TRAVERSE CITY — Angie Lappin will spend Earth Day the same way she's spent it for the last four or five years: cleaning up the beach and campground at Keith J. Charters Traverse City State Park.
Only this year, Lappin and her fellow park rangers will have lots of helping hands, thanks to a new Earth Day Celebration that invites local students and others to pitch in.
"We had some students make up some trash bins for us that are all painted fancy," said Lappin, referring to a project that had Northwestern Michigan College students designing and constructing wooden bins and Traverse City High School after-school art program students decorating them. "We thought we'd put them in place and invite the public to come out and help clean."
The cleanup is among several being held in the region in conjunction with Monday's Earth Day, a worldwide movement that has picked up steam as environmental issues like climate change and global warming take on greater significance.
"It helps folks make a difference in their own communities and it's an easy way to do that," said Maureen McManus, program associate with The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay.
The center holds multiple beach cleanups during the year, including this weekend's in partnership with Inland Seas. McManus said volunteers planned to spend Saturday and Sunday combing the beaches of East and West Grand Traverse Bays and bagging trash — but not before scrutinizing each piece.
"We give folks a designated distance of beach and a tally sheet, as well as gloves and trash bags," McManus said. "Then we ask them, as they pick up trash, to mark on the tally sheet, is it a cigarette butt? A balloon? A piece of plastic?"
Information from the tally sheets will be entered on the Alliance for the Great Lakes' adopt-a-beach website, a data repository for the whole Great Lakes system designed to give officials a better picture of the lakes' overall health.
Volunteers for TART Trails planned to converge on eight locations along the trail network Saturday to pick up trash, sweep the trails, and trim trees, overhanging limbs and overgrown bushes.
"The real stuff we want to get is the eyesores: plastic bottles, dirty blankets, dirty shirts someone has thrown off," said Tom Auer, who supervised the Boardman Lake Trail cleanup for about five years. "You get a lot of hats and gloves, disposable lighters."
Auer said both the east and west sides of the lake have histories of being dumping grounds at times, so almost nothing — from a vintage car tire to a pre-pull tab soda can — surprises volunteers anymore. Once they even found bedsprings embedded in a tree and cut it flush with the tree using wirecutters.
The Boardman Lake Trail cleanup typically attracts from 15 to 55 volunteers, some of whom show up in kayaks or canoes, Auer said.
"A lot of the stuff we want to get is in the bramble," he said, adding that a common find is shotgun wads, debris from discharged guns likely used in duck hunting. "Some of it is almost inaccessible."
Trash on area beaches ranges from balloons to medical and drug paraphernalia, including needles, said McManus. But the most common find is cigarette butts, which volunteers bag separately for educational displays.
“People think it's folks smoking on the beach and putting out the cigarettes on the sand," she said. "But the majority of cigarette butts are from folks throwing them out the car window or putting them out on the sidewalk and then it rains and they get washed into storm drains and don’t get filtered and get washed out into the bay.”
So why is such a small piece of litter such a big deal?
“Cigarette butts take 25 years to biodegrade,” she said. “It’s not just paper, there’s a lot of other things in a cigarette. And there’s all sorts of toxins that leach out of cigarettes and end up in the waterways.”
Spring is traditionally the worst season for trash at Traverse City State Park, whose beach is open year-round from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Lappin said.
"After winter and all the snow melts, we find anything from stuff that has blown off trucks, like packing material, tires, building material, hubcaps, weird metal that I don’t even know what it is, to cigarette butts, food wrappers, pop cans and bottles," she said. "We get a lot of stuff that washes on the beach, too, like food containers and, unfortunately, diapers.
"This is an ongoing battle year-round, but it's particularly bad now because in the winter there's no (staff) over here."
Lappin said the problem is compounded by the park's popularity as a picnic spot and its designation as a "carry-in, carry-out" park, which means visitors must leave nothing behind.
"That clearly did not work well," she said. "We even have bags and dispensers there. Unfortunately people will put (lunch remains) in the bags and leave it there for the seagulls to tear apart or they don’t bother with the bags and just leave their garbage. This is the first year in 10 years that we’re going to put trash cans back in there."
Adopt-a-Highway moved its trash pickup days in northern Michigan to the week after Earth Day because snow often still covers the region on April 22, said official Margaret Widrig.
"They found people were unable to get out in April because we have different weather than downstate. We're hoping it doesn’t snow April 27 through May 5 so (volunteers) can get out," said Widrig, Adopt-a-Highway coordinator for the five-county Grand Traverse region and Charlevoix County.
She said volunteer groups typically find everything from spare tires to money.
"Unfortunately we also have people that have come across meth dump sites," she said. "It's actually become such a concern that we incorporate in our video training information about meth waste so they know how to identify it and not to touch it so we can call law enforcement and get them out.
"A lot of Adopt-a-Highway organizations are older groups like the VFW and AMVETS. That’s not even on their radar."
Help wanted The following Earth Day cleanups are still looking for help: n Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay - Earth Day Beach Cleanup. Meet at 1 p.m. today at the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market parking lot in Traverse City. n Keith J. Charters Traverse City State Park - Earth Day Celebration. Meet at 11 a.m. Monday, April 22, at the park on East Bay. Refreshments and educational displays provided. Time it takes for garbage to decompose in the environment: Glass Bottle 1 million years Monofilament Fishing Line 600 years Plastic Beverage Bottles 450 years Disposable Diapers 450 years Aluminum Can 80-200 years Foamed Plastic Buoy 80 years Foamed Plastic Cups 50 years Rubber-Boot Sole 50-80 years Tin Cans 50 years Leather 50 years Nylon Fabric 30-40 years Plastic Film Container 20-30 years Plastic Bag 10-20 years Cigarette Butt 1-5 years Wool Sock 1-5 years Plywood 1-3 years Waxed Milk Carton 3 months Apple Core 2 months Newspaper 6 weeks Orange or Banana Peel 2-5 weeks Paper Towel 2-4 weeks Information Source: U.S. National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota, FL