Zero Offset Vacation Days

Zero Offset Your Carbon-Heavy Vacation Travel with Days Spent at Sustainable Organic Farms. Photo © Liesl Clark

Let’s face it: Flying to Florida from Seattle isn’t the most carbon-free activity. But if we want to see Grammy, we have to go to her. She simply doesn’t fly.

Once we arrived in Florida, we dreamed up a few activities to help offset the jet fuel burn our family of 4 incurred. Hitting the beach, only 100 yards away, was easy — just throw a towel around your shoulders. But be sure to bring a bag for collecting plastics.

Plastics Retrieved En Route to the Beach. It's Easy To Do. Photo © Liesl Clark

Before reaching the beach, we filled our bag with lots of straws and straw sleeves found in juice boxes. Interestingly, we didn’t find too many plastics on the beach as I discovered, a day later, that 2 men drive along the beaches in a little golf cart with a trash picker and retrieve all the debris. I wondered why they couldn’t simply walk?

Here's one they missed. Sunglasses part on the beach. Photo © Liesl Clark

Every day, we filled a bag with plastics while walking along the sidewalks or shore. For our children, the incentive was finding something odd and different. A tiny working flashlight in the shape of an alien was the first day’s reward, then a cute plastic fish the next, and all types of plastic beach toys were recovered, too. We needed a shovel and it didn’t take long to find one. No lack of entertainment when you decide to do a bit of daily good and pick up the world’s plastics. And the Earth always gives back to our little scavengers in interesting ways. Plastic “swords” used in tropical drinks to hold fruit together washed ashore daily to the delight of my son, who started collecting them for his Lego characters.

McWashed Ashore. Sliced apples in a bag? Photo © Liesl Clark

The contents of a bag of McDonald’s apple slices found tucked in the dune vegetation became food for eager sea gulls.

Apple snacks. Courtesy of sea-borne McDonald's fare. Photo © Liesl Clark

In between hours of play amidst the waves and digging in the sand with our newly-found beach toys, it didn’t take much effort during our “plastics recovery” walks to fill a bag a day. If we all did this, just bent down and picked up the straws and plastic caps under foot, we’d feel like we did a form of good, helping to extract the plastics from our shorelines before they head back out to sea.

This leaf wasn't plastic, and it's a pleasure to see a stretch of sand that was plastic-free. Photo © Liesl Clark

But the greatest fun we had was visiting a local organic fruit grove. I spent a little time online and discovered a list of pick your own-type farms in our region and many are organic farms. We hopped in the car and drove inland about 16 miles to find an organic orange grove.

Get to know the places you vacation in a little better by picking local organic produce there. Valencia oranges are in season in February in Western Florida. Photo © Liesl Clark

The kids had never picked oranges and this experience is surely one they won’t forget. In the direct sun, the temperatures were in the 90s and we had to watch the ground for fire ants. With some long fruit picker poles in our hands, we ambled several rows of valencia orange trees into the grove and were overwhelmed by the sweet smell of orange blossoms.

Fruit Picking in Manatee County, FL. Photo © Liesl Clark

These fruit-laden trees grew in what loooked like pure sand, but they’re obviously getting the nutrients and water they need because the oranges are delicious and juicy. It took us 15 minutes in the hot sun to fill a 10-gallon bucket. And with the price of $10/bucket we walked away feeling we got the better end of the deal.

Bucket Full of Valencia Oranges. Photo © Liesl Clark

The children needed an ice cream cone to cool off, so we discovered another U-pick organic farm down the road. This one grew hydroponic strawberries — and we picked our fill of delicious sun-sweetened fruit.

Picking Strawberries at O'Brien Family Farm. Photo © Liesl Clark

And the ice cream cones, of course, were the perfect plastic-free end of day snack, a just reward for our zero offset vacation day efforts.

Ice cream cones are the original plastic-free treat. Photo © Liesl Clark

Mapping Plastic: The Lost Coast

Exploring Bainbridge Island's Lost Coast © Liesl Clark

Exploring Bainbridge Island’s Lost Coast © Liesl Clark

Who owns the shoreline?

This is the question we’re asking after walking one of the most beautiful stretches of Bainbridge Island’s coastline. The mile-long stretch of nearly house-free shore had very few plastics along it, too. Does this prove that the plastics are washing down into our waters from our homes? Possibly.

Kitchen Sink Scrubby. They're Made of Plastic. © Liesl Clark

Kitchen Sink Scrubby. They’re Made of Plastic Fibers. Try a Plastic-Free Alternative. © Liesl Clark

This gorgeous stretch of beach lies along the southwest side of the island, skirting Port Orchard Bay and leading up toward the Poulsbo Marina in the distance. There’s about 2 miles of water between this shore and Bremerton’s shoreline, and the tidal currents move through here pretty swiftly, leaving little ability for plastics to make purchase ashore. Yet they still do.

Water Skiing Anyone? © Liesl Clark

Water Skiing Anyone? © Liesl Clark

The Lost Coast starts with a hike down the Close Property Trail to the rocky shore. It’s a classic Northwest coastal hike through old douglas firs and ferns, the trail switch-backing down the steep green scape to the water. We turned right and headed north, my two children and one of their good friends. Everyone had a bag in hand, to pick up plastics, or pretty shells and rocks. We had a feeling this stretch of shore wouldn’t have many plastics because we come here often and only find the occasional offender.

Hiking Through Ferns on the Close Property Trail © Liesl Clark

Hiking Through Ferns on the Close Property Trail © Liesl Clark

A high bank leaves jungle for us to enjoy, with a few properties that have carved out a beach presence, stashing their plastic lawn furniture in the brambles. It’ll only be a matter of a few storms before the plastic furniture is set free onto the billowing seas. Some kayaks were imaginatively lashed to trees and a couple of landowners had cool pulley-elevators for getting people and gear down to their stretch of paradise.

The Ever-Present Marine Rope, Made of Plastic © Liesl Clark

The Ever-Present Marine Rope, Made of Plastic © Liesl Clark

But after about an hour, our walk was cut short by a sign indicating we couldn’t pass.

No Trespassing!? © Liesl Clark

No Trespassing!? © Liesl Clark

Can the beach, even at the lowest mean tide, be privately owned? According to The Public Trust Doctrine, passed down from English Common Law, we have the right, especially at extreme low tides, to walk shoreline beaches, to recreate along the shore’s edge. The thinking is that below the common high tide mark, the land is not privately owned. But some homeowners beg to differ and the state of Washington, in particular, has no final judgement on the matter. Can we cross this section of beach at the lowest winter tide possible to continue our beach plastics survey? Or do we have to take up a friend’s offer to ferry us by row boat past this 100 yard stretch of beach to the other side? Fletcher Bay is a narrow residential bay, one of the significant watersheds of our island, that could hold clues to the question of where our ocean plastics are coming from.

Nursery Plant Tags are a common Beach Plastic © Liesl Clark

Nursery Plant Tags are a common Beach Plastic © Liesl Clark

Most people think the plastics in our oceans comes from boats. We’re convinced it comes from our homes. Case in point: Those plastic tags you have in a nursery plant pot, giving you the latin name of your purchase and growing instructions. Do we find nursery plants on boats? No. This culprit has washed down a watershed into the salty sea and we plucked it from Bainbridge Island’s Lost Coast.

Landed Umbrella © Liesl Clark

Landed Umbrella © Liesl Clark

If it has plastic in it, even if a small percentage of it is plastic, you’ll find it on the beach. I don’t think there’s anything made of plastic that we haven’t found washed ashore. The tally from our Lost Coast walk included, shoe soles, lots of styrofoam pieces, motor oil containers, plastic toys, and easily a hundred meters of marine rope.

If you’d like to join us on a leg of our circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island, to see for yourself, just let us know in the comments.

Bainbridge Island's Lost Coast. The Most Plastic-Free Stretch of Beach on the Island. © Liesl Clark

Bainbridge Island’s Lost Coast. The Most Plastic-Free Stretch of Beach on the Island. © Liesl Clark

Read about the previous leg on our circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island.

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.

Beach Plastic Odyssey

Do you play catch with your son? How about on the beach?  Did the ball go into the water? Could you get it back? Did you watch it float away? Why? Did you think it wouldn’t do anything? It did. I found it.

– Kasper 7th-8th grader, Odyssey Multiage Program

Beach “Treasures” Recovered During A Beach Plastic Odyssey: Alarming quantities of plastic litter are spotted daily in our seas worldwide, both in the waters and along the shoreline. A stunning 90% of all marine debris is plastic, and 80% of that plastic is coming from land.

Having read these statistics, my family can no longer have innocent beach days devoid of facing the impact we’ve had on our watersheds and shore environments. It hasn’t taken long for us all (from ages 4 – 74, grandparents included) to step into the role of citizen scientists, wanting to solve the questions of what exactly is floating in our waters and where is it coming from? But doing it alone was too high a plastic mountain to climb, so we’ve developed a community-based project, along with the Rockefeller Campbell family, called Plastic is Forever, a citizen-science project for all ages to study the effects of everyday plastics in our local waters. Our methods employed are varied, but they involve a combination of simple hands-on science, mathematical inventorying, treasure hunting, taxonomy of unknown plastic parts, and a good bit of creative spirit through art and film.

On their final days of school this year, the Odyssey 7-8th grade class of 2010-2011 took part in our pilot educational project to raise awareness that the problem of plastics in the marine environment is not just out in the North Pacific Gyre, but dramatically right here under our very noses.

The Beach Forays and What We Found: A one-hour foray by 40 students to a local beach reaped sad, yet typical, results. The list of common debris found mimics the most commonly used items in our region: bottle caps, straws, plastic pens, and (in the case of Puget Sound) fireworks. To qualify this last item, you have to imagine the 4th of July from any Puget Sound vantage point: an admittedly beautiful display of countless private pyrotechnics that, on the calm waters of the Sound, mirror beautifully skyward and then seaward.

Each firing over our waters, however, is a literal throwing-away-of-plastics-and-blown-up-plastic-bits into the Sound. By January, those pieces are washing up by the tens of thousands along our local shores, mixed with seaweed, wood bits, and the myriad other common plastics on our everyday list. Here’s a sampling of hot items found during 5 trips to Puget Sound beaches by a team of four K-1 students in March of 2010:

Balloons & Ribbons:                                         10

Bottle Caps:                                                       87.5

Candy Wrappers:                                              38

Earplugs:                                                            52

Fireworks Parts:                                              134

Construction Foam:                                       Infinite

Fishing Tackle Floats:                                      34

Marine Rope:                                                    85 feet

Microplastic Pieces:                                       Infinite

Miscellaneous Broken Plastic Pieces:          1140

Miscellaneous Unknown Plastic Parts:          220

Pens:                                                                   17

Pen Parts:                                                           30

Plastic Bags:                                                       27

PVC Tubing:                                                       70 inches

Shoes:                                                                   8.5

Shotgun Cartridges:                                         71.5

Drinking Straws:                                               57.2

Styrofoam:                                                        Infinite

Syringes:                                                               4.5

Water Bottles:                                                     18

Ziplock Bags:                                                      10

When I look at this list, I first think of what’s missing: The number-one most-used material plastic in our country — polyethylene or “film.” Translated: plastic bags. They are also the least-recycled plastic worldwide. Why aren’t we finding hundreds of plastic bags in a month of visiting our local beaches? The answer is simple: they’re already absorbed into the environment, having first been ingested by land-lubber scavengers like raccoons and dogs. Add to that the fact that plastic bags are the first of the plastics to photo-degrade in salt water into unintelligible tiny bits mixed in with the translucent seaweeds of our marine ecosystem. Take a Mason jar the next time you go to the beach and collect a jar-full of seaweed sludge. How much of it is organic and how much synthetic? In the winter months, the amount of torn up broken-down synthetics is alarming. And then there’s another clue in those jars: tiny fish bites (some not so tiny) taken out of what’s left of the plastic bags. They’re there, and if they’re not made by fish, harbor seals, otters, then they’re made by raccoons or other predators who encountered the plastic bag housing tasty remnants of human foodstuffs during the landward part of the bag’s journey.

Plastics Bitten by Fish Photographed by 5Gyres Project

It’s the obvious absence of plastic bags on our beaches that is most disturbing. The majority are made from petroleum — a nonrenewable resource. Very few are recycled into more bags or other types of plastic. The hundreds of plastic bags used in each American household every year simply end up in a landfill or in our waterways, never breaking down completely, making their way down to the sea. A 2001 study cited on the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) shows that of 38 sea turtles examined, 60% had ingested marine debris, mostly plastic bags. According to some websites, 60 – 100 million barrels of oil are required to make the world’s plastic bags each year.

Plastic pieces found inside fish (5 Gyres project)

But it’s not just about the oil and the turtles, raccoons, fish, harbor seals, Laysan albatross, and even whales that we know are ingesting our discarded plastics. I often think about the communities of mussels thriving on large pieces of styrofoam, floating freely across our waters. There’s good evidence they injest the plastic toxins and release them into our waters.

We’re learning that plastics themselves, without the help of the bivalves, along with pesticides and even common prescription drugs are releasing synthetic and natural hormones into rivers and streams, which is leading to unintended consequences on wildlife, causing some male fish, for example, to become feminized and lay eggs. In a recent report, it was found that one third of small mouth bass were feminized in nine major U.S. river basins, and almost all of the rivers and streams tested in the United States contained some hormonally active chemicals. Our pure waters are purely reflecting our unintentional impact and irresponsible handling of waste, even if it’s waste from our bodies after consuming prescription drugs and birth-control pills.

Christopher Bartlett of The Magic has documented the work of Captain Charles Moore while trawling the Pacific Garbage Patch. I’ll quote him directly as these facts about marine plastics are not my expertise but important to understand:

Plastics absorb Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) from paint chips, coolants, pesticides, and metals, so when fish eat plastic matter and then bigger fish eat them, the chemicals could be bioaccumulating. Do the micro plastic particles contain POPs, and do these harmful pollutants migrate into the tissues and organs of the fish that ingest them and subsequently enter into the human food chain? Concentrations of the most frequent POPs (PCBs, DDT, and PAH – all renowned for their effects on the human organism) on nurdles collected from Japanese coastal waters were found to be up to 1 million times higher than the levels detected in surrounding seawater, the new data from the NPSG could have far-reaching effects.

If you want to have a personal encounter with nurdles, the feedstock of all items made of plastic (and washing up by the millions on our shores,) come to our exhibit at Bainbridge Performing Arts this July.

Earplugs? Why are we finding so many earplugs washing onto our beaches? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Construction workers? Boaters? Swimmers? They come in every color: purple, dayglo yellow, green, pink/green, orange. Next time you go to the beach, walk along the wrack line, (high tide line) and try to NOT find an earplug or 2 and a balloon piece with a ribbon tied to the end of it.

But you might be one of those people who just can’t see these plastics underfoot. They blend in — or we’ve tuned them out – and most plastics we find in the high tide debris can be seen mimicking something we typically see in the natural world. White and black plastic netting (used in the fishing industry to hold clams, mussels, oysters) look just like some forms of seaweed. Black PVC tubing looks like dark waterlogged sticks. Even the ribbons on the ends of balloons look like seaweed. My dear friend and fellow plastic citizen scientist, Rebecca Rockefeller, picked up a chunk of fish roe from the wrack line in one hand and in the other a similar-size chunk of styrofoam, same hue of orange with the same-size synthetic “eggs.” If I were a hungry large fish or otter, I’d be all over that sty-roe-foam. There’s no doubt these plastics have entered the food chain and, indeed now, our bodies.

The following 6-minute film documents the Beach Plastic Odyssey project and its impact upon a thoughtful and creative group of 7th and 8th graders. We thank them for their enthusiasm and clear insights they gave us on our first journey down the path of teaching environmental awareness. We did have a few doubters on day one: “I’ve spent a lot of time at Fort Ward beach and have never seen any plastics.” But, by the end of the study, there was little doubt that plastic debris washes up onto our shorelines with every high tide.

Here are some enlightening conclusions from the Odyssey 7th-8th grade team:

What lifestyle change(s) might be necessary to reduce your plastic consumption?

When we bring our lunch, we can use metal containers and not plastic ones.

Recycling, bring fabric bags to Safeway, or stop buying unnecessary things.

Bringing reusable water bottles

Reusing things


Use less water bottles – reuse them

What other conclusions, if any, can you draw?

I can conclude that a lot of things we use have alternatives and we just need to be willing to use the alternatives.

Don’t litter, don’t use plastic too much.

The fascinating results of the students’ work, including reflection sheets, and an inventory, can be seen at Bainbridge Performing Arts, starting July 1 though August along with works of art created from found debris on our local beaches by local artists. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy the film:

Plastic is Forever

Found in 5 Minutes on Our Beach

Every Color, Every Shape: Its All There in the Ocean

Our material culture washes up every day upon our beaches: Thousands of tiny particles of weathered plastic bits mixed with large snarls of monofilament trapping bottle caps, fireworks parts and earplugs. To look at a list of what’s washed ashore on a single beach during one high tide is to step through a day-in-the-life of the average American citizen and take note of the hundreds of plastic items we use: coffee cups and lids, plastic stirrers, plastic straws, clamshell food containers, plastic pens, a toothbrush, hairbrush, mascara applicator, shampoo bottle, car door handle, paintbrush, cell phone holder, car bumper, plastic shopping bags, dog toy, tennis balls, juice pouches, paint can spray top, organic produce stickers, plant pots, shovel handle, flip flops, sunglasses, lip balm applicator, baseball cap visor, packing peanuts, ziplock bag, water bottles, refrigerator meats drawer, plastic champagne cork, toothpaste cap, and light switch cover. Everything on this list has washed up on a beach in Puget Sound for us to document.

Plastic is Forever is the name of our project, and it’s the brainchild of 5 children who can no longer play innocently on a beach, oblivious to the myriad plastics under foot. Ages 4-7, and for over a year now, the kids have masterminded their own inventories, marine plastics art exhibits, environmental festival projects, science fair displays, watershed educational booths, public library displays, and Earth Day exhibitions. They’ve even made a short film. Please watch their work and spread the news: We’re using way too much plastic and it just won’t seem to ever go away.