Coast Chronicles 
Back in the Day: Plastics

Despite ongoing volunteer efforts, it doesn't take long before a new tide of discarded plastic objects washes ashore. You can help by showing up at any beach approach this Saturday morning. It makes a big difference.

Cate Gable

Several times over these holiday I found myself with friends just chewing the fat (as we used to say, now completely non-PC, except I suppose for those on a Paleo diet). Phrases like “in the day” or “when I was little,” or even just “I remember when” were being flung liberally into the airspace. These words in themselves are not unruly or badly behaved, they just connote someone of a certain age. And, I must admit, they are us!

“In the day” is akin to “Once upon a time” and cues the listener (or reader) in to the fact that some story is about to be dusted off and unearthed from a distant past. Many of us have had a connection with the Peninsula for many years, decades even, some since the middle of the last century or longer. So I suppose we just need to tell it like it is: we are the elders in town. Our collective memory about the way things used to be is, I hope, a resource and not just a weight some of us are dragging around.

Humans have a very short collective memory. We all know that fashions and ideas fall off the cultural radar screen and then often get recycled back onto it again — bright little spotlights shine on what was a good idea from the past that got lost too early or was pooh-poohed but now turns out to be true. Though sometimes the opposite happens — an idea that seemed great at the time can prove to be something much more dangerous than we thought.

Let’s just take one of these. (Now I really am going to sort out the old fogeys from the flock.) How many of you were around for the 1967 release of the film “The Graduate”? There were several charmingly shocking things about that movie. Who can forget the great Simon and Garfunkel song, Mrs. Robinson, or the strange-looking very short big-nosed guy, Dustin Hoffman, pounding on the glass in the church to interrupt Elaine’s marriage? (The last scene here:

But what also floated up in my mind is Mr. McGuire, taking the feckless and jobless Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) aside for this scene: “I just want to say one word to you, just one word — are you listening? — Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it? ‘Nuf said.”

At the time, plastic must have seemed like a miracle material — it was light and strong and easy to mold. It made its way into all sorts of everyday products: in medicine, for all kinds of manufacturing, in aeronautics and automotives. It clips a six-pack together. It’s what we carry our groceries home in. It’s even in our toothpaste and fleece hoodies.

But now, fifty years later, we are paying the price for our inability to look long-term at its costs to our environment and to ourselves. Nearly “80 percent of marine litter originates on land, and most of that is plastic.” (National Resource Defense Council: The Pacific Garbage Gyre is mostly plastics and chemical sludge ranging in size from 270,000 sq mi — about the size of Texas — to more than 5,800,000 sq mi, up to twice the size of the continental U.S.) Plastic does not biodegrade; bacteria are smart enough not to eat it. Unfortunately, our sea creatures — birds, mammals and fish — are not; they mistakenly eat plastics and die from intestinal blockages or starvation.

The only thing that breaks plastic down is sunlight (which plastic in landfills gets none of); but even photodegradation, as it’s called, only breaks the molecular bonds of plastic, creating tinier and tinier microbeads of lethal materials containing bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomers. These bits can also be contaminated with heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, or lead).

Now we are even feeding plastics to ourselves because microbeads accumulate in the gullets of fishes.

Microplastics or microbeads are being purposely used in cosmetics, toothpaste and hand soap for exfoliating purposes. They’re used in paints and manufacturing processes for abrasion. Fleece is made of recycled plastics and releases non-biodegradable fibers when washed; a normal laundry could contain 1,900 fibers of microplastics. When cleaning teeth, dental assistants have found microbeads impacted in the spaces between gums and molars.

In short, plastics — though they’ve been good news for the Dow Chemicals of the world — are very bad news for our environment and its living creatures. The good news is that in December 2015, President Obama signed into law the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 (PDF). A ban on manufacturing products with microbeads starts July 1, 2017, followed by other sales bans in 2018-19. The bad news is we have a lot of cleaning up to do.

These are the clear, cold winter days when a walk on the beach is a bracing way to get a little sun. Lower your eyes to the sand, as beach combers do, and what you’ll find is that you can’t go more than a step or two without seeing plastic in pieces both big and small: gerry cans, brooms, bucket lids, sieves, crates, rope, trays, bags, laundry baskets, flip flops — you name it, if it’s plastic you will find it on the beach.

I remember when this is what I found running out the doors of our Sea Rim Court cottage on K Place in Seaview: sand dunes and driftwood. Period! No European beach grass, no pines, and no plastic. Our dunes rolled on in luxurious and sensuous splendor — we rode down them with cardboard sleds, played hide-and-seek in their valleys, ran up to their tops and jumped down off sand dune “cliffs.” There was no thought about garbage on the beach, especially lethal garbage.

I’m certainly not saying everything was better in the 1950s — far from it — but “in the day” our beautiful Peninsula beach was healthier for man, woman, child and beastie.


You can help! Beach clean-up is this Saturday. Come to any major beach approach at 9:30 a.m. to sign in and pick up supplies; or join an adopt-a-beach group for the Bolstad approach north to Clark’s tree, a couple of areas on the north end or any area south of Seaview, as well as Benson Beach. (The Grass Roots Garbage Gang can help connect you — email Also needed are 4-wheel drive trucks to collect trash and haul large items to the dumpsters. Finish off the day sharing stories over a free bowl of hot soup at Peninsula Sr. Activity Center in Ocean Park, from noon until the pots run dry, around 1:30 p.m.

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