Cleaning up the beach
How one woman and her son started a WNY tradition
Medical waste dumping has been a problem along this shoreline in the past.
Photo by Nancy J. Parisi
Sharen Trembath is my favorite beachcomber. Together with over two thousand volunteers, Trembath manages the Great Lakes Beach Sweep for the New York State shore of the lake from Erie to Lackawanna. Waterkeeper takes over the task from Lackawanna to the Niagara River. This year’s event takes place Saturday, September 21, from 10 a.m. to noon. New volunteers should arrive at Woodlawn Park at 9:45 a.m. for a safety talk; families are especially welcome.
I joined Trembath, as I have in the past, for a walk along the beach near her home, and this year I found the experience quite different. The beach was only about a dozen feet wide, when, in earlier years, it extended thirty to forty feet from property to shoreline. We were fortunate at that: Sharen informed me that the day before the entire beach had been under water and waves ran all the way up the path we had descended. That high water has also changed the nature of the beach; the sand is now hidden beneath small stones. “This won’t affect the beach sweep, however,” Sharen assured me.
This is the event’s thirty-fourth year and Trembath has led it since its outset. I asked her how she began and she shared with me a compelling personal history.
“In the 1980s, my husband and I noticed an increase in the amount of medical waste along the shoreline. In just one year, we picked up twenty dialysis bags. Local authorities claimed that the syringes and peritoneal dialysis bags had been discarded by individual users and they offered no help in removing them from the beach. Working at the time in the urology clinic of a hospital, I knew the dangers posed by this waste, but I also knew that home dialysis patients were more responsible than that.
“On Easter Sunday, 1986, I was walking along the beach with my thirteen-year-old son, Jim, when we came upon that twentieth bag. Frustrated and furious, I kicked the bag into Lake Erie like a deranged football player.
“Jim stopped dead in his tracks and said, ‘Mom, what are you doing?’ I ranted and raved about people being slobs and ended with, ‘Jim, why bother? No one cares.’ He looked at me and said simply, ‘But we care.’
“That split second, everything made sense to me: the world, nature, children. I got the connection. I knew people did care and we needed to keep spreading the message. This kid, who rarely spoke to anyone over sixteen, actually knew the importance of our water. I had caused someone to care. I hugged him as hard as I could and we both waded into the lake to retrieve the bag.
“The next day, in front of my aghast co-workers, I threw the bag onto the copying machine and made twenty-five copies. I sent them to everyone from the local health department to the FBI. I’ve never been a radical, but I had a mission. I logged the lot numbers and expiration dates and sent them along with the copies. I knew if the government could track down tampered-with aspirin bottles, I could do the same. We never found the culprits but the word must have gotten around for that dumping stopped.
“Within a month, I received a call from the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, DC. They were starting an International Coastal Cleanup project and wanted representation on Lake Erie. They asked if I would recruit volunteers to clean and log trash that had washed up on a section of the New York State shoreline. Was this my kismet?
“The project has since grown and grown. The International Cleanup has become the largest volunteer environmental project in the world. And my Great Lakes Beach Sweep grew from ninety-five volunteers that first year to thousands today. When people ask me why I spend countless hours lecturing about the dangers of marine pollution and the ways we can help our Earth, I can truthfully say, ‘Because one child cared.’”
I asked Trembath if she found the debris any different from those early years. “No more diapers, thank goodness, and, although we no longer find dialysis bags, we continue to find hypodermic needles. And remarkably, no zebra mussels. But a major problem remains balloons.”
Finally, I ask if she has had experiences that make her efforts worthwhile. “Indeed I have. Perhaps the best was the young woman who told me, ‘I went into marine biology because of you.’”