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Less plastic, more turtles
The colorful bits on the sand appear to be gemstones at first, or pretty shells.
They stretch for miles and miles at Fort Stevens State Park in Warrenton, at the mouth of the Columbia River, covering nearly every sandy surface — hidden in the reeds and the marsh, blown by fierce winds up against the bluffs, and adorning the beach at the high-tide line along with kelp, driftwood and other natural debris.
But these colorful bits are not natural. They're tiny pieces of broken plastic, from disposable water bottles, straws, fireworks, cellophane wrappers and more.
The debris gets pounded by swells and sunlight over decades, but doesn't mineralize, or go away over time. It breaks down into smaller pieces until they're microscopic, and get ingested by sea turtles, sea birds, fish, zooplankton and other marine life, with fatal consequences.
In 2002, Marc Ward and his wife, Rachel, founded the nonprofit Sea Turtles Forever from their home base in Seaside. They've focused on microplastic debris, pieces that are 5 millimeters or less (the size of a pencil eraser), since they're more devastating to sea life.
People also affected
"It is a major problem," Ward told about two dozen members of the Portland Eco-School Network and their families, including myself and my two sons, age 8 and 11, who'd come to Fort Stevens for a February service project. "Plastics affect every part of the food chain, including people," Ward said. People can ingest it by building a fire on the beach and inhaling chemicals from the burning plastics.
Scientists also are researching to what extent the accumulated polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — banned internationally since 2001 — can seep from old plastic debris into organisms and travel up the food chain, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Because of the ocean's currents, Ward says Fort Stevens is the top spot on the West Coast for microplastics — the biggest "high-density landfall site," with 5,000 grams of plastics per square meter of sand — more than two-thirds of it microplastics. That's enough to fill about five five-gallon Ziploc bags from just from one square meter of beach.
The next-highest density spot on the West Coast is Crescent Beach — in Ecola State Park north of Cannon Beach — where Ward and his crew have collected 250 grams per square meter of sand.
"That's a lot of plastic," he says. "You see it all the way as far as you can see," in a 5-meter band along the high-tide line.
How to remove it?
But there is hope.
Since 2008, Ward and his Microplastic Response Team of core volunteers have been cleaning beaches up and down the West Coast using a device they developed that can filter 99 percent of the microplastics out of the sand.
The device is a portable 7-foot mesh screen that produces a static charge able to filter debris from the sand down to 50 to 100 microns, the size of a grain of sand.
"Two years ago, we filtered the entire beach at Manzanita in six days," he says. It took 100 volunteers, seven filtration systems, and about $4,000 to cover the 1.5 linear miles of beach.
A week later, they filtered the half-mile stretch of Crescent Beach and Oswald West State Park with just half a dozen volunteers, funded by a $3,500 donation from the Portland Patagonia store.
Yes, it'll have to be done again. But each cleanup is saving marine life in the meantime.
"We're not going to see the end of this in our lifetimes," Ward says. "It gets more intense every year."
Each year, 300 million tons of new plastic is produced worldwide, and less than 10 percent is recycled, according to 5 Gyres, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group dedicated to ridding the world's oceans of plastic.
The rest ends up as litter, in a landfill, or carried out to sea. More than 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans yearly.
Ward is taking the work global, producing and shipping the patented filtration device to organizations and governments all over the world, including the East Coast, Hawaii, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom and beyond.
The filtration device doesn't work in the rain, or in the marshy areas of Fort Stevens, so volunteers pick up debris by hand. After the end of our President's Day service project, we weighed our collection of debris and set a record for Sea Turtles Forever for two hours of work: a whopping 428 pounds of plastics.
Find out more
There's a scheduled Earth Day cleanup at Whale Park in Cannon Beach, on Saturday and Sunday, April 22-23, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
To get involved in a cleanup, or for more info: seaturtlesforever.org.