Beachcombing, with plastic

Searching beaches for polished glass and pretty rocks is a common activity for my family, but my recent work has put plastic on our collective radar. Today my mom and I decided to go down to our local beach, Sargeant Bay in BC, to pick up plastic waste. We were both under the impression that the beach was fairly clean, but I had noticed some bottle caps, styrofoam chunks and floating bags on a recent walk thanks to the plastic-spotting vision acquired on the expedition.

On my last visit, there was a big piece of Styrofoam floating right at the shoreline. But it had been made into a boat with little stick masts, decorated with feathers and tethered to the shore with rope. I used its ambiguous status, floating somewhere between toy and garbage and art, as an excuse for not carrying it to the trash. Two weeks later there’s no sign of the ‘boat,’ and I feel slightly guilty for leaving it as I pull piles of crumbling Styrofoam from the high tide line. But my regrets are soon interrupted by a little crab and bottle cap, left side by side on a log – someone’s beachcombing treasures. I began to wonder if finding and playing with plastic waste has become as normal a part of going to the beach as looking for baby crabs under rocks, not even registering as unsightly litter (never mind potentially toxic or harmful to marine life).

Scouring only half the beach, and leaving the higher areas and driftwood piles unexplored, my mom and I managed to fill a large garbage bag with all kinds of plastic. While the ropes and floats associated with the fishing industry (and so common in the North Pacific Gyre) were definitely present, much of what we gathered seemed to have more familiar origins. Some items were likely from beachgoers, wrappers and baggies and other items escaped from picnics or accidentally left behind. But the same currents that wash all the logs and bark and seaweed into the bay are likely also delivering plastic waste to the shore. Look closely and amongst the bottle caps, straws and foam you’ll find: milk-jug rings, caution tape, hairbrush handle, balloon ends, tampon applicators, earplug, rubber glove, BB-gun pellets and a lighter.

As we sorted through the waste at home, my mom asked why it was better off in the landfill than left on the beach. The short answer is that it keeps the pieces from breaking down into smaller pieces and floating back out to sea where they can be eaten by fish and other marine life. But her question also brings up the bigger issue – that clean-ups really need to be seen as last resorts, not solutions.

Special thanks to my mom for helping to pick up plastic waste not only once, untangling it from driftwood and seaweed at the beach, but twice – sweeping it up after the patio photo shoot. ‘Boat’ photo courtesy of Ming.

Sea Dragon Index

While I’m not ‘that kind’ of social scientist, here are some silly statistics I compiled aboard the Sea Dragon using top secret methods:

Number of crew aboard the Sea Dragon for Algalita’s North Pacific Expedition: 13

Number of countries represented: 7

Nautical miles sailed between July 7 and July 27, 2011: 2995

Miles actually sailed in the right direction 2343, or 78%

Chance that the person sitting next to you had substantial sailing experience: 1 in 4*

Percentage of guest crew that experienced seasickness: 90

Approximate number of days where better conditions were ‘just 2 more days away’: 5

Average number of  additional photos taken each time Jin declared ‘one more’: 4

Number of digital image capture devices on board: 62, or almost 5 per person.

Number of books packed with the intention of being read: 33

Number read in their entirety: 5

Divide between those electing to sleep facing the stern versus bow: 50/50

Relationship between sleep direction and something important: 0

Number of sharks sighted throughout entire 20 day voyage: 4

Times elapsed between first shark sighting and swim time: 50 minutes

Number of trawl samples collected: 38

Percentage of samples containing plastic: 100

*While I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition, I must confess that most miles in the ‘wrong’ direction involved beelines direct north for better weather, chasing debris and zigzagging through the accumulation zone rather than lack of experience.