Breaking Free From Plastics Audit Report of the 2019 International Coastal Cleanup Conducted at Crescent City, California, United States, on 21 September 2019 by Ellery West, CEO, Organic Essence
Grant Werschkull of the Smith River Alliance arranged and managed the International Coastal Cleanup for the third year held in Crescent City, California with cooperation of the Del Norte County Solid Waste Management Authority headed by Ted Ward. Mr. Werschkull invited Ellery West to manage the Breaking Free From Plastics audit of the plastic waste to be collected by the Cleanup. This report details audit results and analysis. An additional cleanup effort was taken with 43 volunteers nearby at the Mouth of the Smith River by the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation.
The orientation and safety meeting proceeded promptly at the appointed time. There appeared to be around 30 volunteers participating in the Coastal Cleanup with 10 additional volunteers participating in the Breaking Free From Plastics (BFFP) audit. Three collection sites were designated. The Coastal Cleanup team split into three groups and the BFFP team split into two groups. Ellery West had conducted a photographic audit of the third site on the previous Thursday which mainly consisted of several homeless people’s encampments. These photos detail before and after images of a habitation site located a few steps from the beach.
Before & After
The two collection sites that the BFFP Audit group manned were sited near the beach. This area included many homeless people’s encampments as well as approximately ¾ mile (1.2 km) of beach frequented by locals and tourists. The waste collected at these sites yielded interesting insights into the use of the area.
Eight tents were collected. The site pictured above and several others showed signs of long-term habitation. They hosted large collections of liter-sized bottle caps numbering over 2500 indicating sustained soda and water bottle collections from the beach area. The caps are the residue from the California bottle redemption reimbursement which places no collection value on them, so they remain in the environment. Bottle cap residue was found almost everywhere in the audit area. Long-term habitation was also indicated by the range of product packaging recovered, such as hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies and other household items not likely to have been deposited by casual beach visitors.
The most numerous plastic items were unbranded bottle caps, clear baggie-type bags, cigarette butts and black trash bags. The clear baggie-type plastic bags were found mainly in bundles of approximately 100 each; presumably brought to the area by long-term dwellers who planned to use them later. Cigarette butts are ubiquitous in all areas visited by people in California, and as such their presence here isn’t very notable. However, black plastic trash bags brings an interesting observation.
Black plastic bags were found in most homeless people’s encampments. They appear to be used for transport and storage of bedding, clothing as well as protecting possessions from the rain. The Coastal Cleanup team used over 100 additional black 40 gallon-sized bags.
This is ironic because around half of the waste collected was plastic and additional plastic was used to collect it.
It could be said that the plastics industry has benefited additionally by concerned citizens cleaning up their pollution with even more landfill polluting-plastic product.
The greatest reasons that so much plastic is found in the environment are low sales price and convenience that non-durable plastics offer. The Coastal Cleanup effort illustrates why the plastics problem is so intractable. The Coastal Cleanup team had allocated about 3.5 hours for the cleanup.
Had they brought reusable trash cans, the same effort may have taken an additional hour and the cost and storage of at least 60-75 trash cans until the next cleanup event.
The low purchase price of black plastic bags combined with convenience is the plastics’ industry superpower. Even though we know non-durable plastics are environmental Kryptonite, very concerned citizens feel compelled to purchase it for environmental remediation! Certainly, the majority of the population are even less mindful.
The lack of marine debris was notable.
Only about 1 cubic yard, (about 1 cu m) of styrofoam and about 50 feet (17m) of heavy fishing rope was recovered. No crab pots, floats or other sea-fishing gear were recovered. Casual observation of the area beaches for over the past 15 years has noted much more sea fishing plastics debris than was found during the cleanup event.
In addition, no plastics waste indicating international origin was found. This is tangible evidence that beach visitors recently have been increasing efforts to remove large amounts of plastics waste that has washed up in the tide.
3882 plastics items comprising 372 entries were recorded by the audit. The greatest number of discrete plastic waste items were soda and water bottle caps, unbranded clear bags, cigarette butts and black trash bags. The branding of these items were not noted. However, the greatest branded plastics polluter found at the event was 22 Taco Bell plastic fast food wrappers, cups and bags. Interesting to note that McDonald’s brand was represented by only one plastic cup.
In addition, the second most numerous branded items found were Walmart reusable plastic shopping bags. Overall, cigarette packaging, candy, snack bars, chip bags and shopping bags comprised the greatest multiple numbers of branded plastic waste recorded. Of the 372 entries, 277 were of branded single items of various plastic waste.
The proportionately high number of branded single items is interesting because it indicates that some of the recovered plastics waste may have been deposited by travelers along the Highway 101 roadway near the beach.
However, all the branded 38 personal care and most of the 50-household branded plastic items found all only had single examples. Presumably these items were used by the homeless contingent.
For instance, bottle caps which are made with #5 Poly Propylene (PP) plastic, were the greatest number of plastics items recovered. Yogurt cups and other opaque food tubs are made of Poly Propylene.
After that, it was followed by #2 Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) which is mainly plastic bags of all kinds, then #1 Polyethylene Terepthalate (PET) which is what almost all clear soda and water bottles are made of, then High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) which is what opaque bottles are made of, then #6, Polystyrene (PS) which is made into drinking cups and lids, and #7, Other plastics (O) nylon ropes, packaging tape and plastic clothing. #3, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) was represented by one 6 foot (2m) length of white pipe.
In addition, a fair amount of plastic clothing, ‘Other plastics’, was recovered, it was not cataloged by the audit due to time constraints. A surprising number of so-called ‘durable’ shopping bags were recovered.
A Walmart durable shopping bag is shown in the bottle cap photo above. This demonstrates a failure of California State top-down environmental legislation, and the top-down approach generally. Initially, the State T-shirt type shopping bag ban was intended to remove large numbers of lightweight shopping bags from the environment. It has been modestly effective – fewer lightweight T-shirt type shopping bags are visible, but it has indirectly furthered the goals of the plastics production industry.
So, when shoppers purchase goods in California food markets and supermarkets and don’t bring their own shopping bags, they can purchase a ‘durable’ plastic shopping bag or paper bag for 10 cents. This creates a false-equivalence in the mind of the typical shopper because the plastic bag probably can be used a dozen or more times, but the paper bag will probably only last 2 or 3 shopping trips.
The plastics industry clearly influenced legislation that prohibits stores from providing paper shopping bags for free. Historically, all markets and supermarkets had provided paper shopping bags free of charge to their customers, and absent the law’s requirement to charge for the paper bag, it is likely that almost none would today. This figurative thumb on the scale furthers the goals of the plastics industry and clearly continues to harm the environment. The plastics lobby can be counted on to subvert every legislative initiative that is introduced.
In the battle for saving the environment from plastics pollution, it appears that the plastics industry is currently winning as disposable plastic continues to proliferate. This industry plans on doubling disposable plastic production in the coming decades. Via perpetual marketing over the generations, our culture is being manipulated to overemphasize low purchase price and convenience, regardless of incalculably expensive long-term costs. However, there are solid reasons to hope and expect a cleaner, less plastics-filled future.
This event’s plastic brand audit has revealed three very positive signs of change. The first is obvious citizen concern shown by growing casual voluntary trash removal year-round. The second is group efforts such as the International Coastal Cleanup among other local cleanup events. The third is evidenced by the notable near-absence of McDonald’s plastic trash found. Less than 10 years ago, McDonald’s was the most common fast-food plastic waste to be seen discarded on roadsides and public areas.
As the world’s largest restaurant chain producing the most fast-food packaging pollution, McDonald’s came under intense public scrutiny. The company responded with a commitment to use more sustainable packaging and the results are now being seen here on Crescent City beaches.
Brands moving to sustainable packaging is evidence that the Breaking Free From Plastics initiative is on the right track to effect change. Brands are the key to bringing a cleaner environment and when they recognize that their customers like their products but don’t want their packaging pollution, they will do the right thing for their business, all of us, and by extension, the world itself.
The Crescent City 2019 Breaking Free From Plastic audit group deserves kudos for their tedious, but valuable, work. The following people deserve recognition for their effort: Clint Johnson, Emily Butler, Gail West, Jenna Butler, Micah Riddle, Nancy Koke, Nicholas Martin, Ralph Browning and Shawn Monday. The cleanup and auditing was followed by a picnic hosted by the Smith River Alliance in care of the International Coastal Cleanup 2019 event.
The Breaking Free From Plastic movement reminds us that cleaning up is futile unless steps are taken to reduce the new plastic being produced. In conclusion, their analogy is that you need to mop up when the bathtub is overflowing, but it’s pointless unless you shut off the water.
As individuals, we can feel insignificant and helpless to stem the disposable plastics tide. But this is false. Favor buying products that are packaged sustainably when you are at the supermarket. Egg producers have largely abandoned styrofoam cartons due to buyer preference. McDonald’s has cleaned up their packaging due to consumer demand. All you need to do to save the environment from plastic is to talk to family, friends and everyone else when you get the opportunity that we vote for the future with every dollar we spend. Above all, be vocal and complain to your favorite brands that you like their products but don’t want to buy their pollution. They will listen.