King tides scatter microplastics on Oregon beaches

Cartoon by Emmett Crass // The Torch

Equipped with brooms and filters of varying gauge, from chicken wire to window mesh, nearly two dozen volunteers set on Feb. 3 to remove trails of microplastic from Otter Rock beach at Devil’s Punch Bowl State Park.

Tiny plastic pieces that range in size from a bottle cap to a single kernel of styrofoam litter the beach. From a distance, the beach is innocuous. There are no plastic bags, flip-flops, or bottles on this beach. Instead, what looks like a colorful display of tiny shells is actually plastic so small it has to be passed through a series of filters to be removed from the sand.

Since the beginning of January, the Newport chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has organized beach cleanups every Sunday.

Based on data collected after a clean up on Jan. 22, volunteers removed over 700 pounds of debris from the beach. The heavy weight is likely on account that plastic is mixed in with wet sand and organic debris.

In an effort to calculate the weight of plastic free from sand, Surfrider and Mountain Rose Herbs hosted a microplastic focused cleanup event last year. A team of 35 volunteers removed 20 pounds of microplastic in just two hours.

Additionally, Surfrider launched an Oregon Beach Ambassador program to improve its data collection efforts.

“Analysis from the first six months of data shows that plastic pieces are the most common item,” Briana Goodwin, Field Manager of Surfrider Newport, wrote. According to Goodwin, the amount of microplastic that washes up is underreported by those collecting data because the quantity of plastic pieces are just “too many to count.”

Winter swells and King Tides, named because they are the highest of high tides, could be to blame for the recent influx of marine debris. However, according to Goodwin, the amount of coastal debris is not higher than is usually expected after King Tides, but public awareness and media attention has increased.

On whether or not the plastic collected could be recycled, the plastic that washes ashore is extracted by volunteers and moves from ocean to landfill since the plastic’s quality is deemed too low to enter a normal recycling system.

Goodwin does not anticipate that beach clean-ups alone will solve the problem and states that Surfrider’s main focus on reducing marine debris is through prevention. She is set on including “solution-based messages so that hope is not lost on people.”

Local and regional ordinances that restrict single-use plastics such as shopping bags and straws have proven to have positive and measurable environmental impacts. For instance, a litter survey in the Final Environmental Impact Report for the city of San Jose, California, found that bag litter from the storm drain system was reduced by 89 percent and that it decreased by 59 percent in the city streets.

Surfrider and other environmental groups will be hosting a “Rise Above Plastics Day” in Salem on March 14, where they will discuss the global plastic pollution problem and speak with legislators.