Chicago’s beaches are slowly starting to resemble landfills, as visitors continuously leave litter behind. A recent study conducted by Loyola associate professor of biology Timothy Hoellein and senior biology student Anna Vincent reveals the truth behind the trash piling up at Ohio Street Beach.
The study, titled “Citizen science datasets reveal drivers of spatial and temporal variation for anthropogenic litter on Great Lakes beaches,” was published this year in a scientific journal called “Science of the Total Environment.” It analyzed trends in the trash found on beaches of the Great Lakes.
As an ecology professor and water pollution researcher, Hoellein chose to analyze the trash found on Great Lakes beaches after he began giving extra credit to his students for cleaning up Loyola Beach. He found a pool of data through the Alliance for the Great Lakes, which is an organization that sends volunteers to clean beaches and keep records of what they find.
Hoellein and his undergraduate students analyzed trash collected by thousands of volunteers over 12 years. From 2003 to 2014, nearly 58,000 pieces of litter were collected at Ohio Street Beach alone, and the study’s analysis reveals that cigarette butts made up 41.9 percent of the trash. This finding is unusual because smoking has been banned on Chicago beaches since 2007. Along with cigarette butts, 34.6 percent of the trash was food waste, such as straws and cup lids. The other 23.5 percent was made up of various medical and hygienic waste, such as tampons, condoms, needles and diapers. Such findings raise concerns about public health risks.
The study also revealed that nearly all the trash found was from beachgoers and urban consumers rather than from fishing, illegal dumping and shipping, as seen at oceanic beaches.
“It’s really concerning to hear that a public space that is typically supposed to be kept clean by the state or area has allowed it to get this way,” said Maggie Brady, a first-year environmental science student. “I am curious if it’s because the lack of funding for trash cleanup.”
The study shows that the lack of cleanup during certain times of year contributes to be the problem, which Brady, 18, said gives her cause for concern.
“[Finding tampons, condoms and needles] definitely worries me about public safety and health for those who constantly visit the beach in such conditions,” she said.
Hoellein said the beaches are actually much cleaner in the summer than in the fall, when they’re the dirtiest, which surprised him. Although the beaches are cleaned every morning, Hoellein said the issues arise once cleanup stops after Labor Day, despite people continuing to visit beaches in the fall.
“I was surprised by the seasonality of it. I really did expect to see a lot more stuff in the summer,” said Hoellein.
Lyba Zia, a senior biochemistry student, said she feels strongly about the issue and was upset by the way visitors treat beaches.
“It is incredibly disappointing to see such neglect towards the environment,” she said. “How can we, as a society, come to care about our carbon footprint if we can’t even pick up after ourselves? It was one of the first things we were taught as children.”
As a pre-med student, 21-year-old Zia also expressed worry for public safety due to the content of litter found at Ohio Street Beach.
“As someone pursuing a career in health, this is particularly devastating, because whether [from] toxins or the inability to afford resources to tackle environmental negligence, it is often those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged that receive the short end of the stick,” she said. “Also, this doesn’t include the habitats of other organisms, which we push to the side.”
Despite such concerns, Hoellein assured that although there is an issue with hygiene, the Great Lakes beaches are much safer compared to oceanic beaches.
“The more dangerous stuff that can be out there is ropes, nets, rusty fishing equipments like hooks [and] lures,” said Hoellein. “We don’t find any of that, though, so we’re lucky in that way. The most directly dangerous thing we’ll find is the occasional hygiene- [and] drug-related kind of stuff that [is] uncommon.”
Hoellein said he plans to continue this study and analyze more data as it is collected.
“We have a couple projects going on to work with the Alliance for the Great Lakes,” said Hoellein. “There’s a lot to learn since the record is so big, so we have to keep digging.”