When she moved to Long Beach in 2004, Sabrina Kaminsky relished her daily jogs along the two-mile stretch of shoreline that runs parallel to the boardwalk.
Yet each morning, her healthful routine was interrupted by countless pieces of unsightly garbage.
"I realized how much garbage is on the beach and then I started to pick it up — as much as I could," said Kaminsky, 44, a stay-at-home mom.
Since that first Long Beach jog, Kaminsky has been cleaning the beach on her runs, stopping frequently to lighten her load by depositing the waste in garbage cans along the way.
Without realizing she was on trend, Kaminsky has been engaging in "plogging" during her daily routine.
A hybrid term that combines the Swedish words "plokka upp," "to pick up," and "jogga," for jogging, plogging is the act of picking up litter while jogging. Popular in Europe, the activity has gained traction in the United States in recent years as Americans have become increasingly concerned about pollution caused by plastic debris.
In fact, litter is a big problem in the United States. According to the environmental advocacy group Keep America Beautiful, there were more than 50 billion pieces of litter along U.S. roadways and waterways in 2020, with more found along the waterways than roadways. That’s "152 items for each U.S. resident," according to the 2020 report, kab.org/goals/end-littering. And although littering itself continues to decrease, plastics make up an increasing share of litter.
‘The balloon lady’
On her daily "plogs" on the beach, Kaminsky finds numerous balloons that have blown away, water bottles and more recently, discarded masks.
"They call me ‘the balloon lady,’ " Kaminsky said of the people who encounter her carrying the colorful, deflated wind-swept sacs.
Though she understands that some litter, like balloons, may inadvertently end up at the beach, Kaminsky is less tolerant of people who simply leave liquor and water bottles and other trash behind.
"I mean, c’mon. You can come to the beach and have fun, but at least pick up your stuff and throw it in the garbage," she said.
The peripatetic beach cleaner has also enlisted the support of her husband, Tim, and kids, who once a month clean their neighborhood beach together.
Her children are enthusiastic in their efforts.
"I really like cleaning up the garbage on the beach because I’m helping the environment, and all the animals that are suffering from eating plastic or getting caught in plastic bags," said Olivia, 13.
If more people cleaned up the beach, said Lucas, 11, "we’d have a way-more-clean environment."
As a young girl herself, Kaminsky got into the habit of picking up litter at the Copacabana Beach near her home in Rio de Janeiro.
"You’re passing by there and you see garbage, why not pick it up and throw it in the garbage?" Kaminsky reasoned.
It’s all about creating a better world and environment for her children, she says.
"I want them to be able to breathe and have good air quality," she said. "Our world is beautiful, and we’re destroying it with all this plastic."
Cleaning the beach, she advises, can’t just be just a special event, but should be done every day.
"Every day there’s garbage. Every day there’s something there to collect."
Threat to ocean life
Litter is not just unsightly, it’s deleterious to the marine ecosystem, said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a conservation organization based in Highlands, New Jersey, that runs annual fall coastal cleanups in New York State.
"Marine debris, and plastics in particular, pose several very serious threats to the health of the ocean, the marine life that lives there and ultimately to people," Dillingham said.
Plastics take a long time to dissolve, disintegrate and decompose, Dillingham said. "Until then, they smother ocean habitats, entangle wildlife and are mistaken by wildlife for natural foods and ingested, often killing the animals."
Turtles get entangled in six-pack holders; sea birds are caught in fishing lines and nets; and birds ingest plastic that can kill them.
There’s also growing concern that microplastics — bits about the size of a sesame seed that have degraded from larger pieces or are manufactured as exfoliants in health and beauty products — are making their way into the food chain.
"Ultimately as we eat seafood, which has ingested plastic, that plastic comes back to haunt us," Dillingham said. "So, our littering ways have consequences potentially for our health."
On an aesthetic level, Dillingham said, plastics destroy the beauty of beaches and shorelines, "diminishing our quality of life and recreational experiences, sometimes to the point of hurting local economies." Eventually, plastics break down and turn into microfibers.
"Even if we can’t see them, they’re still a problem. So, no good comes from plastics and debris in the environment," Dillingham said.
A family affair
For the past few years, Kai Tvelia has volunteered alongside his family at Atlantic Marine Conservation Society’s weekly beach cleanups of the mile-long waterfront at Hallock State Park Preserve in Riverhead.
"We try to keep the beaches clean," said Kai, 13, of Ridge, who, as a member of the Mensa Junior Honor Society, must volunteer 25 hours each year. "I enjoy just knowing that I’m doing good for the planet and for others."
The Eaton-Tvelia family — Kai, his mother, Cynthia Eaton, father, Sean, and brother, Micha — has one rule: Everyone must devote an hour a week doing good deeds. That includes volunteering at the Southampton Animal Shelter and Island Harvest’s food bank or doing litter cleanups in their neighborhood and at the beach.
"All we ask is one hour a week," said Eaton, 50, an English professor at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead. "We think no matter what you do, one hour a week you should be doing good things for other people."
Over time, Kai has become more keenly aware of the harmful effects of plastics.
"It’s very worrying to know that people don’t know that they’re eating plastic that’s just inside of their foods," he said.
Though she’s at times concerned that both Kai and Micha, 11, might feel frustrated picking up what seems like a never-ending stream of trash, Eaton reminds them that their efforts, in particular the data sheets where volunteers document the types of trash they’ve picked up, allow the experts at environmental organizations to focus on prevention and long-term solutions.
Beach cleanups help protect the environment and reduce the chance of animals ingesting marine debris, explained Rob DiGiovanni, executive director of the Hamptons Bays-based conservation organization, which also runs cleanups at Cupsogue Beach County Park and Sunken Meadow State Park.
DiGiovanni likes to equate littering the beach to going to someone’s house for a party, dropping your refuse anywhere and walking away. The host would not likely invite you back, he reasons.
"And, yet people don’t think twice about leaving their refuse in the marine environment," DiGiovanni said. "We need to think about where we’re leaving our trash."
Spreading the word
A lifelong beach lover, Joseph Labriola cherishes walks along the beach. At around the age of 9, he started collecting sea glass during his meditative ambles.
About six years ago, while searching for sea glass, Labriola started picking up plastic bottle caps and other refuse he found along the shore. To date, he estimates that he’s hauled away more than a ton of debris.
"Once you start finding trash, it’s not that you can’t unsee it: You see more of it," said Labriola, 34, an English writing professor at Stony Brook University who lives in Port Jefferson.
Partnering with Wilson Sporting Goods last year, Labriola and a few volunteers collected 1,000 tennis balls on local beaches over a couple months that will be recycled into tennis courts and more.
Depending on his schedule, he goes beach cleaning once or twice a week. He scours the sand for garbage at Centennial Park Beach in Port Jefferson as well as others around the Island, from Jones Beach to Montauk. This past summer, he drove cross country, doing cleanups near rivers along the way, culminating in cleanups along the Pacific coast.
Typically, Labriola brings paper bags or reusable plastic pails and a fancy trash grabber he invested in to collect the waste. What he does with the trash depends on what he finds. Recyclables, like plastic bottles, metal cans, batteries and light bulbs, naturally, get recycled. Most everything else, gets thrown away.
"Everything you can think of, pretty much I find," he said. "Batteries; light bulbs; pens — if you’ve used something in your house, I’ve probably found it on the beach, honestly."
Ridding the shore of waste has a direct impact on the local habitat, Labriola said.
"I have seen birds tangled up in fishing line. And you know for a fact that for every time you see that, there’s a ton more that you probably aren’t seeing," he said.
As part of his advocacy, Labriola gave a TEDx talk, "Beach Cleaning to Make a Difference," through Bellmore’s W.C. Mepham High School in the spring of 2020. (You can watch that video here.)
And for the past year and a half, he’s been creating instructive videos he posts on YouTube (bit.ly/YouTube-ProfessorLabs) and Facebook documenting what he finds, hoping to bring greater awareness to the need for long-term solutions, "whether it’s plastic reduction and alternatives, waste management and recycling."
In addition to his solo explorations, Labriola hosts small group cleanups around the Island’s beaches through his Facebook page, Long Island North Shore Beach Cleaners, and has collaborated with patrons of Port Jeff Brewing Co. as well as with a Mount Sinai Girl Scout troop.
Though he admits to feeling frustrated by the endless task he’s dedicated himself to, Labriola is heartened that there’s a growing community concerned about the environmental impact of plastic and litter, as evidenced by local and statewide plastic straw and bag bans and social media dedicated to these efforts.
"You have to take solace in the fact that the more people who are aware of it, the more you can work to make those bigger changes over time," he said.
Any effort — individual or group — can make a difference, advises DiGiovanni.
"Every piece of plastic that the public picks up or every piece of marine debris just gives it one less chance to interact negatively with the environment," said DiGiovanni, adding, "If we took away more than what we put into that, that would have a positive impact over a long period of time."
On Long Island, there are endless opportunities to clean the beach — and the streets of your own neighborhood. So, grab a pair of gloves, a picker and garbage bag next time you head out for a run, hike or walk, with or without the dog. Or join a group cleanup with one of these organizations:
Operation S.P.L.A.S.H., operationsplash.com, conducts boat patrols from March to November with volunteers hauling trash and debris from bays, beaches and waterways.
Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, amseas.org, runs Hallock State Park Preserve beach cleanups on Saturdays from 10 to 11:30 a.m.
American Littoral Society, littoralsociety.org, organizes New York’s International Coastal Cleanup, this year planned for Sept. 17.
LI North Shore Beach Cleaners, facebook.com/linsbeachcleaners, where Joseph Labriola advocates for beach cleanups.