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.