30 May Small plastic is a big problem!
We are probably all familiar by now with pictures of far away, tropical beaches covered in trash, like the one below. We probably assume these beaches get that way because nearby countries are not controlling where their trash gets dumped. Or we assume that the photographer has carefully sought out a particularly bad patch to photograph for effect.
But our problems with ocean plastic are not so easily dismissed. I recently went with my nephew to Long Beach Island in New Jersey to find things to show our Planet Protectors and to clean up our own little stretch of beach.
He was an eager helper!
Though Atlantic City can be seen way off in the distance in the picture below, this is about as remote of a beach as you will find on the mid-Atlantic coast -there’s no boardwalk and no houses for miles to the south. We were there in early spring, so anything on the beach did not recently arrive from summer crowds. At a glance, the only thing that appears to be on the beach are white clam shells and some clumps of reed grass that had washed up. This did not look like a “dirty” beach.
But in only a couple hundred yards of walking we filled a 5 gallon bucket with plastic pieces…
As one of the Planet Protector Project activities we used the things I found to do a “beach sift.” In that project we think about different ways to separate the plastic and other debris from beach sand and categorize what we find by whether it would be recyclable, whether it is biodegradable, if it is naturally occuring (e.g., sea shells and skate egg cases) or man-made.
Most importantly, we talk about what we can do to prevent the different kinds of trash from washing up on the beach. Different problems have different solutions, so understanding what the different kinds of trash are and their source is the first step in addressing the root cause!
Truly alarming was what I found when I picked up one of the clumps of reed grass. In one bundle that I could pick up with just my two hands, I found all of the small pieces of plastic below. And that is just what was big enough to pick out by hand.
These small pieces of plastic are mostly either broken down pieces of much larger things or small beads. Those beads are typically used in plush animals and dolls or as the raw material for manufacturing plastic products. So a lot of the plastic I found in this clump never even got made into something that was actually useful!
These small fragments of plastic are a big problem because small pieces can be eaten by more animals (e.g., plankton, bait fish, clams, oysters, etc.). They take up space in the stomachs of animals and starve them, damaging the bottom of the food chain. Harmful toxins also adhere to plastic as it floats in the ocean. Since many of the small pieces have been floating in the ocean for longer and they have more surface area than large pieces, they also have more toxins. When animals eat them those pollutants are also ingested. These toxins then accumulate in the food chain as they are eaten by bigger and bigger animals… including us. This same accumulation of toxins is why you can be harmed by mercury from eating a lot of large predatory fish like tuna.
Below are some of the more interesting things we found that had been floating around a while. A mini glow stick, a spray bottle pump that had been broken and chipped away by the ocean, and what was once a brightly colored rubber bouncy ball. All things that would slowly be broken into smaller chunk over time or just keep floating around for centuries.
Plastic can be a wonderful material, but much of it is not recyclable, used once, for a very short time, and then thrown away. A lot of it is also not essential (e.g., reusable bottles instead of plastic water bottles) and can be manufactured from something biodegradable (e.g., paper straws).
To become Planet Protectors we all need to think a bit more about what plastic we really need to use, how we can make things without it, and how to make sure it doesn’t “leak” out of our trash stream to float all over the planet.