Plastics entangle all types of animals and are ingested at alarming rates

Chris Brokate, the man who has organized more beach cleanups in the last five years than anyone else in Sonoma County, has one word for you: plastics.

That’s what he sees most when he takes volunteers out to the coast to do a cleanup.

“Plastics of every kind — plastic bottles, plastic caps, plastic toys, containers of all kinds. Water bottles — there are too many water bottles. Ugh!” exclaimed Brokate, the founder of the Clean River Alliance.

Plastics make up a large portion of what is known as “marine debris,” which is having its moment in the sun thanks to the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to which Sonoma County, like all of the west coast, is a regular contributor.

Unfortunately, there’s still plenty of marine debris left over to pepper the coast of Sonoma County. 

What is marine debris?

Marine debris is basically litter and trash that ends up in the ocean and waterways. According to the EPA, 80% of marine debris originates as land-based trash, and the remaining 20% is attributed to at-sea sources such as commercial fishing vessels, cargo ships or cruise ships.

The overwhelming majority of marine debris off the Sonoma Coast comes from right here in Sonoma County: either traveling down the Russian River or from coastal visitors. 

How does the plastic cup you got your iced latte in end up as marine debris? Sometimes through littering, and sometimes accidentally, like when that cup you were sure you recycled falls out of a garbage truck or an overfilled garbage can and blows down the storm drain and into the watershed.

According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, pronounced “Noah”), the most common materials that make up marine debris are plastics, glass, metal, paper, cloth, rubber and wood. But most experts agree that plastic is the single biggest culprit.

The United Nations’ marine pollution group estimated that 60% to 95% of marine debris is plastic. The California Coastal Commission, which bases its estimates on California beach cleanups, claims that plastic makes up 90% of marine debris off the California coast.

Higgins

Cea Higgins

Cea Higgins is the executive director of Coastwalk, a nonprofit that advocates for public access to our coast via the California Coastal Trail. Coastwalk is also the official Sonoma County organizer of California Coastal Cleanup Day, which is scheduled for Sept. 21 this year.

“California Coastal Clean-up Day is the largest volunteer event in the world and definitely the largest debris removal event in Sonoma County,” Higgins said.

“It’s also the largest citizen scientist event in the world,” she said, noting that volunteers keep track of and report the types of debris they collect, data that is then turned over to the California Coastal Commission.

According to Higgins, the most common objects found during their beach cleanups are cigarette butts, plastic bottles, food wrappers, polystyrene (Styrofoam) and microplastics.

“Styrofoam packaging is huge,” she said, “and I’m not sure why we’re finding so much of that stuff here. It could be because of our significant flooding events. It could be that a lot of businesses are using that for packaging takeout foods.

“The biggest problem with Styrofoam is that it breaks up into such small pieces that it’s almost impossible to collect. Styrofoam is even more harmful to wildlife than regular plastic because it’s so porous that the marine organisms attach to it quicker so it is more likely to smell like and look like food.”

Ditto for microplastics, which are very small pieces of plastic (5 millimeters, or less than a quarter inch) that come either from the breakdown of larger plastic objects or from industrial products like plastic microbeads, which are used in some cleansers and beauty products.

Higgins said she also sees a lot of plastic agricultural ties of the sort used in vineyards and shotgun shells. She’s also seen a growing number of syringes, thanks to the opioid epidemic.

Most people find marine debris ugly and unsettling, but for the most part it’s not much of a health danger to people — except for sharp objects that beach goers might accidentally step on. Accidental ingestion of microbeads is a concern, but hasn’t been linked yet to any specific health concerns.

Marine debris, however, can be deadly to wildlife, particularly sea birds and marine mammals.

“There’s two types of impact for wildlife,” Higgins said, “entanglement and ingestion. Both end up usually with the loss of life of the animal.” 

“First, there’s the entanglement issue,” she said. “This involves animals getting wrapped up or entrapped by fishing line, rope or cord … Plastic bags, once they begin to disintegrate, turn into plastic string and that becomes an entanglement issue.”

Ingestion is the other danger that marine debris, particularly plastic, poses to wildlife.

“Plastic can either visually look like a food source — the primary example is jelly fish and floating plastic bags — or, as organisms attach to it, it can actually begin to smell like food,” Higgins said. “It can move up the food chain — as one species ingests it and then is eaten by something else.”

Whales are at particular risk, she said, because of their feeding habits.

“Gray whales scoop stuff up from the bottom, and they pick up all the marine debris that settled. And then you have opportunistic feeders — scooping up large amounts or water — so you have two ways whales can end up ingesting plastic when they’re just trying to do their normal feeding pattern.

“We’re getting all these necropsy results for humpbacks and larger whales in which they’re finding so much plastic in their digestive systems that the whales are unable to feed themselves and literally die from starvation.”

Cleanups and education

Beach cleanups, like those offered by Clean River Alliance, Coastwalk and Surfrider Sonoma County, are one solution to the problem of marine debris, removing debris that might wash out to sea (or wash back out to sea).

Coastwalk does one massive cleanup every year, while Surfrider Sonoma County has volunteers out on the beaches at almost every major summer holiday.

“We used to do beach cleanups the day after holidays, but we’ve changed that strategy,” said Sarah Heyne, vice chairperson for Sonoma Coast Surfrider Foundation. “Now we do our cleanup on the same day as the holiday, because that adds to the educational component. We find a lot less trash the day after because we were out there encouraging families to pick up their own trash, and people were seeing us out there with the buckets and grabbers.”

Heyne

Sarah Heyne

Brokate said that Clean River Alliance takes a multi-pronged approach to cleanups.

“We mitigate trash at every level,” he said. “We do the beach cleanups; we do river-based cleanups and land-based cleanups around the river. We have an Adopt-a-Highway program where we clean up five miles of roadway that parallels the river. We do storm drain education and clean our streets in summer and winter to prevent things from going into the storm drains.”

Brokate even has a program engaging the homeless along the river to collect trash.

“They have staged (i.e. readied for pick-up) tens of thousands of pounds of trash for us,” he said.

All three groups also do litter and marine debris education in local schools and in the community.

Lifestyle changes

Ultimately, the activists most involved with this issue are urging individuals to make personal lifestyle choices to reduce the amount the plastic and other packaging they use.

“Step 1 would be awareness of the amount that exists currently,” Higgins said. “If we think about the fact that plastic is not biodegradable — it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. Every single piece of plastic that has ever been made since the ’50s and ’60s is still with us today. And we just keep adding more.”

“There’s a lot of power in what you do as a consumer,” she said. “We’re not going to get a shift in how food is presented to us and packaged unless there’s a demand.”

Heyne said the Sonoma County chapter of Surfrider has been active in two national Surfrider programs, Rise above Plastics (see sidebar) and Ocean Friendly Restaurants, which certifies restaurants as “ocean-friendly” if they do the following:

• No expanded polystyrene use (aka Styrofoam).

• Proper recycling practices are followed.

• Only reusable tableware is used for onsite dining, and disposable utensils for takeout food are provided only upon request.

• No plastic bags offered for takeout or to-go orders.

• Straws are provided only upon request.

Heyne said her chapter just kicked off Ocean Friendly Restaurants locally in Sonoma County at the end of July, but that she is excited to see how that goes.

Legislation

Because plastic makes up such a large percentage of marine debris, legislative efforts have been focused around reducing plastic use. Some municipalities in Sonoma County, like Sebastopol, have already banned single-use plastics. Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins is working with Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers and others on a program to tax single-use plastics and use the proceeds to fund early childhood education. They hope to put a measure on the ballot in 2020.

The state of California has already banned plastic grocery bags and has a “straws on request only” law. Recent marine-debris legislative actions include the following:

• AB 619, the “Bring Your Own Container & Reusables Act” was just signed into law on July 15. The measure allows — but does not mandate — vendors at public events to serve food and drinks in washable cups, dishes and utensils, and to allow customers to bring their own containers. 

• SB 54 and AB 1080, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, sets goals to reduce waste from single-use plastic packaging and products and ensure the remaining items are effectively recycled. It passed out of the Assembly in July and is set for an appropriations hearing in the State Senate on Aug. 12.

There is also some national legislation in the works. U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) will be introducing legislation to tackle the plastic waste crisis this fall. See information at tomudall.senate.gov.

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