A visit to Oregon's shore exposes our plastics problem—and what we can do to turn the tide.
It's a hot, cloudless morning on the Oregon Coast, and how often can you say that? Waves suck at the shore, gulls squawk overhead, and crowds of vitamin D–deprived Northwesterners cruise the promenade with looks of disbelief.
"Gonna be a warm one," says Coral Cook, a 75-year-old vacation rental manager in Seaside, just up the road from Cannon Beach. In her three-plus decades as beach cleanup captain, she has seen her share of gnarly weather: biblical downpours, bone-chilling cold. Not today. For the next four hours, I’ll join Cook and her crew of volunteers as we march through the sun-baked sand—heads bowed, eyes peeled, latex gloves snugly encasing our hands—collecting trash. By lunchtime, we’ll have amassed 800 pounds of debris.
Others are doing the same up and down the coast. From Brookings to Astoria, thousands of Oregonians will clear more than 34 tons of debris from their shores: cigarette butts, bottle caps, candy wrappers, plastic bags, car tires, deck chairs, an entire hot tub. Oregon's efforts have become a model for similar events around the globe; in 2016, on a cleanup day sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, more than 500,000 volunteers came out to remove more than 18 million pounds of trash from nearly 15,000 miles of coast around the world.
But by tomorrow morning it will be as if we had never been there. New trash will roll in on the tide, and beachgoers will leave more behind. It will either wash back out to sea or accumulate in the sand, where it will sit, decomposing, until the next pair of hands comes along to pick it up.
Making a Difference
You don’t have to be an environmentalist to worry about beach trash. A generation of anti-litter and pro-recycling efforts has yet to dejunk our shores. The detritus is more than unsightly. It impacts everything from local economies to public health. And it's just the most visible manifestation of a much larger crisis: the contamination of the world's oceans. I've come to Oregon—an exemplar of responsible coastal stewardship—to understand the connection between these local and global problems and to ask: Can those of us who love the West Coast's shoreline solve them? Or is it already too late?
"Do I think we're making a difference?” shouts Mark Bendinelli, chairman of the board for SOLVE, the Portland-based nonprofit that organizes Oregon's semi-annual beach cleanups. "Of course we're making a difference." We're standing a little too close to the K103 FM tent, where a DJ in a shark costume dances to Billy Idol's Mony Mony. "Picking up trash is just part of it," Bendinelli says. "What we're really trying to do is create a sense of community. We're telling people, 'Hey, this is your beach. If you don't take care of it, who will?'"
Fifty years ago, Oregon's then governor Tom McCall signed the landmark Beach Bill. It granted the public "free and uninterrupted use" of all 363 miles of Oregon's coastline, from the lowest tidemark to the vegetation line. A couple of years later, McCall helped found SOLV (Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism), to promote community solutions to trash and other problems. In 1986, the group organized its first statewide beach cleanup. (In 2012, it added that E to the end of its name.)
At Cook's suggestion I walk south along the dunes. "Lots of good trash in there," she tells me. Cook registered almost 300 volunteers for today's cleanup. They include grocery store clerks, foreign exchange students, and elderly couples in matching floppy hats.
After a while I find myself alone in a clearing of beach grass. The sand is warm to the touch. So, too, are the juice-box straw and Blue Moon beer bottle poking out of the dune. I feel a jolt of pride as I drop them into my bag. But then I catch myself. How many juice-box straws have I carelessly let fly over the years? How many beer bottles have I failed to recycle? Maybe this isn't just a volunteer opportunity. Maybe we're here to atone.
As I continue up the beach along the high-tide mark, something smaller catches my eye: a shiny white fleck, not much larger than a grain of rice. I crouch down, grab it between my fingers, and rub. It bends, leaving a slight oily feeling on my skin. I look around and notice more and more flecks, in different shapes and colors, like confetti. The bits fan out in a narrow band that runs the length of the beach. It's everywhere.
The Microplastics Problem
To the ever expanding list of environmental anxieties that keep you awake at night, add microplastics.
Plastics in general have crept into every crevice of our lives. They're in our cars, our carpets, our clothes, our face creams, and our food delivery systems. They're in our oceans, too. Some 8 million tons of plastic leak into the ocean each year—from illegal dump sites in Southeast Asia and from your family's favorite beach. Once there, it joins the 150 million tons of plastic already floating at sea. It's estimated that by 2025, the world's oceans will contain one pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish.
Some of that plastic finds its way into those fish. Long exposure to sun and waves breaks plastic down into smaller and smaller morsels. These microplastics wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, poisoning seabirds and turtles and fooling some fish into thinking it's food.
The problem starts with our own overuse of plastics, says Dr. Marcus Eriksen. He's the cofounder (along with Anna Cummins) of the 5 Gyres Institute, which organizes expeditions to trawl the world’s oceans for plastic debris and, in the process, to collect data about our global plastic footprint. "You know how much new plastic was made last year?" Eriksen asks me when I phone him at his home in Los Angeles. "More than 300 million tons." And per annum production is expected to double within the next 8 years and to triple by midcentury.
Within the ocean-conservation movement, Eriksen is a bit of a swashbuckler. He once sailed from Los Angeles to Hawaii on a raft made of empty water bottles to raise awareness about marine debris. But he's also effective: 5 Gyres helped fight against microbeads—tiny plastic spheres, used in facial scrubs and detergents, that slip through filtration systems and into our waterways. Microbeads were gradually from personal care products in July 2017.
Researchers have established that the confetti I found in Seaside might have started as a plastic straw that slipped from a toddler's fist in Okinawa. To understand how, you have to know something about ocean gyres. Gyres are like massive, slowly spinning whirlpools. Every major ocean has one, but the biggest is the North Pacific Gyre, which circulates from near Japan to the West Coast and back.
At the center of these gyres, scientists have discovered huge accumulation zones, popularly known as garbage patches. Debris drifts into these zones and gets stuck. Plastic in particular builds up there. As it breaks down into smaller pieces, it acts as a sponge, soaking up oily contaminants such as DDT. Those bits form a smog that floats just beneath the surface of the water. Usually, that smog circles slowly out in the middle of the ocean. But some of the debris shakes loose and rides the currents to our beaches. The plastic straw that washes ashore no longer looks like a straw but rather like the hundreds of shiny bits of confetti I saw sprayed across the sand in Seaside.
The Sandy Sieve
It's not quite midday when I head down to Cannon Beach, but already the sand is cooking. The brassy glow of the sun washes over Haystack Rock.
I'm here to meet Marc Ward: surfer, microplastics researcher, and frontline crusader in the fight against beach pollution. In 2002, he and his wife, Rachel, started a small nonprofit in Costa Rica devoted to protecting sea turtles, whose eggs are sold for their reputed aphrodisiac qualities. One day he was on the beach when a swarm of turtles staggered ashore and died. (“One hundred turtles, bam, just like that!”) A necropsy showed that they had each ingested up to a kilo of microplastics, likely after swimming into a cloud of sea debris. "I had to do something," he says.
When I find Ward, he's bent over a clump of sea grass, separating plastic-flecked sand from its blades with a miniature broom. All around us, others silently do the same. The scene looks more like an archaeological dig than a community cleanup. While his volunteers will pick up cigarette butts and six-pack rings, they really focus on microplastics. As Ward says, "We're here to sweat the small stuff."
Washed-up marine plastic tends to collect in the same locations, which Ward calls sinks. At Cannon Beach, for example, the confetti is concentrated along the northern high-tide mark, while a few hundred yards south the sand remains comparatively junk free. Meaning that it's possible, with enough effort and the right tools, to clean most of a beach's nastiest, smallest bits.
Those tools include a gizmo Ward invented: a device that looks a lot like a mesh stretcher hanging between two aluminum poles. When agitated, the mesh screen's polymer material builds up an electrostatic charge, which attracts and holds plastic bits as small as 100 microns. To operate it, volunteers simply shovel sand onto the screen and shake.
To be honest, it looks like the essence of futility. But Ward would argue that removing marine microplastics from beaches is critical: The stuff tends to accumulate in the same areas where small children play and big people burn bonfires; the latter risks sending PCBs and other nastiness into the atmosphere.
So for the next two hours we shovel and shake, shovel and shake. Our funny little ecodance moves down the beach, leaving behind us a golden carpet of pristine sand, while ahead of us stretch years of bad decisions that have come back to haunt us. "People ask me, 'Why do you bother?' " Ward says. " 'The trash is only going to keep piling up.' Well, sure, but maybe today we can save a few birds. Maybe today our kids will have somewhere safe to play. It's a small step, but it's a step nonetheless.”
Clean Beaches Start with Clean Oceans
Picking up trash—of any size—does more than make the shore pretty. As 5 Gyres' Eriksen says, "If you want to clean the ocean, go clean your beach." The call to do both has never been louder. In 2016, California became the first state in the country to ban single-use plastic bags; cities and states all over the world are now doing the same. And a 25-year-old Dutch inventor has designed a massive free-floating boom is currently sucking trash directly from the Pacific Ocean.
At one point I wander over to the water and look out. Since the dawn of time, people have come to beaches to do exactly this: to stand at the edge of the world and gaze into the unknown. I feel a sense of peace as the sun hits my face and the Pacific churns at my feet. Then I walk back to the hot sand and search for trash.
Two weeks after my trip to Seaside, I call Coral Cook to follow up. The phone rings and rings and when she finally picks up she is out of breath. "I can't talk," she says. "Things are crazy here." An early-season windstorm has been ravaging the coast, destroying homes and knocking down power lines. Just south, a tornado has torn through the town of Manzanita. Cook thinks she might even be forced to evacuate. "I've never seen anything like this," she says. We promise to talk later. Then, just before she hangs up, her voice brightens, and she says, "There's gonna be a lot to pick up tomorrow."
What You Can Do
The battle to save our oceans and shores is a formidable one. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Don’t. Here are three things you can do to take out beach trash.
Get Picking: Many organizations schedule beach cleanups throughout the year. SOLVE, for example, has one every March in Oregon. To learn more and to register, go to solveoregon.org. And you can always organize your own event: Sign up some friends and family, then find a beach or river that needs a little love. For DIY cleanup tips, visit oceanconservancy.org.
Sweat the Small Stuff: Most coastal cleanups focus on obvious items—cigarette butts, bottle caps, plastic bags, and such—and ignore the microplastics lurking in the sand. But now beach communities in Oregon and beyond are beginning to organize sifting parties to remove these toxic morsels from our tide lines. To purchase a filtration screen and learn more about microplastic cleanups, check out seaturtlesforever.org.
Put Down the Plastic: According to one 2014 study, there were then an estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles floating in the world's oceans. Their biggest sources: plastic bags, water bottles, takeout containers, and straws. So if you want to get rid of the microplastics, stop using those things. The market is rapidly filling with ecofriendly alternatives, from reusable grocery bags and water bottles to compostable food containers. To learn more, check out 5gyres.org.
This article was first published in March 2017 and last updated in April 2020.