Trash Display At Visible Chatham Corner Highlights Beach Pollution

By: Tim Wood

Rebecca Arnold surveys a skiff full of trash she collected from Chatham beaches. The skiff will be on the front lawn of the Chatham Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse through the end of the month. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Among the items crammed into the eight-foot skiff that sits on the lawn of the Chatham Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse are tangles of nylon rope, fishing nets, plastic bottles of various sizes, Styrofoam insulation and lobster trap buoys.

“And there's more in my backyard,” said Rebecca Arnold.

Between January and May, Arnold walked various beaches daily and picked up debris she found, dragging the bags back to her downtown home, where she broke the material down into 43 categories. The trash in the skiff – which will be on the front lawn of the Meetinghouse, at one of the most visible intersections in town, through the end of the month – represents just eight of those categories.

“I want people of all ages to see the amount one person can pick up,” she said, “and imagine how much is on our many miles of shoreline” in Chatham, in Massachusetts and beyond.

Arnold has dragged the skiff full of trash to various public events in town, including a recent screening of the documentary “A Plastic Ocean” at the Chatham Orpheum Theater. She ran into trouble last May when she brought some fishing-related trash to a debate of the selectman candidates and asked how fishermen could be encouraged to not dump broken or unneeded gear into the ocean. She was told by the moderator to “put your stuff back in the bags and sit down,” she said.
Her activities caught the attention of the Meetinghouse's social justice committee, which was looking for an idea for a lawn display to raise awareness on climate change and environmental issues that impact Cape Cod. Although not a member of the Meetinghouse, Arnold was invited to display the skiff on the lawn; it's surrounded by signs with eco-friendly tips like “Compost Unused Food” and “Reduce, Re-use and Recycle.” In the church's basement, she's also put up a display of five large panels showing what she picked up in just one day, April 7.

Arnold said she's been collecting trash on the beaches for a few years, both to get it off the shore and to demonstrate just how much stuff ends up tangled in the seaweed at the wrackline.

“Everybody knows there's trash on the beach and trash in the ocean,” she said. “But this is from our own beaches.”

The large majority of trash she's found is plastic of one form or another. That includes toys – she's got a whole shelf at home displaying army men and other plastic figures she's picked up – shotgun shell casings, shellfish bands, plastic sheets, cigarette lighters, chewing tobacco containers, lure hook covers, fireworks caps, and lobster trap tags – nearly 300, from as far away as Canada and Maine.

She also found many small plastic strips that no one was able to identify until a young person was able to identify them as cheese spreaders that come in packages of Ritz Crackers. Small plastic sewage cleanup disks she's found are from a Merrimack River cleanup in 2011.

“But it's 2017!” she said, incredulous that the disks are not only still washing up on shore but that they're washing up on shore here.

Abandoned flip flops, tampon applicators, corks, sunglasses, plastic planters, rubber gloves, miles and miles of balloon ribbon (many with balloon remnants still attached), cigarette butts, beer bottles, ziplock bags, hats, blankets, tarps, grill covers...the list “goes on and on,” she said. She found a couple of nice heavy winter coats that were perfectly usable after a good washing.

Many items are fishing or boating related: nets, nylon rope – in knots, clumps and lines – tags, buoys. There is a program to collect this material at the transfer station. The Fishing for Energy Project is a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), Covanta Energy Corporation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, and Schnitzer Steel to reduce the amount of unused fishing gear in the community and marine environment. At no cost, fishermen can get rid of nets, including nylon, polypropylene and monofilament; fishing gear rigging like trawl dragger cookies, cans, chain, buoys; line including nylon and polypropylene; and traps/pots. There's more information on the harbormaster department page of the town's website,

Arnold hopes the display will increase awareness of the problem. Events like CoastSweep, where volunteers pick up trash along beaches on a designated day, are fine, but the debris is there 365 days a year, she said. She's also looking for help in storing the material she picks up, and she's taken a fair amount to the transfar station, although she hasn't had any success in requesting to be able to dispose of it without a fee, and has to pay a $2 per bag charge because she doesn't have a sticker.

Arnold can be contacted at

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