The Power of Cleanups

Making a change in your community, bit by bit

This blog was co-written by Susanna Goodell, Ocean Conservancy’s Communications intern for the Spring 2021 term and a member of the Dartmouth College Class of 2023, majoring in Environmental Studies. She is the Build Chair for the Dartmouth chapter of Habitat for Humanity and a scouting intern for the Dartmouth football team. Susie loves spending time on the coast of Maine with her dog.

As we head into September, Ocean Conservancy is gearing up for this year’s International Coastal Cleanup™ (ICC) season. Since starting the ICC in 1986, we have demonstrated that even seemingly small actions can lead to creative solutions and a bigger positive impact on the issues facing our ocean.

Today, we’d like to highlight an ocean advocate we spoke with earlier this summer whose efforts on behalf of the ocean are mushrooming on Long Island.

Professor Joseph Labriola teaches writing and rhetoric at Stony Brook University, but he works on behalf of the ocean when he’s not in the classroom. In 2016, regular beach cleanups became fully integrated into his weekly routine. Each week, he conducts cleanups in several locations across New York’s Long Island. As he stated,

“Once you observe all that trash, you can’t unsee it.”

Professor Labriola grew up in Florida, which is where his connection to our ocean began. In our phone call, he told us that something he loves about the ocean is that it is universal—someone at the beach in New York is feeling the same ocean as someone across the world in Asia.

Professor Labriola’s efforts have received attention from local stores and restaurants and even made headlines. In fact, news about his cleanups made it all the way to the Illinois-based sports equipment company, Wilson Sporting Goods. Wilson representatives reached out to him after seeing one of his Youtube videos in which he collected tennis balls from Long Island beaches. (Sporting equipment can be found in the data for many of Ocean Conservancy’s cleanup reports, including boomerangs, weighted dumbbells, tennis rackets and even 54 bicycles in 2016.)

Wilson decided to form a partnership with Professor Labriola to bring awareness to pollution caused by tennis balls that end up as ocean trash, and the company donated recycling bins to aid the professor’s mission. By recycling these balls via Wilson and their partners at Recycleballs, the greenish yellow felt can be re-used for horse footing while the inside rubber core is ground down to make tennis courts. Professor Labriola just completed a challenge for this purpose in which he collected an astonishing 1,000 tennis balls from Long Island beaches in a month. He told us,

“The Wilson collaboration is particularly exciting, and I think it’s a great example of big business taking note, with mutual benefits from community ground-level efforts.”

We talked about how encouraging it is to see Wilson’s commitment to this kind of effort. Ten years ago, Ocean Conservancy started the Trash Free Seas Alliance® to unite industry, science and conservationists who share a common goal for a healthy ocean free of trash. It is crucially important for big businesses to make changes to become more sustainable in addition to individuals like Professor Labriola getting involved locally.

The professor’s biggest advice to those wanting to take action was this:

“To figure out what your advocacy work will be, you want to lean into what you do well, find ways to do that work that you enjoy, and then excel.”

If you are wondering what you can do for the ocean, Professor Labriola offers a great example of how starting simply with one beach cleanup can lead to making a major difference. If you’d like to join in but don’t know where to start, a great way to get your feet wet is to find a local cleanup near you and participate in 2021’s International Coastal Cleanup: Connect and Collect.

Check out more of Professor Labriola’s content here.

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