Mapping Plastic: First Days of Our Journey

Even Point White Pier ain’t plastic-free. We found Chapstick tubes lodged in the cracks. Photo © Liesl Clark

Our journey started on a windy day. Circumnavigating Bainbridge Island to map the plastic on its shores has started off like any other beach walk where we tease plastic detritus from tall grasses, seaweed, and huge boulders. Our friends, Rebecca Rockefeller, David Dale Campbell, and their daughters met us at Pleasant Beach, aka Lynwood Center Beach, and we headed south at the day’s lowest tide in hopes of reaching Point White Pier by dark. But we hit a snag.

Rich Passage is a narrow waterway providing access between Seattle and Bremerton for ferries, submarines and naval boats from the nearby seaports. Strong tidal conditions prevail and a winter shoreline walk along the Bainbridge side of the passage is impossible. Lined entirely with bulkheads, houses built right up to the coast, Rich Passage isn’t actually passable on foot. Our map here shows the section, right at Point White, that we had to skip, but we’ll return at a minus tide in the spring to complete as much of it as possible and collect whatever plastics are plastered to the human-made coast.

Legs 1 and 2 of the Bainbridge Island Plastic Mapping Project. Our Track is in Blue.

It’s a 53-mile circumnavigation we’re undertaking and we’ve done about 2. Beginnings are all about logistics, so the fact that we managed to track our progress by GPS and map it for you here is a huge feat.

Rebecca Rockefeller Inspecting “The Armored Coast,” Photo © Liesl Clark

We resumed our route on the west side of Point White 2 days later and cleaned the armored coast of plastic to Point White Pier, a landmark on Bainbridge where the fishing is good and summer swimmers hurl themselves into Puget Sound’s frigid waters.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “One of the largest estuaries in the United States, Puget Sound has roughly 2,500 miles of sheltered coastline, about one-third of which is armored. An increasing regional population and rising sea level will likely increase the pressure for additional shoreline armoring. Bulkheads, seawalls, and other armoring structures protect shoreline properties from damage and loss due to erosion, but armoring can also affect the nearshore habitat that is so important to restoring and preserving the health of Puget Sound.”

The man-made basalt armor of Crystal Springs. Plastics are jammed around the boulders. Photo © Liesl Clark

We see the daily affect of the sea upon the armored coastlines we walk and know climate change and sea level rise will ultimately win out. And studies are proving that armored coasts cause increased erosion on neighboring shorelines and adversely affect wildlife habitats. For us plastic pluckers, the armored coastlines mean there’s little plastic to be procured as there’s no true high tide line. Those plastics will have to deposit themselves somewhere else.

Rope Is Easily Caught in Man-Made Boulder-Strewn Coastline, Photo © Liesl Clark

Marine rope and fishing line is easily found behind and around boulders placed along Puget Sound’s shorelines, a barrier between sea and land but a catchment sieve for ropes and lines. We approach these coastlines with steely knives, our tools to free plastic filament ropes so we can remove them permanently in an effort to prevent future entanglement of marine species. The ropes placed by people to moor or tie down their boats, of course, are left alone. Most ropes we free, we’re able to simply pull from the rocks or pick up from the high tide line.

Some marine rope is reused by our researchers. Photo © Liesl Clark

Every beach walk brings surprises, sometimes in the form of items our intrepid children would like to keep — gifts from the sea — or bizarre relics in plastic that have no purpose on a beach. The new-looking basketball was a surprise, until we found a second one and realized they can’t be uncommon. Then the plastic spongy pig thing brought shouts of joy.

A Pig on the Beach? Photo © Liesl Clark

What the? Photo © Liesl Clark

But it was the white plastic replica sculpture of “The Last Supper” that won first prize this time.

“The Last Supper” on the Beach. Photo © Liesl Clark

What weird stuff have you found on the beach?

Our beach plastics survey would be remiss if we didn’t highlight the usual suspects, like balloons. This is one of the hundreds we’ve picked up in the last year alone.

Balloon and Pool Noodle Washed Up On Bainbridge Island. Photo © Liesl Clark

If you haven’t noticed, balloons blow, and when they have a ribbon attached to them that ribbon gets wrapped up in seaweed or around the necks of curious seals. We’ve seen countless images of seals entangled in plastic. Balloons and their attendant ribbons contribute to this problem. Please consider alternatives to balloons for your next birthday party to help prevent their inevitable migration to the sea. We don’t buy gift ribbon anymore, now that we’ve seen how much of it lines our shores.

Inner Plastic Lining of a Mylar Balloon, Washed Ashore. Photo © Liesl Clark

The Tally So Far:
We’re inventorying our island plastics by item. And so far, the most populous plastics are plastic bottle caps, styrofoam chunks, earplugs, construction zone tape (37 feet), fireworks, pvc piping, snack food bags & wrappers, plastic drink bottles, styrofoam food trays, tape, and 209 feet of marine rope. We’ve recycled the plastic bottles along with any glass bottles and aluminum cans we pick up along the way — just putting what’s plucked from the sea back into our materials economy.

Items of Note?
Three plastic wreath frames presented themselves on a high shoreline bank. In an upcoming post we’ll expose what ecologists say about the affects of throwing your yard clippings and organic waste into the sea. Grass clippings are not good for our oceans, yet we’re finding that Bainbridge Island residents are piling their yard waste and organics along their sea walls so they can be pulled out to sea with high tides and storm events. Hence the wreath frames, nursery tape, plastic plant pots, and those plastic tags that tell you what kind of plant you’ve bought are found all over Puget Sound. If we find things that can be reused, we put them back into circulation. So, we’re proud to note that the two of the plastic wreath frames were shared on our local Buy Nothing group and an island neighbor will use them for upcoming holiday wreath-making. I was inspired by her enthusiasm and reused one for a wreath I made of rosemary clippings from one of our plants. We’re also collecting all golf balls, tennis balls, and beach toys to be reused by local friends.

On a lighter side, we found a very old and rusty plastic lighter from The Derby lounge in Ketchican, Alaska!

Want to join us, physically or virtually, in our adventure around Bainbridge Island on our Plastic Mapping expedition? No need for us to do this alone! Drop us a line in the comments and we’ll arrange a date.

4 thoughts on “Mapping Plastic: First Days of Our Journey

  1. Thank you so much for doing this. I’m going to try and go out today and see what we can appropriate and appropriately dispose of today in our local woods and townhouse area. Thanks for the inspiration!

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    • It’s a great thing to do at the end of the year, getting us outdoors, too! Thanks so much for reading and looking into the kinds of plastics we find in the outdoors. It’s had huge impact on our family and our own consumption habits, as a result.

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  2. Pingback: Mapping Plastic: The Lost Coast | Pioneering The Simple Life: One Family's Journey Back to the Future

  3. Pingback: Mapping Plastic: Aquaculture’s Styrofoam Beaches | Pioneering The Simple Life

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