Carolyn Munaco, a lifelong Hampton Bays resident, led 23 volunteers along Dune Road in Hampton Bays as they picked up plastics and debris on a recent Saturday.
“It’s not easy walking through the marshes carrying buckets full of trash,” she said a few days later.
Six hundred and sixty-eight pounds of trash, to be exact.
“It’s a health hazard to everyone. It’s ugly and it’s poison,” said the 47-year-old volunteer coordinator for the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the environment clean.
Ms. Munaco has always had two passions in life: the beach and art. In fact, her parents would tell her that she was born on the beach.
“This is where I live. This is where my babies are growing up,” said Ms. Munaco, whose three children attend the same high school, Hampton Bays, that she graduated from in the 1980s. “I grew up on the water.”
The inspiration behind her beach cleanup stems back to childhood memories of collecting sea glass and ceramic scraps along the Shinnecock Bay shoreline.
But it wasn’t until 2005 when the artist combined her two passions and started picking up trash along Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays, which is minutes away from her childhood home on Lynn Avenue, where she lived with her parents, Carolyn and Peter Munaco, and her three siblings, Philip Munaco, Anthony Munaco and Michelle Girardin.
“Being an artist [and] doing a lot with photographs, I would walk the beaches,” she said. “More and more, I was seeing plastic from garbage, and I would pick up what I could. Things kind of evolved from there.”
The Stony Brook Southampton graduate even found a way to incorporate the trash into her paintings.
Next to stacks of canvases in her studio garage lie piles of driftwood and bins of trash discovered at South Fork beaches, which Ms. Munaco uses to bring her multimedia paintings to life. Her paintings quite literally jump off their two-dimensional canvases, her subjects, sometimes painted on pieces of driftwood, brought to life through manipulated marine debris that resembles waves or tentacled sea creatures.
“I would pick up whatever I saw,” she said.
Last year, Ms. Munaco coordinated a total of 20 Eastern Long Island beach cleanups from Moriches to Montauk. In just three cleanups so far this year—approximately 130 pounds collected along Eddie Ecker Park in Montauk in February, 1,300 pounds in Greenport, and 668 pounds in Hampton Bays—Surfrider volunteers have collected a little bit more than one ton, or 2,000 pounds, of debris.
The next beach cleanup is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 3, at Cupsogue Beach in Westhampton Beach.
During her most recent trip to Ponquogue Beach, Ms. Munaco said, the amount of plastics she found was “disturbing.”
“We’re all eating plastic,” Ms. Munaco said this week. “It doesn’t go away, [and] it’s us humans that cause the problem.”
“I always say, plastic is an inconvenient convenience,” she continued. “It’s so easy to grab a Ziploc bag rather than a reusable thing. Ultimately, I would prefer to wrap everything in paper.”
According to the Surfrider Foundation website, the majority of plastic pollution comes from litter on beaches, streets and sidewalks. After plastics enter the marine environment, they slowly photodegrade into smaller pieces that marine life can mistake for food, sometimes with fatal results.
“You don’t want to see a sea turtle with a straw up its nose,” Ms. Munaco said. “Every single straw that you use, it doesn’t go away. Use your lips!”
On average, plastic pollution affects nearly 700 marine species per year, according to a 2017 study by Plymouth University. A separate study by Qamar Schuyler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland, suggests that as many as 50 percent of sea turtles are ingesting plastic at an unprecedented rate, and dying because of it.
On average, Americans produce nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, 50 percent of which is for single use, for example straws, plastic bags and disposable bottles—which account for approximately 14 percent of plastic pollution, according to Plastic Oceans, a California-based nonprofit organization. “More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year,” the organization says.
“There are billions of straws that go into the waste cycle on a daily basis,” added Andrew Brosnan, the chair of ELI Surfrider Foundation, reiterating a point Ms. Munaco made. “Single-use plastic doesn’t break down. It just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces.”
According to the Container Recycling Institute, 100.7 billion plastic beverage bottles were sold in the United States in 2014, or 315 bottles per person––up from 3.8 billion plastic water bottles sold in 1996, the earliest year for available data.
“When caps and labels are considered, the number is higher,” according to the Plastic Oceans website.
Ms. Munaco agreed: “Bottle caps are crazy,” she said, noting that they are one of the top plastic pollutants found on a regular basis.
To combat the rising use of single-use plastics, Mr. Brosnan’s organization created the Rise Above Plastics program in 2016, which includes a database of beach cleanup information, “where we count and quantify what we find on the beach.”
“It’s predominantly plastics,” Mr. Brosnan said. “We’re making a push to educate people about how to limit the use of single-use plastic.”
He pointed to his organization’s website, easternli.surfrider.org/rise-above-plastics, which offers 10 “simple actions” that East Enders and others can take on a daily basis to help reduce the number of plastics entering the marine environment every year.
The actions include refusing single-serve packaging such as straws and utensils, using a “to-go” mug at the coffee shop, and using reusable shopping bags at the grocery store. In fact, both the Southampton and East Hampton town boards approved a ban on the distribution of single-use plastic shopping bags in 2014, and Suffolk County enacted a similar, more inclusive ban on January 1 of this year.
“I am all for it,” Ms. Munaco said of the plastic bag ban, noting that she would like to see it expand to include deli bags in the near future. “I think it’s not enough. I think all the plastic veggie and deli bags should be replaced with paper wrap.”
“And there should be a ban on straws while we’re at it,” the passionate artist and environmentalist continued. “I can go on and on.”