Mapping Plastic: Aquaculture’s Styrofoam Beaches

Day 5: Pleasant Beach to Fort Ward Boat Ramp

This article is part of a survey of Bainbridge Island’s 53-mile coastline. We’re circumnavigating the entire island to collect and make observations of the kinds (and amount) of plastics we see along the way to try to answer the question: Where does it come from?

The single-most prevalent plastic we find on our beaches, in our citizen-y-science-kind-of-way, is polystyrene. There’s so much of it, we see it in every shape, from tiny single particles the size of a snowflake to car-size chunks.

Styro-mobile. This car-sized chunk came riding in on the sea. © Liesl Clark

Styro-mobile. This small car-sized chunk came riding in on the sea. © Liesl Clark

But wait, this other one is just 300 yards down the beach. © Liesl Clark

But wait, here’s another enormous one just 300 yards down the beach. © Liesl Clark

Where are these huge styro-chunks coming from?

They’re used underneath floats and docks. The aquaculture industry is known to utilize polystyrene to keep their operations afloat. But nature eventually takes its course. Boring isopods damage expanded polystyrene floats under docks and, in the process, they expel copious numbers of microplastic particles. This paper describes the impacts of these mini drilling marine isopods in aquaculture facilities and docks and the resultant pollution the isopod-infested styrofoam is causing.

Here’s an opening statement in the article (I’ve taken out all of the references for ease of reading):

Like other microplastics (defined as <5 mm in diameter) in the marine environment, these particles may have detrimental effects to marine organisms. Plastics persist for hundreds to thousands of years in normal oceanic conditions. Also, polystyrene fragments and other minute plastics in the marine environment are readily colonized by biofilm and other organisms causing them to sink. Thus, these particles may interact with benthic and pelagic organisms. Ingested microplastics may cause both toxicological effects by transmitting bioaccumulating toxins and possibly physical effects by occluding feeding structures or inducing a false indication of satiation.

What I get from this article is that these little organisms, like shipworms and wood lice, bore into the styrofoam under floats and docks and in so doing they shed tiny plastic particles into the water, like a drill spewing mini-plastic shavings. The isopods start to feel full, after dining on the stiff white stuff, and eventually die off because their fast food source ain’t so good for them. The little ubiquitous particles end up not only in our bellies, but everywhere. On every continent. They even look like plankton and are now a part of our food chain. Experts, for years, have estimated microplastic particles are outnumbering plankton 6:1 in the marine environment. The bigger fish eat the ever-present plastics and then we eat the fish. End of story. The plastics are now in us, and they’re toxic.

Another little factoid is that mussels and other bivalves raft over the deep blue seas on freed polystyrene floats to foreign lands — lands where they don’t belong, where they’re considered alien and invasive.

Alien bivalves are the plastic-fed zombies of the future.

Unlucky Beached Bivalves © Liesl Clark

Unlucky Beached Bivalves, Rafting on Styrofoam © Liesl Clark

I’ve picked up so much beached polystyrene and other everyday plastics over the years, our personal dumping fees at our local transfer station can be astounding, given we produce as little waste as we can as a family.

Kids love the mints (or is it gum?) that come in these plastic containers. Why do they have to be packaged in a container that will remain here forever? © Liesl Clark

Kids love the mints (or is it gum?) that come in these plastic containers. Why do they have to be packaged in a container that will remain here forever? © Liesl Clark

Aquaculture’s equipment and incidentals are also polluting our beaches.

Shellfish Netting? © Liesl Clark

Shellfish Netting © Liesl Clark

Plenty of this plastic netting washes ashore, nets used to hold mussels or oysters.

We find tons of these:
No clue what this is used for, but it has aquaculture written all over it. © Liesl Clark

Some sort of substrate netting used in aquaculture  © Liesl Clark

 The aquaculture industry has all sorts of specialty items, 100% plastic:
I beg to differ. This specimen is not sea-fit. © Liesl Clark

I beg to differ. This specimen is not sea-fit. © Liesl Clark

 But we can’t blame it all on aquaculture and the marine industry. We’re all responsible for the myriad plastics in the sea that wash up on our beaches. Plastic floats, it’s buoyant and lightweight, it moves with flooding waters and wind. It mostly comes from us, from our homes.

Beached Sign, Tattered By the Sea © Liesl Clark

Beached Sign, Tattered By the Sea © Liesl Clark

The polystyrene that isn’t from marine floats and the aquaculture industry is from us, our fast food takeout containers, styro-block packaging, and packing peanuts flowing into our seas from inland rivers. According to Beachapedia:

The ‘Two Rivers’ study in Los Angeles found that over 1.6 billion pieces of plastic foam were headed to the ocean over a three-day period during surveys in 2004/5. 71% of 2.3 billion plastic items in the survey were foam items and that made up 11% of the overall weight of plastic pollution collected during the surveys.

If that isn’t enough to sound an alarm for you about styrofoam, there are plenty of studies that can fill you in on how polystyrene in the marine environment acts as a sponge for persistent organic pollutants like PCBs and DDT. Chelsea Rochman’s study of the beaches around San Diego shows that the most toxic plastics found in the marine environment is, you guessed it, styrofoam. Her lab fish that ate it didn’t fare so well.

1) Stop using styrofoam: If you mail order a product, ask the shipper to ship it without styrofoam.

2) Refuse takeout containers made of styrofoam.

3) Recycle what styrofoam you can. Our island has a recycle event twice a year for styrofoam and Seattle has a facility that recycles. Just type into your browser “Styrofoam Recycling in (name of your city)” and see if there’s a facility or green organization near you that will take your styrofoam. If not, find the nearest recycling facility (even if it’s a few hours away) and be the person in your community who organizes a styrofoam recycling event on Earth Day each year. Your community will likely get behind the costs of renting a U-Haul to get the stuff to a safe recycling operation.

4) Get out there for yourself and walk your shorelines, river shores, wild places. Pick up what styrofoam you find and start asking questions about where it might come from. Educate everyone you can.

If you’re interested in reading more about the previous legs of this survey, here’s a list of our stages so far:

Special Thanks:

A special shout-out to Julie Skotheim who took time out of her day to join us on this leg of our journey.

Marine "Rope," 100% Plastic © Liesl Clark

Marine “Rope,” 100% Plastic © 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.

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.