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Thousands of RI Volunteers Take Action for Clean Ocean Access

by Wendy Fachon

CLEAN OCEAN ACCESS (COA) in Middletown, RI, is dedicated to eliminating marine debris, improving coastal water quality and preserving public access to the shoreline, so that future generations can enjoy ocean activities, such as swimming, fishing and kayaking. With the help of citizen scientist volunteers and community partners, the organization tackles ocean pollution at its root – on land.

Composting – One major project, Healthy Soils, Healthy Seas RI (HSHSRI), brings together composting efforts in partnership with existing food-waste-diversion groups: The Compost Plant, Rhodeside Revival and the Aquidneck Community Table. The three partners serve as the boots-on-the-ground team that will manage all commercial and residential composting collection and processing with an initial focus on Aquidneck Island. Approximately 32 percent of the total municipal disposal is residential food waste. A head of lettuce takes 25 years to decompose in a landfill. Food waste is the waste category with the largest potential for increased diversion to composting and/or aerobic or anaerobic digesters.

Citizens participating in the HSHSRI project collect data on the amount of material leaving their homes – compost, recyclables and landfill trash. The project encourages people to think critically about their waste footprints and empowers them to reevaluate the need for low-and-no value materials, such as single use plastics (unrecyclable food wrappers, chip bags, styrofoam trays), that enter the landfill, or worse, end up polluting the ocean.

Eliminating Marine Debris – The CLEAN program exists to educate, inspire and empower the community to solve the problem of marine debris through activities that eliminate marine debris from the shoreline, improve habitat and promote environmental stewardship. COA has been coordinating two coastal cleanup events per month, from September through April, along the entire shoreline of Aquidneck Island. It also organizes coastal cleanup events for neighboring Jamestown and Little Compton. In addition, COA provides all materials for small groups to do flexible schedule cleanups on a regular basis.

Data collection plays a major role in advancing community-based data-driven advocacy efforts. COA’s tally sheet is modeled after one created by the Ocean Conservancy. It is divided into six categories. As an example, one category is Smoking-Related Activities. In 2013-2018 period, COA reports the collection of 1,301 lighters, 3,623 cigar tips, 3,676 pieces of tobacco packaging and 80,200 cigarette butts and filters (Clean Ocean Access 2018 Clean Report). 95 percent of cigarette filters are made of tightly packed cellulose acetate (plastic) fibers, thinner than sewing thread. This makes up some of plastic debris ingested by fish. As a result of the data collected by thousands of volunteers, Clean Ocean Access successfully advocated for an island-wide ordinance prohibiting smoking at public beaches, parks, recreation areas, and the famed Cliff Walk. COA’s massive amounts of data are used to influence change, and the success of these efforts is made possible by the 12,665 local citizen science volunteers who have invested over 22,339 hours to address the global problem of marine debris.

In 2016 COA launched the Southeast New England Marina Trash Skimmer program, and has since successfully operated four trash skimmers that have removed 20,615 pounds of comingled debris and over 27,000 individual items of debris from the Aquidneck Island shoreline over the course of 166 sire visits. On April 19, launched the Providence River Marina Trash Skimmer with an event at the Hot Club. COA is advancing and expanding the awareness, scalability and effectiveness of this technology with grants for three more Trash Skimmers, the program will be expanding to New Bedford, MA.

Improving Coastal Water Quality – The OCEAN program is about keeping monitoring water quality, especially during September thru May, when lots of people use the ocean, but the state monitoring is not performed. Rooftops, driveways, roads, expansive lawns, residential and commercial activities can lead to storm water runoff or combined sewage overflows that wreak havoc on coastal water quality. Citizens scientists can get involved with activities such as water sampling. COA collects 20 samples per week, identifies problems and provides timely remediation.

Preserving Shoreline Access – Limited access to the shoreline is how the organization started in 2006 and is its most important issue. The ACCESS program started to remove barriers and evolved into an effort that includes topics such as erosion, sea-level rise, invasive species and long term shoreline planning. Rhode Island has roughly 400 miles of coastline and 227 “rights of way,” which are listed on the RI Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC) website – Citizens can help preserve shoreline access by reporting on their use and on barriers that arise at local access points.

With 2019 World Oceans Day scheduled for June 8, Rhode Islanders can plan to celebrate by organizing local community shoreline clean-ups that include collecting data on marine debris. COA hosted its first beach cleanup in September 2006 as part of the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Since then, the organization’s achievements have helped beautify the coastline, improve local habitat and build social capital – friendships, positive energy and environmentally-responsible behavior. In addition to beach cleanup activism, COA seeks volunteers to help with photography, table events, attend city council meetings and participate in fundraising events like Paddle for Access and Swim to Skim in August. Learn more about all these programs, projects and events at

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