PARK TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Earth Day is over, but the spring cleanup on Lake Michigan is just beginning.
Tyrone Dobson leads the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-A-Beach program.
“(The Great Lakes are) important to me because I view them as an equalizer. Forty million people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes. And it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or you’re poor, you’re Black or you’re white, makes no difference. If you live along this area, you’re getting your drinking water from there. And that’s important because we need water to survive,” Dobson said.
He’s looking forward to the cleanup camaraderie and stories, like the time a volunteer found a bag buried deep in the sand.
“I was like, ‘Hey, it’s probably just a bag of sand that got buried. So please don’t feel like you need to waste your time to dig up this bag of sand,” Dobson recounted.
“The volunteer said, ‘Oh, it’s definitely a body’… and he sat there for probably 45 minutes digging out what turned out to be a bag of sand,” Dobson said with a laugh. “I think he had watched enough true crime that that’s what he thought he was going to find. But it goes to show that these beach cleanups are fun.”
On Saturday, thousands of volunteers will kick off the Great Lakes beach cleanup season through the Adopt-A-Beach program. Dobson said he’s seeing more youths lead the charge instead of waiting around for an adult to coordinate the effort.
“Young people are taking a more active role in protecting the Great Lakes, which I think is exciting because those are the leaders of today. They’re the ones that are taking up the mantle of leadership for these types of causes. And it’s, it’s encouraging to me to see that,” he said.
CLEANING UP IN THE COVID-19 ERA
Saturday’s cleanup will be the first full-fledged effort since COVID-19 took hold of the region last year — a pandemic that also prompted renewed interest in Michigan’s natural resources.
“A lot of us use the Great Lakes as a source of recreation and peace. And so, especially in times like today, having a tranquil or a serene place to go and just relax and clear your head is important,” Dobson said.
But the pandemic also curbed cleanups. In 2020, the Alliance for the Great Lakes recorded 420 beach cleanups, with volunteers gathering roughly 8,500 pounds of trash during the shortened season. That’s less than half of the typical number of beach cleanups and only 17% of average trash load collected by volunteers.
The armies of volunteers who comb the sand were also smaller last year. The Alliance for the Great Lakes logged 2,390 “volunteer experiences,” compared to a normal volunteer count of 20,000.
“So whereas a normal cleanup could have 10 to 25 people or so something like that, you started to see a lot more smaller cleanups (of) one or two people, or maybe just a family,” he explained.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also leading to a shift in what shows up on the shoreline. Jennifer Caddick with the Alliance for the Great Lakes says volunteers are finding masks, “an item that was a bit of a rarity prior to the COVID crisis.”
In addition to picking up litter, Adopt-A-Beach volunteers document what they find on beaches using a program provided list. That list details 46 common items found on beaches, including cigarette butts, cigar tips, glass shards, balloon pieces, fishing items, tampons, condoms, syringes, beach toys and clothing.
While masks, latex gloves and other forms of personal protection equipment aren’t listed, Dobson says volunteers are starting to write those items in.
“The fact that they’re showing up (on beaches) shows me… the continuation of the habit of litter,” Dobson said. “(That) is something that I’ve really started to grapple with — this idea of the bad habits that have continued to be on display, even in the face of COVID.”
WHAT’S LEFT BEHIND ON THE BEACH
Don’t try blaming our neighbors across the big lake.
“The way that a lot of our litter gets to the beach in the first place is because someone went to the beach and had a good time and then left their good time there,” Dobson said.
The senior volunteer manager is able to find the humor in what some people leave behind.
“The ones that are like more (of a) head-scratcher is when you find a single item that is part of a pair, so like when you find the one shoe, or the one sock. Did you leave the beach with one sandal? How did that happen?” Dobson said with a laugh.
But he said the type of litter topping beach cleanup lists remains the same.
“Roughly 90% of everything that we pick up is partially or completely made of plastic,” he said.
At the Holland State Park beach on Wednesday, News 8 found plastic bottle caps, cutlery and straws scattered across the sand. Dobson said the story is the same at all of the roughly 1,600 beaches lining the Great Lakes.
“If you’re just looking for a challenge for yourself, I tell folks to try to go one whole week without using single-use plastics. It’s extremely challenging. I did it maybe about a year and a half ago, and I thought I would be able to do it really, really easily. And that was very far from the case, because it’s really the single-use plastics are everywhere in every aspect of our lives,” Dobson said.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Dobson shared these tips for tackling the challenge and more:
Replace plastic water bottles, straws, bags and plastic cutlery with reusable items like storage containers, tumblers and silverware.
“We can refuse items that we really don’t need thinking about like takeout orders. Like, do you need the disposable knife and fork? Do you need that?” Dobson asked.
“You can’t discount the impact that one person can have,” Dobson said.
Be more mindful of your buying.
“The reality is, in particular for environmental issues, that each of us has a lot of power and a lot of control over… what we purchase and how we use items and goods,” Dobson said.
“(Think) about how you can use your platform, your voice as a source of power as well. So it’s showing your family and friends things that you learned that are important about the Great Lakes and things that you want to see different,” Dobson said.
Where allowed, use reusable bags at the grocery store and skip bagging your produce.
“I’m going to wash the produce, so it doesn’t really matter,” Dobson said. “Little things like that make a difference… if I don’t take one of those bags at the produce section, for example, that’s one bag. But if 100 of us don’t take those bags now, that’s 100 bags that are now not taken,” Dobson explained.
Visit www.greatlakesadopt.org to find a beach cleanup near you or to set up your own event.
“It’s my Lake Michigan, it’s your Lake Michigan, it’s our Lake Michigan. So let’s all take care of it together,” Dobson said. “There’s a lot of benefits connecting yourself to something that is so important and majestic like Lake Michigan or any of the other Great lakes. There’s something really awesome and beautiful about that, that I hope that everyone has the opportunity to experience.”