By: Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
In 1985, shortly after my family moved from a suburb of Washington, DC, to the capital of the Lone Star State, my mom and dad took a trip to the Texas coast, just miles from the city of Corpus Christi.
My mother had grown up in Wisconsin and each winter her father had driven her from the snowy Midwest to the beaches of warm, sunny Florida, a place she thought of as, “paradise.”
But, as she looked out at the sands of this beach on South Padre Island, and at the waves from the Gulf of Mexico lapping onto the shore, she saw empty milk jugs, egg cartons, and florescent light bulbs.
It was a mess.
Instead of thinking she was in paradise, my mother sat down and cried.
When she got back to Austin, she called her colleagues in the DC office of Ocean Conservancy, (then known as The Center for Marine Conservation) and said she wanted to have a beach clean-up. So, in her new office, thousands of miles from her boss and co-workers, with just a waste basket, a desk, and a phone, my mom organized the first Texas Coastal Clean-up.
What would make this beach clean-up different from the few that had happened before was that there would be Data Cards. Volunteers would check-off what they found on a card that listed possible items of marine debris. Eventually, this data would be tallied and the sources of the pollution identified.
“The first Data Cards weren’t even in alphabetical order,” my mom told me when I spoke with her a few days ago. She and her colleague, Kathy O’Hara, just came up with a list of things while talking on the phone. After a few years, some volunteers (probably teachers or librarians, my mom imagines) scribbled on the sides of Data Cards that it would be helpful if the items were listed in an order other than the stream of consciousness that ran between her and her very close friend and colleague.
There were other things to contend with early on—a company that donated 10,000 pencils to be used with the cards—but shipped them unsharpened; the weather in late September, which as we are reminded of even now, is prime for hurricanes. And, then there was me—and my older brother—home from school during the very months my mom most needed to concentrate and prepare for the approaching clean-up. For that, she depended on Southwest Airlines and the flights that took my brother and me to Florida each August for a stay with my grandparents, who had made that yearly trip south a permanent migration.
In April 1990, Time Magazine called my mom, Linda Maraniss, an ocean hero in a segment called Environment: Earth Day, More Heroes for Mother Nature. And, because of the work her organization and others like it did, many laws and behaviors have changed. There is the MARINE PLASTIC POLLUTION RESEARCH AND CONTROL ACT of 1987, which makes it illegal to throw plastic trash off any vessel within 200 miles of the US shoreline, and the MARINE DEBRIS RESEARCH, PREVENTION AND REDUCTION ACT of 2006. Large balloon releases are no longer popular, and are illegal in some states and cities. Six-pack rings, which were notorious for trapping animals, are now cut into pieces by informed citizens, or produced to be photodegradable.
But, the problem of marine debris has not gone away—in fact, as we know from the recent attention given to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the giant accumulation of debris trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, and occupying an area that might be the size of Texas, plastics don’t go away. They might break down into polymers, but there’re still there. And, laws to prevent dumping, or land-based sources of pollution, are not always enforced.
Two years after my mom was named an ocean hero, she drove me to college. A few years after that, she and my father moved back to Washington. And, about ten years after that, she fought off breast cancer. And, now she's a grandmother.
“I had complete innocence, naivete, and outrage,” my mom said, when I asked her why she looked at the beaches and decided to try to clean them up.
And, like so many moms who see a problem and take a common-sense approach to changing “what’s always been”, my mom did it and life went on.
She still went grocery shopping and made dinner, took pictures at my theatre rehearsals, brought water to my brother’s baseball games, mailed off boxes of Christmas presents to her parents, and supported my dad when he left town to be part of the press corps covering a young governor from Arkansas nobody had heard of named Bill Clinton.
And, when we go to the beach, we still make fun of her for what she collects—no, not sea shells, but garbage—any she can find. She left Texas with a few boxes of her favorite souvenirs: yellow hard hats, a shampoo bottle from Norway, a bottle from Japan, and rope.
Lots of rope.
This year is the 25th anniversary of what has grown into the International Coastal Clean-up. Most states will hold their annual clean-up on September 25th. To find one in your area, you can visit the Ocean Conservancy website, which says, “Every year in September, more than half-a-million people in 100 countries remove millions of pounds of trash from beaches and waterways all over the world.”
And, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a downloadable, printable book for kids on marine debris called: Understanding Marine Debris, Games and Activities for Kids.
My mom’s friend and former colleague, Kathy O’Hara, recently sent me a book her teenaged daughter wrote as her final project in Girl Scouts. I sat with my five year old and read her the true story of Kermit the sea turtle who had ingested a balloon, mistaking it for a jelly fish; his life saved by the people at the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Center.
Kathy’s daughter writing a book about marine debris that my daughter has learned from.
The earth mothers do it again.