It’s June and you’ve been invited to the beach. Sweet! You’re actually going to visit three different beaches, and they’re all pretty secluded. Even better! In fact, these beaches are so isolated you have to take a boat to them. FANTASTIC!
As you board, the captain looks over your gear. You packed a bathing suit?! Won’t be needing that where you’re going. (Did he just sneer?) Beach umbrella? That’ll just take up deck space. Snorkel and flippers? Nothing doing.
In their place you are handed a pair of rubber boots big enough to get lost in, a bright orange padded coat (so much for the tan), a giant plastic trash bag and a trash picker. Oh, did we mention bear spray (a pepper spray that burns bad enough to discourage a curious bear)? Just, you know, in case.
No Ordinary Beach Outing
This, as you have no doubt realized, is no ordinary beach trip. Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park is sending a team of researchers out to get acquainted, one might say, with its beach trash. Plastic bottles, Styrofoam, fishing gear, lost shoes, old cars…in fact, pretty much any man-made item you can think of is winding up on park beaches. Scientists call this “marine debris,” and it can be found almost anywhere. Even beaches humans can’t get to are often littered with our throw away items! How do we know? Pilots can see the debris from the air!
"These objects may have traveled from across the globe, but when it comes to marine debris, we're all in the same boat." Andrew LaValle, Park Ranger, Katmai National Park and Preserve.
How does it get there? It can be left by people using the beach, but more often it is brought by ocean currents and then is sort of coughed up by the wind and waves. And how did get into the ocean? Have you got a mirror? Most of us contribute to the problem, even if we live hundreds of miles from the ocean! Watch this video from NOAA (the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) to find out how ALL of us contribute to this problem.
"Marine debris can hurt sea animals and we eat fish. We need the ocean..." Marguerite A. (Grade 4, California)
Not only is it a bummer to see this waste on the park’s remote beaches, marine debris harms the environment and is creating a whale of a problem for wildlife. Turtles get hopelessly tangled in fishing nets. Whales gulp down plastic bags thinking they’re snacking on squid. Birds swoop down for some tasty fish eggs and wind up with gullets full of plastic bits. Talk about filling up on junk food! And, just like us, if they eat too much of it, they aren't hungry for real food. Unlike us, however, many animals end up starving.
"One of the biggest issues is that animals mistake (debris) for food. This causes a lot of deaths...My family feels very strongly about this and every time we go to the beach we stay an extra hour to pick up trash." Frida S. (Grade 8, Texas)
Getting Down and Dirty
So this summer, as they have for many years, a team of park rangers will board the park’s research boat and get after some trash. They'll go to the same three beaches they go to each year and, using GPS devices, mark off the same two sections on each, one near the water’s edge and one farther up where plants grow. These sections are called “transects." Then they’ll walk slowly along these transects looking for trash. Every item, and its location, is carefully logged on a data sheet. Found a piece of rubber? Would that be a flip flop, glove, tire or “other”? Plastic? Tell us more – is it a bag, bottle, 6-pack ring, straw or something else?
Why not just bag it all up and toss it? Well, we are better equipped to solve problems when we know more about them. And this is where science comes in. Scientific research helps us get to the bottom of things, like, say, piles of trash. In this case it can tell park management exactly what's coming in, how fast it’s piling up, and where it might be coming from. With these details they can begin to work on keeping the debris out of the ocean in the first place. If, for example, the team pulls in a lot of fishing nets and buoys (and boy do they!) the park can talk to the fishing industry about how they dispose of old equipment. They can also notify local governments, who may create regulations to protect the ocean. Single-use plastic items, like water bottles and plastic bags, are even more common. One solution? Put refillable water stations in park visitor centers to encourage people to carry reusable bottles.
Once all that information is logged, the item goes into the trash bag, which is loaded onto the boat for later disposal. Sounds simple, right? Uh-huh. Remember those big rubber boots? They’re great for getting from boat to beach, but, turns out, they’re hard to walk in. That sandcastle you were hoping to build? Sorry, instead of sand, the beach is covered with large round, slippery rocks that seem intent on breaking your ankles. And things really get fun when you get to the upper transect! Most of the trash winds up here, tangled in brush, wedged in between tree roots or scattered into a million tiny pieces. Your job? Go get it. Dead tree in your way? Climb over it. A plastic bottle caught in the briars? Dive in – ooh careful! – and grab that sucker. (Oh! And have your bear spray handy because they like hanging out in there.) A Styrofoam cooler busted to bits on the ground? It’s time to get down and dirty.
Bagged That One!
Great! You've got it all bagged. But what if there's too much to fit on the boat (remember - they grumbled about your beach umbrella taking up space)? Like any good action flick, you need a helicopter! In this case, you’ll need one to airlift the bags onto a barge (you did order the barge, didn’t you?). Then the barge hauls it away to...uh oh, don't dust your hands off yet! Not many landfills want this stuff. Those that will take it sometimes double their fees.
As you can see, cleaning up marine debris is difficult and expensive. That’s why so many organizations, including the National Park Service and NOAA are trying to stop the problem at the source.
L"I think some people think it's okay to throw trash outside, but I want to stop this." Hannah H. (Grade 5, Alaska)
Turning the Tides
Fortunately we humans are as good at solving problems as we are at creating them. And you don’t have to be an adult to help find solutions. Middle school students in Massachusetts started a “Skip the Straw” campaign, high school students in Washington State are becoming Marine Debris Ambassadors, and kids the world over are participating in beach cleanups (where bear spray is not necessary). In other words - who can help solve this problem? Go get the mirror again. Maybe your generation will turn the tide on marine debris!