’s pollution problem.

Polystyrene foam, a.k.a. Styrofoam, was created by the Dow Chemical Co. in 1947 to be used in thermal insulation for homes and as a water barrier. Since then, it has seemingly taken over the packing industry, and spread to a number of unrelated industries that utilize the foam for its low cost and durability.

The colloquial use of the term “Styrofoam” in America often refers to a different material from the original Dow brand Styrofoam that is white and made of expanded (not extruded) polystyrene.

Pretty much every takeout box you get is made out of Styrofoam, and the same with many disposable cups. Because Styrofoam can be made soft, it is used in shipping delicate items as well.

It is well known that foam of any type is deleterious to our natural world because most recovery facilities will not recycle it. Additionally, when left in the environment, foam can last for decades without breaking down. Animals often eat it and end up starving to death, and chemicals from the decaying foam leach into water and soil.

According to a report from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, styrene, which is the chemical compound in polystyrene foam, is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

When Nickerson was young, she said, all buoys and docks were made of wood, and there was never any issue. “Plastics are everything now, everything is synthetic and made in a factory or laboratory,” Nickerson said. “The processing industry is changing dramatically all the time.”

Since moving to the Island in 1989, Nickerson has collected garbage spread along beaches and trails every year. She made the poster in order to show the world just how much Styrofoam litter can be found in just a few hours of walking along Vineyard beaches. “I will often find it in the incoming tide or trapped in the beach grass where the shorebirds eat it,” she said.

Nickerson said the public’s response to her poster has been overwhelmingly positive. “Some people seem to really care about what I do and want to help, or make their own posters; other people don’t care at all. They are the ones who step over the garbage they see on the beach,” Nickerson said.

For Nickerson, reducing the amount of waste one puts into the environment starts with reducing overall consumption of plastic and Styrofoam products. “It isn’t enough to recycle anymore, it isn’t the long-term, sustainable solution that we need,” Nickerson said. “It feels like we have gotten to a place we won’t be able to get out of.”

She wrote The MV Times a Letter to the Editor urging people to avoid Styrofoam containers, coffee cups, and coolers, and conserve as much as they can. “We had a flourishing fishing community before the invention of Styrofoam. We had docks, floats, rafts, boats, etc., none of which was made of plastic,” she wrote in the letter.

Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) programs and membership coordinator Signe Benjamin said, “Styrofoam is probably the worst type of plastic found in our natural world. It is proven to be related to a number of health problems, and it really is very common.”

According to Benjamin, a goal of VCS is to educate people about the use of Styrofoam and encourage them to make small changes in their lives that could make a big difference. “We really want people to take part in this effort on an individual basis,” Benjamin said. “Lots of people don’t realize how these tiny little steps really factor in to the big picture.”

Benjamin said something as simple as not using plastic utensils, or choosing a reusable water bottle instead of a throw-away one, can make all the difference.

As far as Styrofoam in the fishing industry goes, Benjamin said, it’s another piece of a larger issue. “We want people to be educated about these types of things, because the more you learn, the more informed your choices will be,” she said.

In 2018, Falmouth voted at town meeting to ban the use of Styrofoam by businesses and other public venues, mainly related to food production. According to an article in the Falmouth Enterprise, the Falmouth ban does not apply to moorings, foam insulation, dock floats, or foams used in the fishing and boating industry.

Falmouth town clerk Michael Palmer said the town last week received correspondence from the attorney general’s office confirming that the bylaw has been approved, and will be implemented over a six-month period.

Falmouth health agent Scott McGann said one of the reasons Styrofoam in the food industry is the focus of the ban is because it is widely used and not recyclable. “We are going to be following the lead of several other Massachusetts towns,” he said. Those towns include Pittsfield, Somerville, and Nantucket.

McGann said he will be notifying restaurants and businesses of the bylaw during the implementation period, and after that period is over, he will enforce the ban.