Anyone who has followed this blog for a while -- especially in the summers -- knows my family cleans beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska. We don't do this in an organized manner. We aren't part of a fleet, or a crew. It's just the four of us and a 29' Ranger Tug, sorting what we can and hauling it back to shore to recycle or chuck. We've messed up the trash count data on monitoring beaches (sorry guys, the sites weren't marked, but we're eager to help in a way that's more beneficial to all parties) and we've annoyed weekend fisherman by adding jetsam to the the dumpsters in Whittier (maybe you could break down your beer boxes and haul empty cans back to Anchorage instead of getting pissed off at a couple of kids and a mom dragging 50+ lbs of net ... also, we got permission from the Harbor Master a long time ago).
So, because of this connection to remote Alaskan beaches/fragile northern ecosystems and their proximity to the North Pacific Gyre, we rarely hit a beach without a trash bag. Even a warm beach.
We spent spring break on the east side of Kauai where we found plastic every time we walked our little swath of beach, plus a few people mildly surprised someone was cleaning it up. Some visitors remarked they hadn't even noticed any trash, and others assumed we would leave our sorted assemblages behind to wash out to sea. Some strode toward us with authority, maybe to tell us not to collect the local coral or shells, but then sheepishly changed direction and averted eyes when they realized we fisted handfuls of plastic.
Don't get me wrong, this was a lovely clean beach. But we found we could perform this ritual every morning, on the same 50-foot stretch, and not run out of material. A sifter would have been helpful.
Among micro plastics, we found 6 golf balls, a tee, a pencil, the brim of a visor and the laundry basket.
We found 32 pieces of plastic tubing, all cut to the same dimensions, in black, grey and green.
We found a pair of men's size 13 tennis shoes near the hauled out monk seal.
We found red bits from gasoline jugs, pink from toys, a mess from styrofoam and rarity in purple.
We found the objects of work and domesticity and excess, objects of hard use and of uselessness.
We found a frying pan, handsome locals and half a green plastic easter egg.
We found other, more beautiful things people left on the beach.
We found handles of razors and toothbrushes, worn to fine picks. We found that not all beach glass is created equal and despite the million times I've asked my son not to, he still fills his pockets with hazards.
We found that my son will always build. My daughter will always embellish.
We found folks poking through sand, looking for kahelelani or Pupu O Ni'ihau -- tiny shells barely bigger than the ball-head of a pin -- which, when strung with monofilament line, are used to make fantastic jewelry. After tales of a necklace allegedly priced at $50,000, my family began looking as well, and now have a sandy ziplock bag with 5 or 10 kahelelani and grandiose plans that far outweigh such a meager haul. But we further understand the worth and importance of such an historic and culturally based undertaking.
We found that a $15 Hawaiian print dress can make a girl forget her sunburn and her sullen brother and their clashing ideas about the built form.
We found new ways to be brave.
And found that a begged-for $4 reef chart might turn out to be the catalyst for a lifetime of self motivation and discovery.
We found that the quest for perfection might eventually make a person sick.
We found that a few days away was enough for some of us to forget the North's pale rhythm, when one morning I commented I didn't think the kids had ever watched the sun actually pop up. My daughter looked at me, insulted, and said, "Of course I've seen the sun rise. I watch it rise over the mountains every morning on the way to school or from my classroom window."
I also found that I wasn't motivated to work much.
If you ever feel a call to arms you could always get in touch with a formal beach clean up crew in your area or in places you visit in the future. Surfrider has several chapters and one on Kauai (not in Alaska). Unfortunately, we missed one of their beach clean up events by a few days. There are other efforts, other organizations.
You could also follow the Meissner Beach Rule: "5 pieces of trash, NOW, everybody....here's the bag...now 5 more..." Be safe and watch for needles and broken glass. Also, don't touch the capped plastic bottles half filled with amber liquid unless you're wearing gloves.
For other posts on cleaning beaches, follow the sidebar category Beach Work and scroll past this post, which will show up there now, too.
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One year ago: The 9th boxes of mystery.
Two years ago: The shortlist.