When volunteers rode paddleboards through Wrightsville Beach’s marshes April 30 to pick up trash, they expected to find aluminum cans and food wrappers — “the usual detritus from parties,” said Bonnie Monteleone, Plastic Ocean Project executive director. They did not expect to find an inner tube, a plastic dumpster, part of a boat and a 15-foot section of dock.
UNCW Plastic Ocean Project completes regular beach sweeps, but this was the first time they focused their efforts on the marshes. The cleanup was inspired by a similar organization from Ithaca, New York, called Plastic Tides, which uses paddleboarding expeditions as a means to both collect trash and raise awareness of its harmful effects.
Plastic Tides’ founders, Christian Shaw and Gordon Middleton, were in Wilmington over the weekend helping with the cleanup and showing their new film, “The Canal,” about their 240-mile paddleboard journey from Ithaca to Albany to push for a statewide ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics.
Plastic Tides and Plastic Ocean Project partnered with Wrightsville SUP to borrow paddleboards and kayaks to access trash collected in the island’s marshes.
Plastic Ocean Project’s mission is to keep plastic out of the ocean, and Monteleone said trash in the marsh is more likely to end up in the ocean because, unlike trash on the beach, it cannot be easily picked up by beachgoers or volunteers.
Only an organized group of paddleboarders and kayakers would be capable of dragging such large items from the waterway, she added, and even with their numbers they still struggled to pull the dock back to shore. Luckily, she said, a boater stopped and helped them.
At first, the biggest items, like the inner tube and dumpster, present navigational hazards for boaters, Monteleone said. Then when sun and saltwater inevitably break them down into smaller pieces they become hazardous to marine life that might ingest them, or become entangled or entrapped.
While volunteers found most of the trash on the backside of Wrightsville Beach, Monteleone said it wasn’t necessarily generated on the island. Tides and currents could have carried it from the mainland.
She has completed similar cleanups on the spoil islands — the spits of sand between the mainland and the barrier island — and found items as out of place as a motorcycle helmet.
“I know that person didn’t drive it there,” she said.
Trash is continuously collecting on the spoil islands and in the marshes, Monteleone said, so she plans to make the paddleboard cleanup a regular outing for UNCW Plastic Ocean Project.
“I think we’ll try to incorporate this at least once a semester,” she said.
Paddling through the scenic waterways around Wrightsville Beach not only makes it possible to clean the marshes, said Arisa Yoon, a UNCW Plastic Ocean Project member, but it reminds volunteers why they should.
“When you’re out enjoying the water, you’re more likely to want to protect it,” she said.