Reflective Pavement Markers Trash Our Roadsides

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Dear Washington Department of Transportation:

When you resurface our roads each year, you put in raised reflective pavement markers so we can better see the center line in the dark. But when winter comes, you scrape them all off the roads with your snow plows, and they sit there forever mangled, these mutilated pieces of spent DOT trash.

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What’s the point of installing plastic reflective pavement markers if you obliterate them a few months later?

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Now,  they simply reflect random routes off-road beckoning us to take misguided adventures into our roadside ditches.

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Didn’t you know that plastic pollution is one of the greatest problems endangering Puget Sound? Your scraped up plastic reflectors get run over by cars and break down into smaller and smaller reflective plastic bits as they slough off our hills and runoff with the rain into our ditches, headed for Puget Sound.

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These are the pieces of plastic marine debris we find washing up on our beaches. Perhaps there’s another alternative to reinstalling raised plastic reflectors on our roads each year, just to be scraped back off by your plows? I know other states, like Utah, use indented reflectors so snow plows don’t hit them.

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My neighbors try to be creative and reuse your smashed up reflectors on their stone walls so motorists don’t hit them at night. As for me, I’m just left to pick up your bits of reflective plastic trash as I reflect upon the waste our state tax dollars are creating, every time I walk down my road.

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Low Impact Trekking

By Mr. Everest

A Journey Beneath Dhaulagiri. Photo © Liesl Clark

A Journey Beneath Dhaulagiri. Photo © Liesl Clark

In most parts of the world, the higher we journey, the more rarified the air and pristine the environment. But in Nepal, that truth is changing. Twenty thousand visitors per year travel to the Mount Everest region, and thousands climb the 20,000 foot trekking peaks to catch glimpses of the world’s highest mountains. It’s imperative that we strive to leave as little impact as possible, and take steps to reverse some of the impacts left behind by others.

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This summer, we’ll be on our 13th journey through Nepal with our children, and feel fortunate to be able to share our work in the Himalayas with them, continuing the friendships they’ve established after 12 consecutive years of coming to this rugged country every spring or summer.  Exploring the outdoors brings joy to my 10 and 13 year old daughter and son and is integral to who they are.

Our children go on expeditions with us in Nepal.

Our children go on expeditions with us in Nepal. © Liesl Clark

My wife, Liesl, and I strive to pass on to them the 7 principles of leave no trace, established by the Center for Outdoor Ethics. I’ve added my personal insights and recommendations to the basic principles that you might find useful in planning for your next trip into the wilderness, whether alone or with your family and friends. The less impact we have on the environment, indeed even in our own backyards, the more readily our unique ecosystems and all the flora and fauna therein can thrive.

1) Planning your trip ahead of time and preparing is the first step. Take extra care to gain cultural knowledge of the behavior and the accepted norms of the country you’re travelling in. Learn about the environment you’re going into, whether it’s a pristine alpine wilderness or a heavily used high desert. Memorize which habitats are the most at risk and stay clear of them. Knowing this can make a difference in the choices you make for camping and recreating. Establish contingencies and have a plan in place for all contingencies.

Spinning prayer wheels in Kagbeni. © Liesl Clark

Spinning prayer wheels in Kagbeni. © Liesl Clark

Here are a few steps you’ll need to take in the planning phase that will greatly reduce your impact:

a) Get rid of all excessive packing of items you’re bringing with you. Remove the packaging from batteries, for example so you don’t bring that unnecessary paper and plastic (called blister packs that are not recyclable) with you.

b) Procure the right medicines and medical supplies for your trip. Remove the unnecessary packaging.

c) Bring maps and navigation materials like a compass or GPS.

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d) Set up the necessary insurance you’ll need in the event of a medical evacuation or helicopter rescue.

e) Where will your water sources come from? Please avoid plastic bottled water and plan to bring your own reusable water bottle to be refilled. Bring a Steripen for ultraviolet water purification, a water filter, or iodine tablets to treat your water.

2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces. For most trekking, you don’t need big heavy boots. You can travel in lighter trail shoes which don’t impact the terrain as much, causing erosion. Avoid going over people’s stone walls or walking through gardens. If you open gates, close them behind you. The point here is that you’re leaving no trace that you passed by. This is one instance where you don’t want to leave a big impression behind.

Sometimes travelling by foot is more reliable than by jeep. This jeep lost its fuel tank en route up the Kali Gandaki River. © Liesl Clark

Sometimes travelling by foot is more reliable than by jeep. This jeep lost its fuel tank en route up the Kali Gandaki River. © Liesl Clark

3) Have a plan for dealing with your waste:

a) If you’re in a National Park, use blue bags or something similar to pack out your own human waste. If you’re trekking, use outhouses. Otherwise, carry a small trowel or shovel and dig catholes. Carry your own toilet paper and burn it.

b) Carry out all plastics from your bars and all packaging from your food. A compression sack can do the trick to keep the waste in one place in your pack and consolidated.

c) Carry out the batteries from cameras and other equipment. These should be disposed of responsibly. Either take them home with you if you’re travelling in a country that doesn’t recycle them, or research where your nearest recycling facility is at the end of your trip. We stockpile all our batteries on our expeditions and bring them home.

d) Water: This might be the single most important step you take. Bringing your own reusable bottle saves the environment from hundreds of plastic bottles potentially littering the landscape. If others see you using a Steripen, a filter, or water tablets, they’ll see how easy an option it is. You can always ask for boiled water, but this water requires fuel to boil contaminants. A Steripen or hand-filter will mean you can get water wherever you want and it’ll be cold. It will also be free! I use a Steripen that has a solar charger attached to it so I’m not reliant on power or batteries to use it. Learn where the potable water stations are so you can support these efforts to stop people from buying bottled water.

Using a Steripen means we can have fresh cold water anywhere. © Liesl Clark

Using a Steripen means we can have fresh cold water anywhere. © Liesl Clark

e) When you’re on your way out, pay it forward by removing any waste you see in the environment. Especially if you come across potentially toxic waste like batteries or CFL light bulbs. These shouldn’t be anywhere outside, helping to remove these things and disposing of them safely, helps zero-offset your impact.

Removing a battery from a village water source. © Liesl Clark

Removing a battery from a village water source. © Liesl Clark

4) If you’re cooking on your own, be sure that you know where you should and shouldn’t have fires. Use local fuel that you can find easily and use those in substitution of wood fires.

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a) If you’re trekking where there are villages nearby, eating locally is a great way to reduce waste. The more local produce and indigenous food products you can eat from nearby fields and kitchens the less imported foods are needed to support your journey. We eat in homes and tea shops wherever we can in Nepal, where you’ll always find dhal bhat a Nepali dish of rice and lentils along with side dishes of locally grown vegetables.

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

b) Save your organic waste rather than throwing it outdoors to decompose. In some environments like the desert, even eggshells take an inordinate amount of time to break down. If you’re passing through villages, local farmers will be happy to take your stockpiled organics to feed to their stock animals (chickens, cows, yaks) or put in their compost piles.

5) Leave the natural environment as it is. Refrain from picking flowers or taking mementos from the natural world. Take only photos, leave only footprints.

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6) Be respectful of wildlife and don’t disturb any birdlife, mammals or any animals you come across.

7) Be respectful of other travellers using the same environment. The same goes for locals. Try to learn some of their language so you can greet them and ask a question. For starters, learning how to say hello, goodbye (often the same word), thank you, good morning, and counting to three will get you far. And, as in step #1, be aware of cultural norms.

9-hour day in jeep will put any 7-year-old to sleep. © Liesl Clark

9-hour day in jeep will put any 7-year-old to sleep. © Liesl Clark

Most of all, be in the moment and enjoy the journey, and where it takes your mind and heart.

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Mermaid’s Tears For Earth Day

By Finn Clark when he was age 9 (With Some Help from his Mom)

Last Friday was Earth Day at our school, a Montessori school called Voyager, and we created art from plastic my family found on the beaches of Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula. For the past 2-3 months, we have collected plastics that we find on our shorelines and in parking lots and watersheds, stream beds and estuaries headed toward the sea.

For our spring break, we camped at Second Beach, in Olympic National Park, and were amazed at the amount of plastic washing ashore from the Pacific Ocean’s waves. My little sister and I collected plastic for about an hour and hardly made a dent in the plastics spread across the sand.

When we woke up in the morning little bits of plastic seemed to sparkle along the high tide line, thousands of tiny shards and pieces worn and broken down by the action of the waves. Plastic can’t decompose, it just gets smaller and smaller until it becomes a thick soup in our waters. But the most disturbing pieces of plastic are miniscule nurdles, little round white discs, that are the raw plastics used to make anything that is plastic. One scientist went to hundreds of beaches around the world and found nurdles on every beach he studied, even on beaches in countries where plastics aren’t manufactured. Some people call them “mermaids’ tears,” and I think that’s a good name because they make me sad, too.

They’re toxic, sadly, as they act like a sponge, absorbing persistant organic pollutants (POPs) like DDT and PCB that are afloat in our waters. The yellower the nurdle, the more toxic it is.

We brought the larger chunks of plastic to our school for Earth Day and made 4 panels of art, following the rainbow spectrum of colors, to show people that every color imaginable is found on our favorite beach. Now that art will be hung at our school to remind us that maybe we should rethink the plastics we use everyday and find better alternatives that will biodegrade or break back down naturally into the environment.

My mom and her good friend, Rebecca, are trying to provide solutions to this problem of plastic in our environment, one piece at a time. That’s what a whole website, called Trash Backwards that Rebecca and my mom created is about. The most common things we find on the beaches, the straws, pens, plastic bottle caps, toothbrushes, and fireworks are a few of the items they’re researching and trying to find non-plastic alternatives for us all to use.

What common items have you found on your beach, in your parking lots, or sidewalks? Tell us, list them below, even a single word will do, and we’ll start researching non-plastic alternatives so we can live lives a little less plastic in the future.

My Pet Peeve About Pet Poop

Warning: The contents of this blog post might be disturbing, if you don’t like thinking about, or looking at, s**t.

Imagine hiking along a pristine trail in the Pacific Northwest with your dog. It’s a perfect spot with majestic trees, spring birds singing their first songs of spring. But your eye is caught by not one, but four or five little wads of plastic bags, placed carefully along the trail, loaded with a hiker’s canine crap. The numbers of plastic bags filled these days with dog waste on the trail can be quite shocking. Are pet owners intending to leave these plastic methane bombs there for me to pick up? Or, are they planning to come back one day to gather up the not-so-hermetically-sealed pathogen-filled goodies?  I believe they think they’re doing the environment a favor by just bagging them up in plastic, assuming they’ve done their service to the planet, thinking, “No methane escaping today!”

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Which is worse? This plastic bag or what’s inside? Well, now both are there to stay, on the trail. And the methane’s out of the bag. Sailor doesn’t know what to make of it.

I’m not going to get into the reasons why dog owners are bagging Fido’s fecal stuff. Suffice it to say, tail-wagger’s turds are one of the biggest contributors to water pollution in urban and suburban settings. We live on an island where we’re surrounded by Puget Sound. Everything ends up in our waters, given our torrential rains. So, doggie’s doodoo left in the rain can be considered the next nutrient to enter the Sound. But there’s definitely nothing nutritious about the stuff.

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This isn’t Sailor’s poop. Just another example of what’s found trailside on our island paths. Trowel anyone? This might be the most environmentally-sound means of pet waste disposal.

We use a Bokashi Pet Waste Composter for our cat’s waste, and since our dog mostly poops in one spot on our property, we’re doing our best to bring it inside and flush it down the toilet. He eats no meat, mostly our veggie meals, and a few bites of the cat’s dry food each day. The EPA says flushing is the most environmentally-sound thing we can do with Rover’s #2, considering we live just feet from Puget Sound. But putting your dog’s fecal matter into a plastic bag and leaving it on the trail to stay forever is, by my calculations, two counts of littering.

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One of my favorite authors, Susan Freikel, who wrote Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, summarizes the situation perfectly in a recent article for LiveScience:

Dogs can harbor lots of viruses, bacteria and parasites — including harmful pathogens like e coli, giardia and salmonella. (A single gram contains an estimated 23 million bacteria.) Studies have traced 20 to 30 percent of the bacteria in water samples from urban watersheds to dog waste. Just two to three days of waste from 100 dogs can contribute enough bacteria, nitrogenand phosphorous to close 20 miles of a bay-watershed to swimmingand shellfishing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.It also can get into the air we breathe: a recent study of air samples in Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich., found that 10 to 50 percent of the bacteria came from dog poop.

I understand the reasoning behind bagging your pet’s waste. But (wait for it) I’ve seen hundreds of pet waste bags, still filled with said waste, washed up on beaches along our shorelines. These floaters stay extra-buoyant in their plastic packaging. It’s one kind of plastic waste we’ve had to leave out there on the beaches as we can’t bring ourselves to pick it up. I have visions of whales and sea lions ingesting the knotted bags of eco-dog-love left behind by doo-gooders of Puget Sound.

Is there a more environmentally friendly way to dispose of our pet’s waste? According to this Huffington Post article, Paul Canella’s Poop Bags are biodegradable. But, those presumably will just go into the landfill, with the same toxins and microbes deemed unhealthy to humans leaching into our watersheds. Some scientists suggest that burying your dog’s waste, as you would your own, might be the best method for disposal along the trail. One foot deep, below the runoff zone, is safe. Are you willing to start digging in your public park? Probably not.

We have a bit of a merde mess in our over-poopulated urban settings, but in a few places, like Portland and Boulder, enterprising people have developed pet waste processing companies that compost your four-legged friend’s feces. It turns out hot commercial composters could actually use Fido’s fuel. One dog-friendly park, in Gilbert, AZ, lets you toss your turds into a bin that turns it into a flame for a lantern in the park while you let your dog have some off-leash fun.

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Yet another plastic-encapsulated trailside turd.

The plastic bagging of dog droppings just isn’t cutting it. We’re making a bigger mess of things in our wild places, watersheds, and maritime environments. There are now flushable bags made for caca collection, and this might be one of the easiest and eco-aware options out there.

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Vegetarian waste left behind by horses is of no concern.

Until we have anaerobic pet waste composters in each city, we’ll have to settle for the lesser evils available to us for disposing of it. And the next time I come across plastic-sealed scat, I have a pocketful of hand-written notes that I plan to leave behind, scribbled on paper, to accompany the abandoned excrement: “Did you forget this? This PPOO (plastic poo) needs a PPU (prompt pickup) by you.”

 

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.

Solutions?
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: 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.

Mapping Plastic: A Circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island

Many have done it by sailboat, motorboat, even kayaks. One person recently swam it. But how many people have hiked around Bainbridge Island? I mean all the way around, skirting its shores, circling the entire landmass like a May pole?

Circumnavigating Bainbridge Island To Map Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

The 53-mile circumnavigation is precisely the journey we’re embarking upon, but it’s not just a walk in the rock-strewn, slimy, barnacle-laden park, nor is it a pristine walk on the beach. This journey has a critical element: We’re picking up all the man-made trash we see on the shoreline along the way. What sorts of debris are washing up on this 36-square-mile island, 8 miles off the coast of Seattle in the middle of Puget Sound?

Circumnavigating An Island’s Shores Bring New Light to Single Use Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

We’re no strangers to beach debris, more accurately described as “everyday plastics.” My friend and co-founder at The Buy Nothing Project, Rebecca Rockefeller, and I have traversed many island beaches picking up plastics. Indeed, we’ve spent months inventorying the buggers, listing them by item. We’ve created disturbing art about our beach plastics, have conducted beach pick-ups and art projects with local classrooms, and founded a social movement with an eye toward addressing that first of the 3 “R’s,” REDUCING the amount of plastics we consume in the first place. If we just shared what we already had, rather than buying new, wouldn’t that have impact?  If we’ve learned one thing in the last 5 years of research it’s this: If it’s made of plastic, it will end up in our waters.

Beachdebris, Robbins Island, MA, Photo © Liesl Clark

The obvious solution to our dependence upon plastics is to find reasonable alternatives and obvious reuse solutions and convince people to choose those over buying new plastics. We aim to show people in innovative ways how plastics will never go away and are ubiquitous in our environment. Hence, we collect those plastics we find washing up on our beaches and determine where they’re coming from. What percentage are single-use plastics like straws, syringes, and water bottles and tampons? What percentage are coming from the fishing and shipping industries, from construction projects, and from our own homes and cars? The only way to find out is to pick up a sampling from every shoreline on our island, to prove they’re on every beach, washed down our watersheds or blown ashore by the prevailing winds.

A few hundred yards’ collection of plastic, Photo © Liesl Clark

Bainbridge Island is like any landmass, encircled by the waters of Puget Sound, some beaches more exposed to currents and wind drift than others. We see this circumnavigation as a sort of metaphor for all islands, indeed all continents, with watersheds and beaches dumping and receiving debris over time.

Storm Drains Go Unfiltered and Unchecked on Bainbridge Island, Photo © Liesl Clark

My online search for the earliest pioneers to have circumnavigated our beloved island brought up a single result, and an ironic one at that: Bruce Barcott, writer and friend. We had no idea Bruce had taken on the journey, let alone that he wrote about it in Backpacker Magazine. He even self published a book about it, having also mapped his route on Google Earth in an incredible interactive tour-de-island-force worth checking out. Bruce’s map will be our baseline, a critical resource to discover interesting shoreline features as well as the ins and outs of the inlets, coves and private properties potentially off-limits to hikers like us. But if we’re doing some good (picking up pollution) will we be barred from passing? Due to tide constraints, Bruce apparently didn’t actually complete his full circumnavigation, opting for inland trails instead. We’re going to try our hand at completing a full circumambulation.

I first met Bruce Barcott in Seattle at the offices of Alpine Ascents International. My husband, Pete Athans, and I, along with our 1 and 3 year olds, had just moved to the area from north of Boston, one of the furthest points on the continent away from Seattle. Bruce and Pete were hired by Alpine Ascents International to assist them in procuring a coveted mountaineering concession on Mount Rainier. Two years later, when we were headed for a month to Nepal, Bruce and his family were looking for a home to occupy while house-hunting on the island. They house-sat for us and quickly found a home for themselves on the island. Bruce, in an effort to get to know the island first-hand, decided to hike around its shores, mapping his progress on his iphone.

We, too, will employ iphones and our trusty GPS to log in waypoints and document our progress. Other essential tools will include reusable bags, backpacks, and haul bags for collecting plastics, strapping the big pieces to our backs, and a knife for cutting marine rope and fishing line from rocks and washed-up tree trunks. Our cameras will record specific plastics that marine biologist friends are interested in documenting, and the essential iphone app, Tide Chart.

Plenty of Pens on the Beach, Photo © Liesl Clark

With a population of 23,000 and 36-square-miles of land, our island demographics prove that there are approximately 834 people per square mile on this speck of Northwest terra firma. That’s a lot denser than I would’ve thought, but significantly less than Seattle’s 7,251 people per square mile. We’re all contributing to the plastics that are making their way down from our homes, cars, and businesses to our seas. And our islandround journey is yet another means to figure out where it’s all coming from, why, and how we can stop it.

Come Help Us Inventory Bainbridge Island’s Beach Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

If you’re on Bainbridge and want to join us, please contact us and we’ll coordinate days and times to meet up for a leg of the journey. We’d love to have your eyes, hands, and backs for the recovery of human-made debris from the sea. We welcome classrooms, community groups, and all our island friends on this journey. And when this encircling of our island is done, we’ll welcome help in assessing the inventory of documented plastics in our island to determine where it’s coming from and come up with ideas for reducing it in the first place.

It’s winter storm season, and we expect some sobering results and strong shoreline winds but hopefully we’ll encounter some unanticipated surprises as we map our collective plastics, coming closer to uncovering the truth behind the flow of synthetic polymers into our seas.

Voyager Montessori School’s Rainbow of Puget Sound’s Beach Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark