2020 International Coastal Cleanup: The importance of knowing where “away” is

October 1, 2020

Author Contact: Nicole Baker
Founder of Net Your Problem LLC

The importance of knowing where “away” is

Ocean City, WA – [9/20/20] – I’m absolutely NOT a morning person, but on Saturday September 19 I was up at 4:30am because I couldn’t sleep from excitement. It was the first day in two weeks that the Washington Department of Ecology gave a green rating for air quality, the sun graced us with her presence, and I was in Ocean Shores Washington, for the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). The ICC was started by the Ocean Conservancy, a kind of everyone get together on the same day and do the same thing, all over the world, kinda thing. And the thing we were all doing together was cleaning garbage from the beach. I was in Ocean Shores with CoastSavers, which is an alliance of partners that organizes and facilitates multiple coast-wide beach cleanups every year.

But this was no ordinary beach cleanup, and not because of COVID – this year we were going to try something different, and be a little innovative. Because of the fact that there is a lot of fishing gear that gets collected on beach cleanups in Alaska and the PNW, (Zero Waste Washington even had a “maritime” category during their audit of the debris collected at this years ICC) Net Your Problem receives occasional requests for assistance recycling fishing gear collected from the beach or retrieved from the water. But this is not the same stuff we normally recycle. It is often degraded, mixed with other plastics and dirty – not anything the mechanical recyclers we usually work with are interested in.

According to the waste disposal hierarchy (right), the next best thing is incineration for fuel or energy, sometimes also called chemical recycling – though it isn’t truly recycling according to the EU Waste Framework directive (the US doesn’t have an official definition of recycling yet). Anyway, a proprietary type of chemical recycling is what we were trialing at this years’ ICC. A team from Brightmark joined us at the beach, combing through fireworks debris and charred firewood to collect plastics that would later feed their hungry factory in Indiana. We collected 2 supersacks of debris to send them – and although I was sad to receive my takeout breakfast sandwich in a Sytrafoam (=polystyrene, EPS or plastic #6) container, there was something uniquely satisfying about throwing it into the supersack at the end of the day, knowing exactly where it was going, and what it would be made into; I knew where my waste was going to go when I threw it “away”.

The Brightmark team at the Coastsavers cleanup on Sept 19, 2020 (World Cleanup Day) along with our total haul for the day – 2 supersacks full of plastic waste. Photo credit: Taylor Killiher (above) and Net Your Problem LLC (above).

Brightmark can accept any plastic (#1-7) and they produce a variety of products out of the waste (diesel fuel, wax and naphtha). In case you aren’t familiar with naphtha (I wasn’t the first time I heard that word) it is used as a solvent, commonly in laundry soap, cleaning fluids, varnishes, camp stoves and paint. In the future, Brightmark will further develop the naphtha to become plastic again, making a fully circular solution. They graciously sponsored the costs of shipping this waste to their facility, and they also donated a baler to NYP. Baling plastic means that we can compress things like Styrofoam, so that it takes up less space, and ultimately is more cost effective to ship.  I suspect that when this particular bale makes it to Indiana, it is going to be a pretty cool experience for those who attended the cleanup today – they will have seen the plastic on the beach, maybe even bent down to pick it up, and then get to witness that plastic being made into a new product. Brightmark is building towards operating at full capacity by the end of the year to take 100,000 tons of plastics per year. They are currently soliciting for plastic waste, and there is a huge potential for disposing of marine debris in this manner. As anyone who has participated in a cleanup can attest, it can be incredibly difficult to sort garbage collected from the beach.

Little fragments don’t always have the chasing arrows symbol on it or maybe the ID has been weathered away; maybe the writing on the bag is in a different language, or this is your 10,000th piece of little blue plastic and you just don’t care anymore. Sorting tons of plastic can be pretty time consuming – so instructing our volunteers to just keep a bag for plastic and rope (fishing gear is made from plastic) and a bag for anything else (aluminum cans, wood, paper) was pretty do-able. And we had some special guest volunteers at the Ocean City State Park Beach Access – the PNW 4 Wheel Drive Association joined us, and used their Jeeps and other 4WD vehicles to drive the beach and bring back a lot of large debris items that walking volunteers may have not been able to.

A member of the PNW 4WD Association (pictured to the left) dropping off their haul of marine debris collected from the Ocean City State Park on Sept 19, 2020. Photo credit: Net Your Problem LLC. The trophy for the strangest item collected from the beach that day was a 15’ long, 8’ wide steel top of a shipping container, that we eventually had to turn over to the park ranger for final disposal.

After the last group of 4WD vehicles brought back their debris, I checked out a few more beach access points, loaded some debris from Pacific Beach State Park into my box truck, and proceeded to spend the next hour recreating on the beautiful beach. Digging my toes in the sand, hearing the crashing waves, walking through the dunes and reading a book while feeling the salty spray on my face all contribute in an immeasurable way to my mental health, and is the reason that I spend time to clean up garbage from the beach. Having a dirty beach ruins that restorative experience, and I’m so happy that this year we will not have to take everything we collected to the landfill. Because as one Brightmark employee remarked early in the morning, a common misconception is that “no one” wants these plastics, but now we are that “no one”. I look forward to working with CoastSavers, Brightmark and other beach cleanup groups to responsibly dispose of their marine debris in the future if this R&D trial project gives positive results. If you are interested in hearing about the results, please subscribe to our newsletter at www.netyourproblem.com/subscribe.

Ocean City State Park on Sept 19, 2020. Photo credit: Net Your Problem LLC