Beach litter is piling up in predictable patterns on the Washington and Oregon coasts


Citizen scientists have been recording litter on beaches in the Pacific Northwest, from southern Oregon to Anacortes, Washington, to aid in the growing study of marine litter. A University of Washington study analyzed 843 beach surveys and found that some beaches, and some areas of the same beach, are “sticky spots” that accumulate litter.

The study was published online August 11 in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

“Thousands of volunteer hours have allowed us to investigate what drives litter to wash up on our beaches and where it ends up,” said lead author Kathy Willis, UW visiting scientist and researcher. postdoctoral fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. , or CSIRO, in Australia. “Understanding how litter moves through the marine environment provides us with important clues to identify sources and implement strategies to prevent more litter from escaping.”

All data was collected by volunteers from COASST, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. The UW-based citizen science effort began in the 1990s to study seabirds. At the end of 2015, the team added a group of volunteers focused on observing marine litter.

The new paper uses sightings of medium-sized litter, between one and 20 inches (from the width of a thumbnail to the length of a forearm), from 2017 to 2021. The volunteers are collecting data all year long. year in separate areas on each beach.

“Volunteers trained with COASST are able to get out and observe many places with a frequency that would simply not be possible otherwise,” Willis said.

The study used statistical analysis to confirm that parts of the beach are “sticky spots”. One of these natural resting places for trash is the so-called kelp zone, the high tide mark where kelp and other organic matter accumulates. Another place trash likes to land is the wooded area, where driftwood washes up in storms and comes to rest. In general, beaches with more organic wreckage also tended to have more litter.

The results also showed very different patterns for the 36 beaches studied in Puget Sound compared to the 27 beaches studied on the outer coast of Washington and Oregon. In the protected waters of Puget Sound, about half of the litter was plastic, with the rest being heavier objects like metal, glass or cement. This suggests that Puget Sound litter tends to come from this area or nearby beaches, the authors said.

But on the Outer Coast, 90% of the objects seen were plastic, mostly fragments of larger objects. Litter on the Outer Coast also showed a strong seasonal pattern, with more litter in the spring after winter storms and lower litter levels in the fall.

“In populated areas of Puget Sound, what the data suggests is that if you see a lot of trash, someone probably dumped it nearby or accidentally escaped,” said co-author Jackie. Lindsey, scientific coordinator at COASST. “But if there’s a lot of trash in a remote area, the people who live there aren’t necessarily the ones who create that trash – they’re just the ones who take care of it once it lands.”

Knowing where and when beach litter tends to accumulate could help improve litter collection and disposal programs. The results could also help managers assess beach litter prevention strategies, such as launching educational campaigns on marine litter, installing secure bins, and banning plastic bags and other disposables. unique.

“A lot of times people say, ‘There’s trash out there, let’s get out there and clean it up,'” Lindsey said. “But we also need to step back and use science to document how things are happening in the upstream system, looking at the source of the problem to target our responses.”

The results show that the total amount of beach litter in the region fell slightly from 2017 to 2021, but the authors warn it’s too early to know this is a downward trend.

“It’s really exciting to have this baseline data,” Willis said. “We now know what type of litter is appearing in this region and what drives it, so in the future we will be better able to assess how things might change.”

Other co-authors are Timothy Jones, Rachel Cohen, and Julia Parrish from UW, and Hillary Burgess from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The research was supported by a grant from the Australian-American Fulbright Commission and by more than 280 volunteers who collected data on the beach.

– This press release was originally issued by the University of Washington.


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