During the Atlantic City BeachFest concert series, Todd Schneck’s eyes should have been on Pink’s high-energy, high-flying show. Instead, he was too distracted by the amount of plastic cups, straws, beer cans and garbage he saw rolling in and out with the waves.
“It blew my mind,” the 51-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident said. “I went there to have a good time, and that’s what I saw — people walking along the water, dropping the cups in the ocean.”
With too few trash cans and no authority to monitor the litter situation, Schneck took matters into his own hands, picking up others’ trash — something he also did after July Fourth at his favorite fishing spot in North Brigantine.
“That stuff goes out to the ocean and kills the animals. It makes me sad and disgusted to see this,” Schneck said.
For 30 years, non-biodegradable trash, such as plastic six-pack rings, bottle caps and cutlery have been the No. 1 enemy of plant and animal life in South Jersey.
According to a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum, 95 percent of plastic packaging is used only once. Plastic production has surged over the past 50 years, increasing from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014, with that number expected to double in the next 20 years.
At the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, an entire display is dedicated to plastic and artificial products that harm fish, seabirds and larger marine mammals.
“Plastics have been a problem for many, many years,” said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the center. “Plastic going into the environment is going to affect some kinds of marine life, whether it be a whale that swallows a plastic cap to birds entangled in fishing line.”
A 2015 viral video taken by marine researchers off Costa Rica showed the removal of what turned out to be a 10-centimeter plastic drinking straw lodged in the nostril of a male sea turtle.
The video, which has been viewed more than 11 million times, has become the billboard image for the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the “Say NO to Straws” movement.
Amy Goldsmith, director of Clean Water Action, said the national environmental advocacy group has started a “no-straws” campaign, as a part of a larger “Rethink Disposables” effort.
“We started with working with restaurants, food trucks and festivals in New Jersey,” she said. Clean Water Action first targeted businesses in neighboring Ocean Grove and recently brought the campaign to the Asbury Park Boardwalk.
“Changing to reusables is a win for beaches, waterways and the environment,” said Goldsmith, “but also for the businesses.”
Goldsmith said the California chapter of Clean Water Action is working on a program to audit businesses that rely heavily on disposable to-go plastics, to calculate the cost of replacing.
While Clean Water Action programs are in place in other states, progress has been slowly growing in New Jersey.
A chance encounter with a celebrity helped sway restaurant owners Jon and Patty Talese.
In 2016, “Entourage” actor Adrian Grenier was spotted in the Ocean City and stopped at the Taleses’ Asbury Avenue restaurant, Jon and Patty’s.
“He asked me if I would do him a favor,” Patty Talese said. “I asked what was the favor, and he said if we could consider reducing our straw consumption.”
Grenier’s environmental organization, The Lonely Whale, also advocates for a strawless ocean to protect sea life and reduce pollution.
Talese said the restaurant already decided to stopped serving individual non-dairy creamers to reduce plastic and food waste, so the transition to reduce plastic straws would be the next switch.
Jon and Patty’s now serves paper straws upon request and is working to reduce additional disposable plastic, eventually switching to paper to-go containers and takeout bags. Patty Talese also is the president of the Ocean City Downtown Merchants Association, and is working to approach the restaurant association as well to make the plastic-free switch.
“As a business, it’s really tough, but I think when we started making the reductions ...” Patty Talese. “We’re making other people think too, you know,” Jon Talese added.