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Saving Sea Turtles Through Community Litter Cleanups


By: Christi Hughes

In January 2016, a young sea turtle named Grace was found floating cold and listless next to a dock in Awendaw, South Carolina. She was rescued by compassionate locals to the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center™ for life-saving medical treatment. Grace, who was the size of a dinner plate, ultimately required exploratory surgery to remove a piece of flexible plastic about the size of a silver dollar­– very likely from a single-use plastic grocery bag – from her intestinal tract. Luckily, Grace made a full recovery and was released back into the ocean in July 2016.

While only the size of a dinner plate herself, veterinarians at the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium removed a piece of plastic the size of a silver dollar from Grace’s intestinal tract. She likely ingested a single-use plastic bag that had been improperly recycled or disposed of and found its way into the turtle’s ocean habitat.

In our sea turtle hospital, we treat symptoms associated with a growing global phenomenon: increasing amounts of plastic pollution in our environment. To draw attention to this problem at the local level, we need hard data showing the connection between what we are seeing in our patients and the current status of their physical environment.

So in partnership with the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, we developed the Litter-Free Digital Journal, a digital community of citizen scientists working together to document, map, and remove trash in our environment.  This resource builds off of Anecdata, an online citizen science community the MDIBL developed to crowdsource meaningful, actionable environmental data. Citizen science is helping us transition from triage to proactively mitigating environmental risk factors, from treating just a fraction of the sea turtles harmed by plastic pollution to implementing solutions that improve the health and safety of our shared physical environment.

Our top priority with Litter-free Digital Journal is to provide data to support local communities in driving meaningful behavior change. Just five months after publicly launching Litter-free Digital Journal, the Folly Beach City Council used data from this project to develop proposed beach litter ordinances. Shortly thereafter, Folly Beach became the first municipality in South Carolina to ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam coolers within city limits, and to protect their beaches by prohibiting single-use plastic bags, Styrofoam food containers, and balloons on the beach. This is a win for local citizens, for local businesses dependent on tourism dollars, and for loggerhead sea turtles that nest on these beaches.

To promote collective action across the state and prevent trash in South Carolina’s mountainous interior from flowing downstream through watersheds into our ocean, cultivate mutually beneficial partnerships with existing organizations doing great things like Surfrider, Charleston Waterkeeper, and Wounded Nature – Working Veterans. Importantly, Litter-free Digital Journal is easily accessible on mobile devices using the South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science app, and we welcome all like-minded individuals to join us in conserving our shared environment.

Excitingly, Litter-Free Digital Journal is also becoming a useful tool for educators seeking innovative ways to integrate a STEAM-based approach into their curriculum. With funding from the Schutte STEM Enrichment Program, local high schools Ashley Hall and James Island Charter are incorporating this hands-on data collection into a comprehensive, semester-long project.

Teams of students create scientific posters showing connections between litter data and sea turtle stranding data and formally present their findings to a public audience at the Aquarium’s student science symposium. By using the South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science app to record, remove, and analyze litter from local habitats during the project, students gain tangible insights on local litter problems and the devastating impact a single littered straw or plastic bag can have on wildlife, and are integrated into a solutions-oriented community.

Citizen science is an ideal vehicle to foster critical thinking skills in younger students as well, empowering them to leverage scientific information to creatively solve community problems. Cindy Renkas, an accomplished teacher at Mason Preparatory School in Charleston, began sharing the Litter-free Digital Journal with her 6th grade students this September.

Pieces of plastic pollution surgically removed from the intestinal tract of a young green sea turtle named Ripley. Since 2015, the Sea Turtle Care Center at the South Carolina Aquarium has performed surgeries on 14 other sea turtles that ingested plastics from their ocean habitat.

These young scholars have developed goals for their year-long team projects that include 1) generating a school culture that embraces reusable water bottles through an education campaign that includes creating TV spots for the weekly school broadcast, 2) supporting the informed consideration of a single-use plastic bag ban in a local municipality, and 3) partnering with our state regulatory agency, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, to educate boaters and fishermen at tackle shops and marinas about the dangers posed by abandoned and improperly discarded fishing gear and cooperatively explore viable solutions to this pervasive issue.

“My students have become very energized this year with our plastic pollution service-learning project,” Renkas said.“The Litter-Free Digital Journal has been a great resource to help educate them about the power of data in designing persuasive arguments to change behavior.”

For Grace and the South Carolina Aquarium’s fourteen additional sea turtle patients known to have ingested plastic since 2015, please consider joining our Litter-free Digital Journal community. Whether you want to dedicate thirty seconds to picking up and documenting that plastic bottle cap on the sidewalk while you’re walking to lunch, or two hours with like-minded friends at a cleanup organized by one of our invaluable partners, your efforts will make a positive difference when they’re shared on Litter-free Digital Journal. Thanks to technology developed by MDIBL, we’re able to support your cleanup efforts out and about in your community with the South Carolina Aquarium Citizen Science app. Come join us – we’ve literally put the solution to environmental plastic pollution in your hands.


Christi Hughes is a conservation and research specialist at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

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