Our local beach is a place of beauty to enjoy with every passing minute of your time spent there. It's a quality experience when you can actually unlock your senses and give yourself over to the basic naturalness it has to offer.
This is a major part of our local heritage here on the Peninsula. It is so close to where we live that you can pretty much hear the surf from a quiet spot over on the far side of the Peninsula after a potent storm. It always provides a nice safety valve for a brief escape from our high tech society we are so seemingly locked into. Looking about we see that more than just waves have been washing up onto the shoreline. Incoming flotsam and jetsam were once considered as natural elements consisting of products derived entirely from nature. Now it has become really different from those earlier times. Look about and you will see that there are now so many new man-made components having been added to the mix of beached stuff lying around in the sand.
Upon closer examination, if you so choose, the essential man-made wonder substance called plastic is overwhelmingly evident as its consistently found scattered about or mixed into any sandy beach wherever you happen to look. You can't escape it. Don't underestimate the fact that plastics are a basic material in our daily lives when utilized and then later properly recycled by environmentally acceptable methods of disposal. However, back out on the beach, any time of the year, you can find plastic bottles, nets, hard hats, spent fireworks, buckets, syringes, cigarette lighters, rope, floats, styrofoam chunks, toys, cigarette butts, pre-production plastic pellets (nurdles), cups, jars, shoes, straws, plastic bb shots, ink pens, of all sizes, shapes, colors and origins.
It's called the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch by many and is entirely embedded within the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Generically, a gyre is a name for the consistent and prevalent oceanic current patterns of any given ocean. The garbage patch is a large generally calm area ringed in by the forces of the gyre therefore having little current movement which effectively causes floating objects to be trapped there for long periods of time. It's kind of like a large floating cesspool of trash hemmed in by the moving currents of the gyre located just outside the patch's boundary area. It provides for the creation of a vast long term holding area for plastic refuse and anything else trapped in it including glass floats. A watery beachcomber's paradise. It has been estimated that area-wise it is as large an area as Texas or even Alaska according to some sources. That fact bears out that a lot of ocean area is being hopelessly polluted with plastic and its associated toxins. Small slices of trash from the patch are sometimes shaved off by winter and spring storms and then put back into the gyre thus supplying the incoming currents with plenty of plastics to dump onto our local beaches during periods of westerly winds following storms. Plastic shards can be found most abundantly in the wrack line at these times.
The few studies conducted by researchers who have actually traveled through the garbage patch have discovered alarming evidence of vast quantities of floating plastic to be seen in all directions. They also found that it is also abundant down to 90 feet deep as evidenced by trawling methods. The water column is thick with it, especially concerning the small shards. There are apparently millions of tons of it out there soaking away and awash in the oceans waters. Imagine a 90 foot deep plastic laden patch the size of Texas! They also found that when calculated that there were six pounds of plastic for every pound of naturally occurring zooplankton determined after substantial amounts of trawling. Plastic doesn't biodegrade, instead it photo degrades from continued exposure to sunlight. This process constantly breaks any plastic down into ever smaller pieces, even into molecules consisting of chemically based plastic polymers. It equates to a really slow ongoing toxic process of weathering away by exposure to the elements.
Any plastic, no matter what the form is, will always be poisonous when ingested. Living organisms can't digest it after ingesting it. Plastic debris readily absorbs and releases toxic hydrophobic pollutants such as PCB, DDE and DDT, into the environment especially when undergoing the slow ongoing process of photodegradation. Unfortunately many forms of life living above and under the ocean do ingest all manner of plastics ranging from microscopic sizes to shards. Its just plain bad stuff when it is just weathering away and beyond our control anywhere in our natural environment. It's probably safe to assume that plastic molecular sized polymers are now working into many different interdependent food chains. In time, any kind of ongoing toxic buildup within a food chain surely will manifest into things that can't be good for the living no matter who or what it is especially when a participating link in the chain.
For example there is then the cumulative physical aspect of plastic ingestion resulting in mortality to many kinds of wildlife. Seabirds who spend much of their entire lives at sea such as fulmars and black footed albatrosses have been found dead, washed up on shores where they were then later examined to be full of ingested plastic shards. These shards do somewhat resemble some of the natural foods they feed on. They also in turn feed it to their young. They all eventually die starving to death thinking they are well fed. Out at the patch submerged plastic bags can be mistaken for jellyfish and then consumed by sea turtles, even whales. Transparent filter feeding organisms were found to have ingested tiny but visible plastic shards within their bellies. Jellyfish hopelessly tangled in frayed fishing lines. The list could go on. Please refer to your computers' search engine for a review of several excellent web sites detailing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre and the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch studies for future reference.
Most people are either not too concerned or aware of this growing environmental issue at this time, however with further knowledge and understanding only then will we be made into taking a serious course of action. Removing plastics from our beach right here in our own backyard is an excellent way to get started by just by the simple act of pitching in and getting some of this obnoxious stuff removed from our environment out on the beach. We all together can help make a difference locally by joining in with the efforts of the local Grass Roots Garbage Gang.
Grass Roots Garbage Gang is a group of dedicated and friendly volunteers who are committed to completely ridding our beach of all manner of trash three times a year. The Gang stands behind a simple credo of making our peninsula beaches free of any man-made litter especially after each clean-up no matter how large or small the trash, ranging from water heaters to cigarette butts. There are three beach clean-up events conducted each year. Two are always held on Saturday mornings for both January and April, and then again on the morning of July 5. Tons of dazzling fireworks are launched off over the beach on the night of the July 4. resulting in plastics from fizzled out fireworks raining down on the sand under the cover of darkness. It's plastic pollution in its finest form to be seen littering the beach at first daylight the following morning. It needs to be quickly bagged and removed before the daytime winds bury it in the sand, or it goes out to sea and possibly into the garbage patch. Each clean-up is well coordinated and litter bags are provided and handed out to all participants. Clean-ups last from mid-morning to about noon. That's really not a lot time. There is a pot luck dinner and a speaker/presentation the night before in January and April, and a soup feed at lunchtime following the clean-up for all three events.
Please join us in giving back to our beach in appreciation for the pleasures it gives to us year in and year out, providing razor clams, market crabs, glass floats and offering us the open space to fly kites and for taking long walks. It seems we are surely obliged to return the modest favor of helping keep it clean three times a year. The beach really does appear pristine following a clean-up effort by members of the gang. Help us by joining forces with the Gang on July 5 by picking up a litter bag or two at one of the main approaches and helping us out to rid the beach of trash. Details of upcoming beach clean-ups will be posted in prominent locations up and down the peninsula. Grass Roots Garbage Gang has a Web site, (http://www. ourbeach.org) that provides you with details regarding future clean-ups and about the organization.
Russ Lewis writes about science and natural resource issues on behalf of the Grass Roots Garbage Gang and Friends of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.