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How does plastic end up on beaches?

Plastic Floats in our Ocean.

By Rick Waggoner

You’ve been thinking about it all year… The time for your annual beach vacation has finally come! Upon arrival, you rush to the beach to enjoy the pleasure of sand sifting between your toes.

The sound of crashing waves before you, some refreshing ocean water washes up over your feet with something in it. At first, you think a crab is about to pinch you. Then you realize it’s an empty wrapper from a pack of peanuts someone abandoned on the beach.

Uggg… the moment is over. You make your way back to your condo, avoiding scattered debris that has washed up with the tide.

Sound familiar?

Where did all this plastic come from anyway?


The answer is simple. It came from us… You, me, everyone. In the names of “Comfort”, “Convenience” and “Profit”, we have backed ourselves in a corner. Thankfully, it’s not too late! Within our lifetimes we can turn the tide of the plastic epidemic.

The change must start within each one of us. For that to happen requires personal education, self-reflection, and action. Let’s tackle education first.

What kinds of plastics are showing up on our beaches?


The plastics you keep stepping on fall into two broad categories. The first of these is litter, which can be defined as objects we no longer want or have lost that end up strewn about where they don’t belong.

Littering happens intentionally, such as when someone lazily discards rubbish on the ground.

It also happens unintentionally, like when animals get into trashcans, people lose their sunglasses or perhaps leave their drink on-top of a car and drive off.



The second category is microplastics, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines as “small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our oceans and aquatic life.”

Microplastics can be broken down into “primary” and “secondary” microplastics. Primary microplastics are plastic-based fibers in clothing and fishing nets, beads for making cosmetics, and pellets – sometimes called nurdlesused to mold into everyday plastic products.

They also come from vehicle tires and city dust, which are thought to account for more than 50% of microplastics. These particles are often carried thousands of miles by the wind.

Secondary microplastics come from the breakdown of litter through extended exposure to the sun and impact with rocks or coarse sand during the movement of ocean waves.

Both categories of microplastics in water ultimately end up in the digestive tracts of aquatic animals. At this time, scientists believe the danger to humans is not from eating microplastic itself, but from the chemicals released into fish and other aquatic animals we consume.

What plastic do you use on one day at the beach?


When you stop to think about the amount of plastic one family can use in a single day at the beach, the results are overwhelming.

6:00am – Dad wakes up early for some fishing. He swings by a gas station on the way to grab some coffee, inclusive of a styrofoam cup and plastic lid. Before a single cast is thrown, he opens a shiny new lure that’s securely wrapped in some hefty packaging. He makes a few casts and snags a big one that ends up breaking his line. Both the monofilament line and hard plastic lure are lost. So, he opens another.

8:00am – Mom wakes up and zips down the street to pick up pancakes, sausage biscuits, and coffee, happily presented to her in styrofoam boxes and cups along with some plastic forks and knives.

10:00am – The family makes their way to the beach with new plastic sand buckets, shovels, styrofoam bodyboards, bottles of water and towels. Before getting in, everyone lathers up with sunscreen sold to them in a plastic bottle.

10:20am – One of the kids cries out, “Mom, I lost my silicone face mask for snorkeling.”

11:30am – Everyone heads back to the room to shower. They wash their hair with shampoo and conditioner that’s not only stored in bottles, but also made from microplastics. Shaving is done with razors made of plastic. Then clothes with plastic fibers and buttons are put on.

2:00pm – It’s time to buy some souvenirs. A plastic refrigerator magnet with the name of the beach seems ideal. A plastic shark toy and plastic sunglasses make it into the bag, which also happens to be plastic.

2:30pm – Dad declares, “Who wants some ice-cream?” So off to the ice-cream parlor everyone goes. “Would you prefer a cone or a cup?”, asks the friendly guy behind the counter. “A cup for sure!”, cries out the daughter. “Cones are too fattening!” Then out comes the plastic spoon.

6:00pm – Dinner time! “Who wants soda?” “Anyone need a plastic straw?”

9:00pm – Let’s not forget to shoot off some fireworks. Rockets with plastic tops and stands? No problem. “We’ll just aim them into the ocean so they don’t catch the sea oats on fire.” Don’t forget the plastic flashlights to help us see in the dark.

As you can see, all of us use a lot of plastic in our daily lives. We use more than we realize, and way more than is necessary.

What habits are you going to change today to improve your plastic footprint?

Change starts with each one of us. For years we’ve been encouraged to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Here are some options to help you implement that in your daily life.

Reduce by using less plastic
In the modern world, it would be next to impossible to completely cut plastic out of your life. What is possible is greatly reducing the amount of plastic you use. An easy place to start is by removing single-use plastics from your life.

Here’s a list of possible items to zero in on:

  • Zipper Bags
  • Plastic Cups
  • Plastic Straws
  • Disposable Razors
  • Disposable Diapers
  • Plastic Drink Bottles
  • Single-Use Face Masks

Reuse what you can for as long as you can

It would be unrealistic to expect you to use one bottle for the rest of your life. However, purchasing one reusable bottle a year would greatly reduce your plastic consumption.

Consider picking up one of our eco-friendly Ocean Blue Project limited edition stainless steel water bottles today. Your purchase will help us remove an estimated 30 pounds of plastic from the ocean this year alone. That’s great news to the aquatic community!

Please don’t limit yourself to one bottle though. Do you really need a new cooler this year? How about some of the new clothes you’re considering? Could you reduce your consumption this year by purchasing one less thing a week? That would be 52 fewer things a year! Multiply that by 1,000 people, and you have 52,000 less plastic items consumed in just one year.

Recycle things that are recyclable
A shadow has been cast upon recycling in recent years. Many people believe that recycling is broken. Maybe they are right! So, why not help fix it?

Do you already have a good habit of recycling? Stick with it! Do you believe recycling is unproductive? Figure out where the system is breaking down.

Renew – The fourth “R”
It is important that we come together to clean our beaches and rivers. Our Ocean Blue Project volunteer clean-up opportunities are a great place to begin renewal efforts. You can join an existing project, or we’ll help you organize one of your own in your community.

For more information, fill out the form below with a general date and time of your ideal event. We’ve found that events are most successful with at least 90 days of lead time for preparations.

We’ll work with you to get the ball rolling and help you carry the project to completion.

Author Bio: Rick Waggoner is a husband, father, writer, and clean-water advocate, based in Villa Rica, GA. You can reach him at rick@copythat.agency .

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