Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Update on beach trash:  something is missing!

Written July 6, 2013, published mid July 2013

A few years ago I wrote about numerous yellow rope pieces found on local beaches during trash cleanup days. These yellow ropes were escaping from long line oyster operations after harvest. The ropes were cut between each cluster of oysters as the lines were pulled onboard oyster boats, then the oyster clusters were hauled to opening houses, where each cluster was taken apart and the oysters opened. Yellow rope sections were typically fourteen to eighteen inches long, and were removed from the waste shell, but not all were collected. Pieces in shell piles often ended up back in the bay a year or two later, spread on seed catching beds ahead of natural set of oyster larvae in late summer. From there, yellow ropes floated everywhere:  around Willapa Bay, out the entrance to the ocean beaches, and up and down the coast. Yellow rope has been seen on beaches north of Grays Harbor and south of the Columbia River. 

Piles of plastic materials waiting for recycling, yellow lines in the foreground, and bundles of black plastic mesh bags in the background. Photo by Kathleen Sayce

The oyster industry didn't realize how widespread these rope pieces were on local beaches. Once they realized this, they made some changes. First, several kinds of natural fiber ropes are being tested, including manila and cotton. With natural fiber ropes, they can continue to cut each cluster, and not worry about where the pieces go. Second, many growers began hauling the yellow plastic ropes with oyster clusters intact on board without cutting them up. The used ropes are bundled for disposal right on the boat and the oysters are pried off. The oyster crews also bundle the black mesh bags after seed oysters are removed, so that these too can be hauled out of the bay. 

Bundles of used long lines from oyster beds, coiled and waiting for recycling at an oyster opening house on Willapa Bay. Photo by Kathleen Sayce

On the beaches, the difference in just three years is amazing. During beach cleanups, like the Fifth of July beach cleanup day organized last week by Grassroots Garbage Gang, people used to pick up thousands of pieces of yellow rope. It was normal to find one piece of yellow rope in the tide line every five to ten feet on the ocean beach. Now there's probably one piece every thousand feet or so. That doesn't sound like much, until you think about the tons of other trash those folks are picking up. Bending over one to two hundred times per thousand feet to pick up short pieces of rope sounds tiring just writing about it. 

Other changes in beach trash include a slow shift in fireworks components to more cardboard and paper and less plastic. This is a very important, positive change. Small pieces of plastic are often overlooked, and quickly break into even small pieces, which become biologically active as they break down to microscopic sizes. Fireworks are intended to be destructively ephemeral, so there's no reason for them to be made of long lived plastics. Picking up trash this year, I saw that small parachutes are made of cotton string, paper and cardboard, where five years ago the cardboard section might have been plastic. There's also less plasticized paper, and more glossy paper. Small box fireworks that fountain into the air no longer have plastic tops or bases. I've picked up hundreds of those tiny black cones and tubes in the past from one small box of 50 or more individual chambers. It's a big change, and a welcome one, to see that these fireworks are now made of cardboard and paper. 

There's also been a positive shift in beach partier habits:  More people are picking up their own trash. Wonderful! We want this to continue, and we are trying to make it easy for visitors. Dedicated volunteers hand out bags on the Fourth of July at major beach approaches. Dumpsters are located on beach approaches with banners, reminding people not to bury or burn trash, but to collect and dump it. We treasure our beaches, and slowly, we are teaching our visitors to do the same. 

Post-tsunami debris still comes ashore regularly. The huge influx of large foam chunks last year has been replaced by a steady trickle of water bottles and other containers, wood building debris and the occasional boat. Many portions of our beach have dedicated volunteers who check their sections weekly; they pick up tsunami debris as it comes ashore. 

If you are looking for regular exercise for the good of the beach, get your own quarter mile or half mile stretch. Hundreds of people help on the big cleanup days, and volunteers to help coordinate this event are always needed.  For information about joining Grassroots Garbage Gang, or get your own section of beach, contact Shelly Pollock, phone 642-0033, email 

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