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Giving Back, Marine Plastics Recovery Mission – No Impact Week

Today was beautiful here, with sunshine and dramatic clouds and cold air. We decided to take advantage of the break in the rain to meet some friends for one of our regular marine plastics recovery missions, aka picking up plastic trash from the beach.

Here comes a digression. I can’t help myself, I must write a tiny bit about why I am obsessed with plastic, why I feel compelled to use as little of it as I possibly can, and why I think it’s fun to pick up as much marine plastic as I can. Please just skip on ahead of you want to avoid my plastics spiel.

I’ve seen the articles describing one scientist’s claim that the Pacific Gyre isn’t as large as previously believed. I’ll be happy if she’s correct, but I’d hate for that to take our attention from the very real presence of plastic on our local shores. In Puget Sound, our harbor seals are 7 times more contaminated with toxic chemicals than those in Canada’s Georgia Strait north of here. A lot of that contamination undoubtedly comes from industrial pollution, runoff from our lawns and golf courses, etc, but there is evidence that microplastics are entering our marine food webs via filter feeders, who consume these tiny pieces of plastic along with their regular food.

One of the truly nasty things about plastic is that it photodegrades (breaks down in sunlight), but on the whole it does not biodegrade. Yes, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, but these pieces do not break down into individual components that can be recaptured by the food web. In addition to broken pieces of larger plastic items, we commonly find nurdles, the raw feedstock for plastic products. Nurdles are magnets for toxins like PCBs; we’re especially careful about handling these when we find them. Our friends have been collecting nurdles found on our beaches for the International Pellet Watch project – If you come across nurdles in your own area, please consider sending those in, too. This is a great opportunity to spend some time outdoors while doubling as a citizen scientist.

The way I see things now, I’d better really like the plastic that comes into my life since it’s highly likely that my children and I, and you and yours, will be eating it in the future. Literally. It’s so easy for people to think that, because they’re careful about sorting their plastic items for recycling, they don’t contribute to the amount of marine plastic. It’s easy for people to blame others on distant shores or passing boats for the plastics that show up on their local beaches. But research points to all of us as the culprits. I’ve read several estimates, but it seems that many scientists agree that up to 80% of marine plastic debris comes from land-based human trash, working its way down local watersheds to hit local beaches and eventually the oceans. I know I’ve lost at least my share of plastic pens, my kids’ barrettes, pieces of food wrappers, all sorts of plastic bits and bobs. It doesn’t matter how careful we are, we all lose things, garbage is blown from cans and trucks, things drop in many ways.

So, that’s why we grabbed our beach bags and hit the beach for Giving Back day.

We met up with our plastic-obsessed friends at one of our favorite local beaches. This particular beach is a trap for plastic debris; it has an eddy that catches things from the current in the adjacent channel, then southern winds create waves that bring that debris high up onto the shore, especially during the winter. I’m sure this beach has an official name, but we know it as Stinky Beach. It is stinky, especially in the summer sun at low tide, but it’s stinky in a good, beachy way. Before a road was built along the shore, there was a lively estuary here, complete with a salmon run, connecting our watershed to the sound. There is still an estuary, but the stream runs under the road and the salmon have been gone for some time. The road breaks things up, but it also seems to protect the stream and tidal flats from the majority of the plastic debris. Across the road, along the saltwater beach, it’s another story.

Bag of dog poop in the estuary stream.

Along the beach side of the road, where the highest tide line rests, there is a deposit of organic debris (sticks, seaweed, beach grasses, that sort of thing) mixed with expanded polystyrene foam (Styrofoam). We haven’t done the counting yet, but it sure looks as if the foam makes up at least 50% of this mixture. If I dig down, this same mixture goes down as deep as I can easily get with my hands and feet. When I step here, it’s more springy than the mats in our local gymnastics classes; I can really feel the bounce of the foam pellets under my boots.

foam beach

Just below the band of foam soil is a rocky beach, with sand below the average low tide line. We spent about an hour ranging across the beach and estuary, in search of plastic.

We filled 2 1/2 grocery-sized bags with small pieces and found 2 large chunks of expanded polystyrene. The smaller of the foam chunks was home to a little colony of mussels, still very much alive.The foam seemed to have broken off from a dock or float, but it was still mostly intact.

foam bed of mussels

This presented us with a dilemma. Should we carry it to the low tide line and push it back out to sea to give the mussels a chance? If it stayed where it was, it was surely headed up the beach, above the high tide line, where the mussels would die and the foam would break up. Should we scrape the mussels off, knowing they would die in the beaks of gulls and crows, then carry the foam to the landfill? Something else entirely? What would you have done?

chunk of foam crossing stream

Our second, larger chunk of foam had lodged itself against the concrete tunnel that allows the stream to flow from estuary to sound. It took 2 girls to carry it to our collection site, and 1 girl to oversee the work.

There always seems to be a theme to each day’s plastic collection, and today’s was straws. We always find straws and stir sticks, but we found more than usual today, all colors and sizes, many broken up and on their way to becoming microplastics.

The other hot item for the day was curling ribbon from balloons and gifts. My friend had a flash of brilliance, and decided that we should wash the ribbons, make them into bows and post them to our local Freecycle group. We’ll disclose that we found them on the beach and see if anyone would like a chance to turn trash back into gift wrap. Then we decided that we’ll start doing this with all of the useful items we find and see what happens. I have a dustpan in my kitchen that came from one of last year’s plastic beach days, and it works very well; maybe other people are willing to help us reclaim our collective plastic trash. Since it’s going to be around forever, we might as well use it before we eat it.

1 hour of plastic

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