This past Saturday, I rose early from sleep and donned my very best work clothes and super practical hunting boots in preparation to join eight of my fellow graduate students and two rangers in a morning event that could best be described as “trashy.” The rangers that joined us were representatives sent from the East Bay Regional Parks District. Together, the eleven of us spent three long hours in the warm morning sunshine recovering trash from the Emervyille Crescent Shoreline, which is a part of the Eastshore State Park network. This special shoreline cleanup event was organized by the new Community Outdoor Cleanup and Outreach (COCO) project, funded and sponsored by the Graduate Assembly (GA) of UC Berkeley.
The new COCO project is the culmination of a year’s worth of effort on the part of concerned graduate student Dillon Niederhut, the GA delegate from Anthropology, and the GA Community Outreach Workgroup that he was pivotal in founding. This cleanup was COCO’s trial event, largely organized by fellow Workgroup member Christopher Klein, the GA delegate from Astronomy.
The nine graduate students that showed up for this special cleanup event made for the perfectly sized group as we cautiously invaded the marshy tidal wetland site under diligent park ranger supervision. Over the course of three hours, we only covered a fraction of the full shoreline — but we also extracted an entire truckload of trash in the process. The majority of the trash was plastic and styrofoam fragments, which are sufficiently low-density to float in the bay water. When tides recede, these fragments become caught in the shore area plants, and over time, massive amounts of trash accumulate. The L-shape of the Emeryville Crescent Shoreline compounds the effect, making the spot particularly adept at catching both bay and storm sewer runoff trash.
Plastic and styrofoam materials are relatively resistant to degradation, and when they wash up on a shoreline, they can remain there for years, often becoming incorporated into the local ecosystem. Many of the items we recovered, however, exhibited some indications of environmental degradation, such as bleaching or embrittlement. This made their extraction challenging, as they tended to crumble under pressure. Other items, like aluminized Capri Sun drink pouches or chip bags, had scarcely broken down despite years of exposure to the harsh tidal brine conditions and solar rays.
Not all types of plastic and styrofoam products respond the same way to exposure. The most heavily degraded plastic items, such as grocery bags, drinking straws, and bottle caps, are made from polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which are chains of relatively simple hydrocarbon monomers. Some of the more recalcitrant items, like the aluminized plastics, contain multiple layers of different materials, including aluminum foil. While the dyes of these package labels may bleach readily under UV exposure, the packages themselves degrade very slowly, and their complex fabrication makes them non-recyclable. When Capri Sun drink pouches and aluminized chip bags go into landfills, they can take much longer to breakdown than PE plastic bags — which is precisely what we witnessed first-hand in the shoreline marsh.
The Emeryville Crescent Shoreline is home to a variety of animal and plant species, some native and some invasive. Ice plant, in particular, has disastrously invaded not only this shoreline but many California parks to the detriment of local flora. As we worked, geese, gulls, and other shoreline birds happily fed in the low-tide muds, seemingly oblivious to the expanse of anthropogenic pollution that has invaded their home. Many of these birds will raise clutches of hatchlings here, and the thousands of pounds of plastic and styrofoam fragments that remain after our cleanup will continue to be part of their lives.
While it was encouraging to see that the trash is degrading (albeit slowly) and that the birds are as obliviously happy as birds can be, we also came across four or five dead seagulls that morning. Although the rangers assured us that this was all “part of the natural cycle of life,” and no doubt it is, when looking around at all of the indigestible and fragmented pieces of plastic and styrofoam, I could not help but wonder if some of these animals had died from eating meals composed of human trash. Seagulls, in particular, will eat just about anything.
As the rangers drove away in a truck filled with bags and bags of the trash that we had recovered, I looked out over the huge portion of the crescent that we had not managed to reach that morning. I wished we could have done more. Well, the good news is we can. For starters, we can support the many local actions underway to ban certain types of plastic bags. We can also choose to purchase meals packaged in disposable containers from places that use compostable materials. And we can try harder to make sure that our waste items actually make it into trash bins so that they stay out of the storm sewer system, which washes storm water, leaves, and trash alike directly into the bay.
- Interested in volunteering with the East Bay Regional Parks District? More information can be found here. The East Bay Regional Parks District takes part in the annual Shoreline Cleanup, which is scheduled for September 15 this year. Thousands of Bay Area residents participate in this annual event to help protect our bay shores. Volunteers can also participate in Berkeley’s Adopt-A-Shoreline program in which they devote time to shoreline cleanup on two or more days per year. Alternatively, groups interested in volunteering can do what COCO did and schedule a special shoreline cleanup date with the District. Special cleanup dates are escorted by rangers, who participate side-by-side and make sure the collected waste is removed at the end of the day.
- Finally, a few odd facts I thought you should know about Capri Sun, since I am on the subject. One, Capri Sun has its own odd spin-off company called Terracycle. Here, you can buy school items for kids, like backpacks, made out of their aluminized pouches. Terracycle, and these products, are Kraft’s response to the harsh public ridicule it has faced for selling Capri Sun juices in the non-recyclable aluminized pouches that would otherwise be filling up our landfills. And two, in light of my earlier BSR post about FDA labels and misrepresentation of food ingredients, I would also like to note that Capri Sun juices, which are marketed as 100% juice, contain delicious high fructose corn syrup as their main ingredient. Of course, last I checked, corn syrup was not a juice, but what do I know?