Embalmed in Plastic: You, Me and the Synthetic Sea
Maria V. Eyles
Maria V. Eyles
Survival of the Plastics: Pismo Beach, California
A seagull cocks his head toward a treasure glinting in the sand. His dive off the pier railing, though noiseless, alerts dozens of other gulls to materialize. They chase after him, circling, remonstrating with angry caws. Swarmed to the sand, the seagull rallies: he shoots straight up through the frenzied cyclone with the precious morsel gleaming from his beak. Darting under the pier and weaving through the columns, he tries to elude his flying posse
The chase turns uglier. From my sandy perch, I begin to fear for this seagull’s life as his fellow gulls attack him, honing in scattershot, pecking furiously. What could be so delicious, so worth his life? A strip of surfperch? A crab leg? An open clam, French fries, a carcass of some kind?
Abruptly, he sheers off the pier again and soars above me. The fought-over food fragment still dangles from his beak and I gasp.
The food frenzy is not about food. It’s about a plastic zip-lock sandwich bag half-filled with dirt.
Bask in the Trash
Pre-sunset and twilight are the times my dog Raphael and I prefer to walk Pismo’s shoreline. Cool sea breezes and room to walk are the advantages of strolling well after the crowds have left the beach. One Sunday June evening after a huge weekend fiesta, I saw the revelers had left the beach alright—they had left it a plastic and trash waste dump.
|Pismo Beach near sunset April 2013|
Plastic litter to the waterline; seagulls raiding
the styrofoam from trash cans
Photo by Maria V. Eyles
Bad enough that the trash left a sordid blight on Pismo Beach, this despite the many aware beach-goers who are normally protective of our stunning environment.
Worse was the pain of seeing all the plastic and Styrofoam litter next to the waterline where the night’s high tide would suck it into the ocean. The thought of scenarios like the seagull’s above—of birds eating Styrofoam cups and plastic bags; of fish, seals and otters swallowing bottle caps or getting entangled in plastic netting, and dying miserably—all this impelled me to attempt to clean as many non-biodegradable products as I could beyond sunset.
For this reason—the night’s tides washing over the shore and the plastic waste —I knew I could not wait until the beach clean-up crews arrived in the morning. My concern was (and is) the ocean. So that first evening I picked up some abandoned pails and started filling them with plastic debris along an 800 yard area of the shoreline. The filled sand pails were very heavy, and I had to drag them. It got dark, so I came back the next evening with a large garbage bag and a flashlight.
|Raphael guards the last of many hauls that|
second evening. Pails could not fit in bins.
Plastic removal from the strand is now my mini-mission in the name of protecting our beautiful ocean from more damage. For hundreds of years, as Jacques Cousteau lamented, the sea has been “the universal sewer.” In addition, for five or six decades now, due to (all of) our nonchalant trashing of beaches and coastlines, the seas have been reduced to lethal plastic gumbo.
And so I collect. Even Raphael senses my seriousness: either he runs ahead and shows me “plastic!” as I call out to him, or he digs a cool burrow in the sand and relaxes patiently while his mum does all the heavy lifting.
And heavy lifting it is. May through September, each evening along a few hundred yards, I can fill three or more tall kitchen bags so heavy they take a long time for me to drag up to the trash cans one by one. I long for help because I’d rather be recycling the plastics than stuffing them in our landfill, another nightmare-in-progress for future generations.
A quick list of plastic products I scavenge will give you an idea of what we are up against along a very short strip of Pismo Beach: plastic bottles, bottle caps, cups, lids, spoons, knives, forks, baby bottles, sippy cups, pails, shovels, molds (for making figures and castles), toys of all kinds, kites, netting, shoes, baby diapers, chairs, squeezy juice containers, candy and cigarette box wrappers, balloons, boogie boards, thongs, kiddy jewelry, flashlights, lighters, infinite plastic and Styrofoam containers, bags of all sizes (This is how I knew the gull’s sandwich bag was full of dirt or worse, because I pick up so many identical ones), and, finally, assorted unmentionable products for adults, some used.
Due to the latter and to dirty baby diapers, I now wear protective gloves as I clean up to prevent my coming down with those strange viruses and rashes.
Unplanned Plastichood: Forever times Eternity
Plastic in paradise is a lethal hazard not because the beach won’t look pretty for the next cavalcade of Pismo tourists. I (and several like me) do not clean up the beach: we pre-clean the ocean, with the prayer that it doesn’t suffocate and die in plastic stew.
The concern for all living creatures, including humans, is dire. Statistics vary but they get worse each time you look at them. Concerned scientists apparently agree that worldwide in one year, industrialized nations produce enough plastic to make one to three freights train to encircle the globe. The shocking photographs of the North Pacific Gyre, a plastic island nearly as large as the Continental US, are heart-breaking. That island was “built” from plastic trash that most often “accidentally” finds its way out to sea.
For a local example, just last night I had to chase a Styrofoam cup as it was being sucked out by the tide. It took me ten minutes, and though it was well worth it, it would have taken the cup’s user less than a minute to properly dispose of it.
Nearly all of this plastic is non-biodegradable. Plastic and Styrofoam take longer than forever to break down. In other words, they don’t. Ever.
Man-made Manna Equals Death
Unfortunately for our oceans (and rivers and lakes), plastics are photodegradable but only to a degree. These plastics actually never degrade completely: they become microscopic plastic dust particles invisible to the naked eye. Two tragic facts about the plastic dust: As a plastic bottle, for example, photo degrades, it not only emits toxins but also attracts other toxins. Worse, the toxic plastic dust is often mistaken for plankton—and actually outnumbers plankton in several areas of the Pacific. So not only are our oceans and waterways being poisoned, so is all marine life, whose food chain begins with plankton.
Tragically, the marine food chain is ours too. The human food chain starts with plankton and grass. All life on earth is seriously threatened by the plastic pile-up.
Even if the plastic microdust were not enough to stamp out life, marine animals are being mercilessly slaughtered by the presence of visible plastic. Referring to the North Pacific Gyre, or Plastic Continent, Matt Ransford, a writer for Popular Science, states in his article “Why Trashing the Oceans is More Dangerous than We Imagined”:
Turtles mistake bags for jelly fish and birds mistake floating chips for prey. Animals have been discovered starved to death because the entire contents of their stomachs were plastic fragments.
|Fish Caught in N. Pacific Gyre; stomach contents plastic|
Photo courtesy of Marcus Eriksen
Those of us who would never dream of harming a dog, cat or horse are unknowingly condemning perhaps dozens of marine animals to a cruel death by tossing away one plastic bottle and bottle cap. Animal lovers must be in the forefront in the fight for all of our survival.
One times 4 billion
Moreover, just the shards of one plastic sand pail—made from “PETE,” #1 of 7 grades of plastic, will live forever. Not only can these shards kill countless animals, they also leach antimony trioxide into the liquids, skin, and lungs in contact with it. Forever!
The number of these dagger-like shards I pick up in the summer on Pismo Beach is staggering, not to mention the plastic netting the pail set came in, netting which invariably gets shoved into the sand and abandoned there. When I see this, I have to wonder, who would want their toddler playing with anything so dangerous, a toy that not only leaches dangerous chemicals but also shatters with ease into little plastic switchblades and needles? And imagine what these shiny fragments would do to an adorable seal or sea otter’s belly.
Indeed, it takes seeing this pernicious plastic and consciously thinking about its deadly nature to combat the problem of our programmed bad habits.
Beach 1, Plastic Pile-Up,|
photo courtesy of Anna Cummins and 5gyres.org
Thus, one moment of thinking, “I’ll just leave this bottle (toy, candy wrapper, cup) in the sand this one time,” times one billion similar thinkers on the shores of China, Australia, the US, Canada, or Central and South America equals one billion more plastic fragments. And if all billion thinkers think this way 4 times a year, you have 4 billion more bottles/fragments per year choking the life out of the oceans.
And when a dolphin mistakes that plastic for food then washes up on your shore; or when a lab technician puts your fish dinner under a microscope, you will know that the problem is neither remote nor invisible. It starts—and it can end—with people like you and me.
Planetary Survival Means Serious Self- and Other Education and Activism
I plead with you to familiarize yourself with the plastic waste tragedy. We've buried our heads in the sand so long that the sands of the Pacific coasts contain alarming amounts of polystyrene flakes and other plastic fragments.
|Hawaii Beach 3, Plastic Chip Sand (Photo Courtesy of Anna Cummins, 5gyres.org)|
The plastic problem affects all our waterways, including lakes and rivers, not to mention the landfills. The oceans, however, are extremely threatened. According to National Geographic News.com, scientists recognize that our oceans produce at least 50% of the earth’s oxygen supply. When they die, we die. Yet we can pull back from the brink of self-destruction.
One way is to form or join local volunteer and/or community action groups if you are able. You and your family and friends are the best places to start. Local chapters of Surfriders.org can help you find ways to act and educate on ocean preservation. Those who live inland can combat bad landfill practices as well as work to preserve our fresh water supplies.
Moreover, as stewards of our planet, we must all learn to take personal responsibility for the items we take onto a beach or into nature all the time. We should be sure to pack plastics and other trash out as carefully as we brought them in. Three nights ago, I saw a family pack up all their plastic toys and bottles—then, as an afterthought, their mom tossed the netting and a broken shovel into the sand and left. This is what she taught her children by modeling this behavior.
|Author's Photo of Plastic litter woven into the seaweed reflux after|
a February storm, months after crowds had left the beach.
The plastic returned with the high waves.
Let us instead teach others about the beauty of the sea and its wildlife, and its vital importance to personal and planetary life. Let us encourage our children to pack out their toys. That way when today’s toddlers bring their kids or grandchildren to Pismo Beach or any other beach, those yet unborn children actually might be able to swim, play and surf in living waters—instead of in a tragic replica of a giant bounce-house filled with toxic plastic debris and dust.
The dangers plastics pose to consumers are rampant. In self-defense, it is a good idea to educate oneself on the types. Baby bottles, for examples, are sometimes made from very noxious plastics that disrupt hormones and can cause brain wave or developmental problems. Manufacturers may not care about your baby, but they will listen seriously to the pitter-patter of informed adult feet running away from their products. An excellent list of common plastic types and their harmful possibilities is contained in the article “Be Plastic Aware—Dangers” by the LFT Group (see References below).
I beg the people of San Luis Obispo County and the City of Pismo Beach to become a part of the solution to toxic plastic waste that is killing our ocean.
Please consider volunteering to help with beach and ocean clean-ups, for a few random people cannot do this alone. There is too much trash, and some late afternoons we plastic grabbers must be elsewhere. Dedicated evening ocean clean-up should never stop because of that.
I make the following recommendations to the City of Pismo Beach:
The city has signs regarding doggy doo clean up and heavy fines for violators.Yet, unbagged doggy doo constitutes less than 4% of my pickings. Those signs must be working! So, now. Where are the signs for plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, seventeen layers of plastics type baby diapers, and blankets’ full of meal containers and papers? Signs don’t need to start off sounding threatening. But if they can direct attention to the plastic problem, that would truly help. In fairness, most people need to become aware of a problem before they become motivated to fix it.
Encourage ocean preservationist organizations to have talks and displays along the boardwalk.
Add more and larger trash bins, maybe in seaside pastels, that are more easily accessible to all beach-goers, including those closer to the water.
Consider adding a few more recycle bins on the beach itself.
Secure existing trash bins so that the shorebirds cannot shred and scatter the Styrofoam food containers inside them. Conscientious people usually toss their containers into the trash cans. But what good does that do when the birds ravage them? These Styrofoam confetti bits scatter all over the beach and the strand, and are hard to see and sift out. If no one picks them up again, they will remain there in one form or another—yes—forever.
To go a bit further, might the city think about eliminating Styrofoam in restaurants or as packaging containers? Styrofoam contains one of the worst toxins, styrene, which is linked to cancers and a host of other medical problems. It’s a hard one, but it’s doable—after all, the county has successfully eliminated plastic shopping bags in stores. Many California cities and several counties have already eliminated Styrofoam packaging, including Laguna Beach and Santa Cruz.
“People protect what they love,” said Cousteau. Do you love the beach? The ocean? Kayaking? Marine animals? Fishing? Making bonfires? Surfing? The sound of the waves? Show your love! Come out and pick up some bottles. Join a beach clean-up group. Pester your city councils. Above all, self-educate and spread the word.
Awareness of plastic dangers could be as critical as your next breath. It definitely was for that poor seagull’s.
“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself.” –Rachel Carson
Coursey, Blair. “Plastic Waste—More Dangerous than Global Warming,” Ethical Corporation’s Magazine and Business Intelligence Resources. http://www.ethicalcorp.com/content/plastic-waste-%E2%80%93-more-dangerous-global-warming
LFT Group. “Be Plastic Aware—Dangers.” http://www.lft-group.com/journal/2008/12/2/be-plastic-aware-dangers.html
Learn, Scott. “Seaside Activist Tracks Waves of ‘Microplastic’ Washed onto Oregon Beaches,” The Oregonian. www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2012/09/seaside_activist_tracks_waves.html
Ransford, Matt. “Why Trashing the Oceans is More Dangerous than We Imagined,” Popular Science. http://www.popsci.com/environment/article/2008-04/why-trashing-oceans-more-dangerous-we-imagined
Roach, John. “Source of Half Earth’s Oxygen Gets Little Credit,” National Geographic News. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/06/0607_040607_phytoplankton.html