Long Walks on the Beach: 309 Pieces of Plastic Beneath Every Step?

North Beach in Burlington looks pretty clean to the casual observer. But if you look near the high water line, where driftwood and sand and a few scrappy plants mix together, you start to see a different picture. From a distance, you might notice a half-buried plastic bag or an empty Gatorade bottle strewn about. But when you look closely – ‘hands and knees’ closely – a whole world of small pieces of plastic starts to reveal itself. And the more you look, it seems, the more you find.

In a world that’s churning out 300 million tons of new plastic every year, the issue of plastic debris in our waters and coastlines is something we can’t ignore.

So, on a raw and blustery day that was spitting rain, half of our BCL group went to the northern edge of North Beach with Ashley Sullivan, the Director of the Rozalia Project, an organization right here in Vermont dedicated to cleaning up plastics in oceans and lakes around the world. The beach was beautifully dramatic in the wind, and empty except for our small crew.

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Working in teams of two under Ashley’s energetic leadership, with our raincoats and bright yellow gloves, we did two 30 minute sweeps on the beach: one looking for large plastic items; and one looking for smaller pieces of microplastics, technically pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size.

The results? Our data sheets were hardly big enough to record what we found. The first walking sweep across a few hundred meters of shoreline turned up 1,204 pieces of debris – almost all plastic!

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Here are the top categories we found – of the things we could categorize:

1. Plastic sheeting (i.e. bags) 56
2. Plastic straws 45
3. Food wrappers 32
4. Plastic caps 30
5. Fishing debris (line, buoys, lures) 25
6. Shotgun shells 16

The second investigation focused closely on three 1-meter square transects. That’s not a big area – about the area underneath one long stride along the beach. In teams of two, we picked up every tiny bit of plastic we could see – just on the surface of the ground – mixed in amongst the sand and pebbles and driftwood and other flotsam.

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Here’s what we recorded:

Team #1 found 73 pieces of plastic.
Team #2 found 277 pieces of plastic.
Team #3 found 309 pieces of plastic!

And, we wondered, how many pieces of plastic were too small to see and count, nestled down in the sand and soil?

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The numbers speak for themselves. We were shocked by what we found. So was Ashley, who does a lot of this work. Our lakeshore in Burlington – in certain spots, at least, is literally getting buried in microplastics. Most of them come from the lake. We discovered firsthand that some of them are ending up in the digestive tracts of fish who eat them by mistake. Research is ongoing about the long-term impacts on these fish, and on the lake ecosystem as a whole; but all this plastic can’t be a good thing.

For all of us who love the lake, the next question is, what do we do about it? Build awareness? Educate others? Push for legislation to address the problem? There are no easy answers, but we’re all on the path to understanding – and taking action – with an experience fresh in our minds that we won’t soon forget.

Student thoughts:

“It was a great experience to take part in citizen science. After hearing about microplastics for weeks, we went out, and not only did we find them, we found them in alarming quantities.”
~ Isidora

“It’s so surprising thinking that this waste has been building up under our feet for all these years. Specifically the last 50 years, where we have dumped millions of tons of waste plastic into our environment.” ~ Wyatt

“Cleanups are not at all a permanent solution, especially with microplastics, where a hundred little pieces of one plastic bottle may be picked up, though, in reality, that is only a small fraction of that original bottle. We did not make an impact at all on the levels of microplastics on the beach (or in the world), but hopefully what we did can lead to a better understanding of where the microplastics come from and how to target that problem.” ~ Isabel

“After seeing how much plastic is going into our waterways, I decided to start small and stop using plastic straws. If I do this, I can lead by example and other people might start to do the same.” ~ Mary

“I was so surprised that we found a lot of plastic in North Beach. It seems clean but the fact is, it’s not. Plastic is a big issue that we deal with now in our beaches and lakes.  My advice to everyone is to stop using plastic and start recycling.” ~ Saja

“The microplastics field work was super interesting because we didn’t know what data we were going to find. In a high school science lab, everyone knows before we even do the experiment what results we’ll get and what we’re supposed to learn from that. This project was not contrived that way – we were gathering real data on an issue that really matters. What we found will go into a national database. Our results were frankly mind-blowing.” ~ Emma

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