This coming Saturday, April 20, Islanders will come together to clean up the Island’s beaches. It’s an opportunity to do a little something for the environment alongside friends and neighbors. Individuals, families, nonprofits, and businesses join in the effort, rain or shine, and celebrate the day together. Themes and challenges vary from year to year. This year, volunteers will be asked to keep a tally of plastic bottles collected, in conjunction with the article banning single-serving, single-use plastic bottles on the town meeting warrants in West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah.
The cleanup has a long history on Martha’s Vineyard. On April 22, 1970, the first nationwide Earth Day, Bob Woodruff and his giant ox cart led a group of high school students from Owen Park to State Beach in Edgartown, picking up roadside litter as they went. They then took the recyclable items to be recycled, using the brand-new recycling bins that the also-new Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) had installed at the West Tisbury dump. That was the Island’s first Earth Day beach cleanup, but the current annual tradition was established by VCS in the early 1990s, following the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. At around the same time, Earth Day became an international event, mobilizing millions of people around the world to boost recycling efforts worldwide.
Our local beach cleanup happens in all weather, balmy or blustery, but it changes over the years as new beaches are added and better practices are implemented. In an effort to reduce waste, VCS now gathers large used bags, like grain and pet food bags, to fill at the beach, and provides reusable, washable cotton gloves for protection, rather than using new garbage bags and disposable gloves. Volunteers start out at 10 am, and spend two hours or so at the beach, filling their bags with what they find. Town departments of public works help collect trash from many of the beaches, and Bruno’s and the M.V. Refuse District will accept beach cleanup trash without a dumping fee. This expands the emphasis on having a zero-waste event, which carries over to the afterparty.
The afterparty, at the Sailing Camp in Oak Bluffs, is a zero-waste event. VCS provides dinnerware, but encourages everyone to bring their own water bottles, both for the cleanup and the party. At the party there will also be food, donated by sponsors including the Black Dog, Sharky’s, the FARM Institute, Rocco’s, and the Scottish Bakehouse. Coral Shockey from Featherstone Center for the Arts will help kids of all ages make creative art with garbage, and there will be two raffles, one for adults and one for kids. The M.V. Shellfish Group will give beach cleanup volunteers a $5 discount for their fundraiser extravaganza the evening after the cleanup.
It’s worth noting that the fun isn’t just in the afterparty, especially if the weather is sunny and not too cold. All along State Beach, the Friends of Sengekontacket, who sponsor that area’s cleanup, will bring doughnuts, hot coffee, and cocoa for volunteers. Chick Stapleton of Island Spirit Kayak brings games for kids. “I have little kids, 6 and 8, and their friends’ families come. It gets the kids to have fun and really care, to really understand the full circle of single-use plastics,” says Stapleton. The Friends of Sengekontacket are engaged with beach cleanup n
students design “Carry In, Carry Home” posters to be used on signs along State Beach, where there are no barrels for garbage because those would attract predators like skunks and rats, who would be hazardous to more delicate wildlife, such as plovers.
At the far end of the Island, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) leads the cleanup at the town and tribal beaches. There are fewer volunteers for those more remote stretches of beach, and no free doughnuts, but there’s potential for some very interesting finds. “The coolest thing we’ve found was a bird’s nest with three little babies in it, and the parents,” says Beckie Finn, environmental coordinator for the tribe. “We’ve found creepy dolls and things, and we’ve pulled up everything from long metal bars to old Gay Head signs and bicycles, but I think what we find most are cigarette butts and commercial fishing equipment.” She says that Lobsterville Beach tends to have the most trash, not because of local beachgoers but because currents dump garbage from the Cape there.
Volunteers are welcome at all beaches, but some of the newer and more remote beaches especially need more volunteers. These include the up-Island beaches, Wasque on Chappaquiddick, South Beach in Edgartown, Felix Neck, and the shore of Lagoon Pond from behind the Tisbury Marketplace to Wind’s Up, and at the end of Lagoon Road in Oak Bluffs. If you’d like to join, there’s a full list of sponsored beaches at vineyardconservation.org. It’s a perfect way to spend a spring Saturday.