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There’s a problem on Maine islands. Each year, tons of debris wash ashore. Plastic bottles, chunks of Styrofoam, busted buoys and single-use containers are carried in by the tide, turning idyllic isles into catchalls for floating trash.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Over the past 30 years, Maine Island Trail Association built a massive group of volunteers to clean these islands one by one, every year. And along the way, the nonprofit organization has built a water trail that spans the Maine coast and features more than 200 campsites.
“MITA was based on the idea that the people who use the islands will be the ones that care for them,” said Maria Jenness, who has worked as a stewardship manager for MITA since 2012.
This year, about 250 volunteers took part in MITA’s daylong island cleanup trips, which take place in the spring and fall. In addition, volunteer skippers, often accompanied by volunteer helpers, monitored and cleaned the islands throughout the summer. Together, they filled 1,340 trash bags.
That’s nothing out of the ordinary, Jenness said. The trash problem on Maine’s islands is fairly consistent, but it would be much worse if it were not for organizations like MITA.
People want to help, she said. Each spring and fall, MITA posts the dates and locations of upcoming cleanup trips, and the boats are filled within a matter of days as volunteers quickly sign up. There’s often a waiting list, especially for trips in the southern and midcoast areas.
“You wouldn’t think people would be so excited to pick up trash,” Jenness said. “But I think it’s because you’re going out in a beautiful place and doing something you can feel good about. It’s such a tangible thing, coming back with a boat full of trash.”
One island at a time
The 375-mile Maine Island Trail connects over 200 islands, with campsites and day-use sites established through handshake agreements with public and private landowners.
The idea is a landowner permits access to their island, and in return, MITA members and other island users help care for the island by picking up trash, clearing trails and monitoring activity on it the best they can.
Interested in this symbiotic relationship, husband-and-wife Stephen Saltzer and Louise Palmer contacted MITA last year after purchasing Norton Island, a 150-acre chunk of paradise off the coast of Jonesport. Or it would be paradise, if it wasn’t covered in trash.
“At places on the shore, it looked like someone had taken a dumpster and just dumped it,” said Salzer, a doctor from Connecticut who now lives part time on the Maine island in an off-the-grid house.
Over the course of two days, 30 MITA volunteers rid the island of the debris that was choking its coves and beaches. They picked up enough trash to fill a 30-cubic-yard dumpster twice. By the time the cleanup crew left, the land was pristine, said Salzer, who participated in the cleanup with his family. The volunteers also helped clear old walking trails on the island, and they established a MITA campsite.
“It went from being a trash heap to something we can maintain ourselves,” Salzer said. “Now when my wife and I walk around the perimeter of the island, we fill maybe one contractor bag. It’s a huge difference.”
A plastic problem
This fall, MITA teamed up with Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Downeast Coastal Conservancy to clean up Browney Island, a sanctuary for nesting seabirds. The island is not a part of the Maine Island Trail, and Jenness was dismayed at what she found.
“It looked pristine, but as I walked through the vegetation, I could hear the crunch of plastic underfoot,” she said. “There was so much that was hidden from view.”
While eating lunch that day, volunteers discussed the idea that future geologists may consider plastic fragments to be an identifier for fossils from this age. This reality is so evident on Maine islands, where plastic jetsam mars otherwise beautiful natural areas.
“There are times when you find a plastic bottle and it literally shatters in your hand if you try to pick it up because it’s been there for so long,” said Lisa Kane, a regular MITA volunteer for the past 25 years. “It’s turning into all these tiny microplastic pieces. You really see firsthand what the plastic problem is.”
Kane recently retired after a 30-year career as a natural science educator for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. One thing she loves about volunteering for MITA is how the work they do benefits local wildlife.
“So much of the debris is detrimental to wildlife,” Kane said. “I’ve seen lobster traps that have been beached with dead birds in them. The birds get trapped in there and can’t get out.”
Most of the trash found on islands is in the form of plastic bottles, Styrofoam, fishing gear and other plastic items, such as bags. The vast majority of it is washed ashore, Jenness said. And some islands collect more trash than others.
“It depends on the [ocean] current and the geography of the islands, whether or not they act as a trap for trash,” Kane said. “You know when you go into a certain cove on a certain island that you’re going to run into a ton of trash.”
Island visitors rarely leave litter behind, Jenness said, though there are exceptions.
In 2011, for example, a volunteer cleanup crew removed a porcelain toilet from the woods of one of the state’s Sheep islands. Discarded boats and kitchen appliances, such as refrigerators, have also been hauled off by MITA crews.
To improve treatment of the islands and ocean, MITA distributes educational brochures, and organizes “Leave No Trace” seminars and informational booths at boating shows. And this year, MITA organized a Great Island Trash Off, a friendly competition in which volunteers submitted photos as they collected trash from islands. The organization is now using those images to shed light on the work that’s being done, and why it’s important.
“That ethic of leaving a place better than how you found it, that’s really one of the founding principles of MITA,” Jenness said. “When you’re out on an outdoor adventure, it’s being mindful of disposing of things properly and picking up trash that you find.”