IRHS students clean up beach

This group of IRHS students banded together to do their own Bethany Beach clean-up in October. Pictured, are, from left: seniors Gina Ellis, Olivia Olley, Madeline Harris and Zachary Lingenfelter, and sophomores Shane Hall and Max Forrey, with IRHS graduate Josh Carter behind the camera to document the effort.

After a long summer of hosting tourists, Delaware beaches need a little sprucing up. This month, a small group of Indian River High School students gathered at Bethany Beach to host their own beach clean-up.

This was not a school-sanctioned event. It was just a group of teens who saw a good excuse to get outdoors and improve a small corner of the world.

“It was good to do something positive” during a hard time, said ringleader and IR senior Zachary Lingenfelter. “I really care about the environment, especially the ocean, because of my surfing and lifeguarding. So, I wanted to take care of it.”

At the beach almost daily in summertime, he and plenty of young people see the trash that escapes down the beach.

“A lot of times in summer it’ll pile up,” just because there are so many people dumping their items or losing their belongings to the beach, tide or wind, he said. It’s especially noticeable after a big storm. “Every high tide line usually has a good bit of trash in it,” and with the moving tide, “You might be picking up stuff from another state.”

The first planned event was canceled for weather. The students regrouped on social media, and on Oct. 4, seven participants walked beyond the length of Bethany Beach boardwalk to collect two garbage bags of debris.

“It was really rewarding to see them stick around and help them with my cleanup. … It was good to see my friends take action with me,” Lingenfelter said. “It was a lot of fun. We were joking around.”

They were also rewarded with some thumbs-ups and thank-yous from other beachgoers. The teens wore masks where required, downtown, and then worked apart on the beach, in two small groups.

With many school clubs on hiatus during the coronavirus (COVID-19), students can’t easily rely on advisors to plan activities.

“Because of the abrupt shutdown, our LEO Club, Student Council, a lot of groups that do volunteer work got shut down, too.” (Scholarship application committees also want to see volunteer hours.) “I might as well set this up,” Lingenfelter said he thought.

The timing was perfect, since the Delaware Coastal Cleanup campaign canceled the big annual beach clean-up in September. Instead, Delawareans and visitors were asked pick up debris from their local neighborhoods, parks and waterways.

“You’d be surprised, because it’s just little wrappers that pile up. It’s a lot to pick up, but it’s not a whole lot of volume.”

They found plastic bottles, chip bags, torn snack wrappers, used handheld sparklers, sand toys and other little plastic objects. They even had to — cautiously — pick up used face masks, which is where littering begins to enter biohazard territory.

Along with the mess it makes on the beach, plastic is a particular problem for sealife, and potentially all the humans who consume it, Lingenfelter noted, referencing a 2020 Australian study, in which microplastics were detected in every species of seafood that were analyzed for the study.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.