On any given summer morning, Wrightsville Beach’s strand sparkles with bounty for treasure hunters: whole sand dollars, million-year-old shark tooth fossils, colorful seashells from an array of species so vast it can’t be counted. But for every treasure, there’s something else nestled in the sand and churning in the waves that has reached insurmountable numbers: trash.
During the summer of 2014, volunteers for Wrightsville Beach – Keep It Clean picked up a documented 11,833 pieces of litter off the strand — and that’s just the pieces they could reach before the waves swept them away. Sadly, much more trash is carried into the ocean; billions of pounds of it finds its way into the sea annually. Researchers, like Bonnie Monteleone, founder of the Plastic Ocean Project who collects and documents ocean surface samples around the world, have found litter in every ocean, even in remote areas. The Plastic Ocean Project Reports that each year, ocean debris worldwide kills at least 100,000 mammals and 1 million sea birds.
While traversing cargo ships are responsible for some of the marine litter, the majority of ocean debris originated on land — meaning beach goers have a direct and lasting impact on the health and cleanliness of the ocean and its inhabitants. Even well-meaning picnickers litter when winds kick up, trash cans tip and scavenging birds plunder. With a few practical swaps, any beachgoer can reduce his or her impact, leaving behind only footprints in the sand.
Instead of: Individually packaged foods
Pack this: Snacks in Tupperware containers or stainless steel bento boxes, unwrapped fruits and veggies
Packaged edibles make for convenient but trashy beach-going fare. Tiny corners, such as those from granola bar wrappers ripped off while opening the product, along with plastic food packages, are among the most commonly littered items at Wrightsville Beach.
“It is so easy for kids, or anyone, to drop these items on the sand, or for them to blow away, without anyone even being conscience of it,” said Nancy Fahey, project coordinator for the Wrightsville Beach Sea Turtle Project.
These little corners are found in sea turtle and sea bird stomachs during necropsies, along with various bits of plastic — sometimes as many as 300 or 400 individual pieces, causing the animal to starve to death as the digestive tract remains full while no nutrients are received. Monteleone said plastic corners have been found in sea turtle feces at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City.
Instead of plastic-wrapped snacks, transport edibles in stainless steel bento boxes or reusable Tupperware containers. Pretzels, candy, dried fruit, nuts, sesame sticks and more can be purchased in bulk at Whole Foods and Tidal Creek Co-op. Just bring a container, have it weighed at the customer service desk, then fill it up. Fruits like oranges, apples, peaches and plums need no wrapping at all and leave behind only biodegradable waste.
Ginger Taylor, founder of Wrightsville Beach – Keep It Clean, said the small sacrifice of skipping prepackaged foods directly benefits the environment.
“Buying fewer packaged foods and snacks is not convenient, but once you get in the habit, it becomes easier and I always feel better when I know my actions are helping to preserve and protect our beautiful environment and wildlife,” Taylor said.
Instead of: Plastic beverage bottles and bottle caps
Pack this: Stainless steel water bottles
In 2014, Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles made from No. 1 plastic, otherwise known as PET or PETE. While North Carolina law dictates any plastic bottle with a neck smaller than the container itself be recycled, the national plastic recycling rate remains at only 23 percent, meaning tens of millions of plastic water bottles end up in landfills — and oceans — every year. Along with these bottles are their caps, made of harder, heavier and difficult-to-recycle No. 5 plastic, known as polypropylene.
When left on the beach, plastics never biodegrade, but do break down and become smaller, eventually turning into microplastics, defined by NOAA as bits less than 5 millimeters in size. These microplastics have infiltrated the marine food chain; they are presently found in the digestive tracts of fish, seabirds, mammals and invertebrates.
A stainless steel water bottle is an easy and practical solution to the plastic dilemma. Practically indestructible and freezable, as well as void of BPA and other chemicals that leach from plastic, stainless steel gets an all-around thumbs up.
“I adopted the habit of carrying reusable drink bottles many years ago,” Fahey said. “Mostly, it is just a case of breaking our habit of using disposables and setting a goal of creating less waste. Less waste will create less litter!”
Instead of: Beverage straws
Pack this: No straw at all, or a washable, reusable straw
“When I go to a restaurant, I always say, ‘No straw, please’ when I order my beverage. Oftentimes, servers automatically put unwrapped straws in the beverage, so I make sure I make my request when I order,” Taylor said.
Wrightsville Beach – Keep It Clean volunteers reported 703 straws picked up off the beach during the summer of 2014, and Taylor estimates the number was actually much larger, as not all volunteers report their findings. Taylor said this is one of the most easily preventable littered items.
“I think straws are some of the easiest single-use disposable items that we can avoid,” Taylor said. “Most people do not need a straw. We use it one time, usually for a few minutes, and then we throw it away.”
Juice boxes that come with a straw attached can be replaced with washable and refillable juice boxes, available at www.reuseit.com, or thermos bottles with a screw top lid that make for easy transport, pouring and drinking.
Instead of: Polystyrene coolers
Pack this: Insulated cooler bag, soft-side or hard-side cooler
Because of its propensity to easily break while never biodegrading, polystyrene is prohibited for large events requiring a permit on Wrightsville Beach. However, single-use polystyrene coolers are commonly toted by day trippers and fishermen. Once these begin to crumble, it is nearly impossible to remove the bead-sized particles from the environment. Monteleone said surface samples gathered for the Plastic Ocean Project’s research reveal polystyrene has infiltrated the marine environment.
“Our research shows Styrofoam is in the top two items found,” she explained. “If people could avoid their Styrofoam board, coolers and cups, that would be huge.”
Insulated cooler bags and soft-side coolers keep food chilled for hours and shoulder straps make for convenient toting. Hard-side coolers are great for holding neatly stacked food containers, and can easily be hosed free of sand. All can be wiped clean with a cloth and used again and again.
Instead of: Plastic bags
Pack this: Reusable cotton canvas bags
Plastic bags are a particularly large threat to Wrightsville Beach’s native nesting loggerhead sea turtles. When afloat in the water, they bear a close resemblance to the adult loggerhead’s favorite food: jellyfish. Plastic bags are also a huge threat to baleen whales, which filter feed toward the surface of the water, the very place where researchers find plastic debris. During a February trip to the Caribbean, Monteleone and Plastic Ocean Project’s researchers documented more plastic bags than anything else in their surface samples.
Today, an awareness of plastic bags’ threat to the environment has led to a national movement against their overuse. Only three counties in North Carolina have adopted policies banning plastic shopping bags from all businesses: Hyde, Currituck and Dare counties, in the Outerbanks. The Surfrider Foundation’s Cape Fear Chapter currently is advocating for a New Hanover County-wide ban on single-use plastic bags.
Like straws, plastic bags are easy to forgo or swap. When shopping, mention “no bag, please,” or supply a reusable cotton canvas bag. These don’t blow away at the beach, and are machine washable, too.
Zip-top bags can be replaced with reusable containers or machine washable cotton sandwich bags, widely available online. Compostable and biodegradable parchment paper (not wax paper) can sub in for plastic bags as a last-minute and easily available option when foods must be individually packaged.
Cigarettes, balloons, fireworks and glass items are prohibited on Wrightsville Beach’s strand, so skip them entirely.