Gently shuffling through a tide pool in front of Haystack Rock, a young man in a gray hooded sweatshirt picked up what looked like a small, gray stone. It was a mole crab. Holding it in his palm he displayed the crustacean to a small crowd around him before placing it back into the water.
Searching the sand to discover treasures and creatures alike is one of the many draws to visit the coast. It’s called: beachcombing.
Look closely at the colors decorating the sand beneath your feet and you’ll find a surprising amount of something that doesn’t belong: trash.
“It just looked like someone had thrown confetti,” said Pooka Rice, outreach coordinator for Haystack Rock Awareness Program.
At least 8 million metric tons of plastic wind up in the ocean each year, some of which returns to our coasts, according to research published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. At that rate, the ocean is expected to contain more plastic than fish by weight by the year 2050.
Many groups are attempting to resolve this issue by organizing beach cleanups, but a lot of the trash likely ends up in landfills. Rice is taking an alternative approach to making use of the debris: she turns it into jewelry.
From Trash To Treasure
A necklace with a fish-shaped pendant, in shades of blue and green with flecks of orange, hung from Rice’s neck as she sifted through a bag of trash. The pendant was made from debris she’s found on the beach.
“I feel like Tom Sawyer teaching people to paint the fence because people literally pay me for trash that I picked up,” Rice said. The trash is in a nicer form though, after getting crushed or melted, mixed with a plant-based resin then poured into decorative molds. “We’re leaving money on the table by leaving plastic on the beach.”
Combining her background in jewelry design and interest in environmental science, Rice created Trash Talk, a jewelry and art line made from marine debris.
“I’m hoping plastic will become the new beach glass and people will seek it out and be like ‘Oh score, look I found a purple!’ because purple is the hardest to find,” Rice said, “and they will start building their color palettes out of marine debris.”
People often stop her to admire her jewelry, which she uses as a conversation starter to teach people about plastic pollution.
“There’s still a lot of people out there that are not aware of issues surrounding plastic pollution,” she said. So every month, she combs the sand to collect and record what people leave behind.
The Plastics Problem
Last year, nonprofit SOLVE collected hundreds of thousands of pounds of trash along Oregon’s coast. And there’s also the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large concentration of marine debris located between California and Hawaii.
Rice leads monthly marine debris surveys to monitor what’s found in front of Haystack Rock and records the findings. The most common items found: intact beach toys and dog waste bags.
Lisa Habecker, the education and volunteer coordinator for HRAP said one of the worst problems with plastic pollution is that animals often ingest it or end up tangled in it.
“We’ve seen plastic wrappers, bottle caps and straws in anemones before,” she said. “It’s all part of the food web.”
And as OPB previously reported, if you’re eating Northwest shellfish, you’re probably also eating plastic.
Data from SOLVE shows 4,164 cigarette butts were picked up along Oregon’s coast in 2016, accounting for 48.9 percent of the total debris collected by the organization that year. While plastic is most talked about it’s not the only environmental burden.
To monitor some of these effects on wildlife, HRAP also conducts monthly beached bird surveys, which Rice said is a nicer name for a dead bird survey.
“You can learn a lot from dead birds,” Rice said, “we open up the stomach and observe the contents and so many times we find bellies full of plastic.”
Migratory bird populations are having a hard time reaching fish to eat. Rice said fish are seeking deeper depths and colder water and as a result, seabirds look for alternative food sources. One of those food sources ends up being the brightly colored plastics that stand out in the sand, catching their attention.
Showing a picture of a seabird necropsy, she said, “You’ll notice these color schemes are awfully similar,” suggesting the plastic likely came from broken beach toys.
Realizing the large impact humans play in the environment can be overwhelming. Visitors from all over the world ask Rice why there are so many dead seabirds, or where all the starfish went. And she’d tell them.
“I would be comforting people sobbing on my shoulder,” she said. “That’s not how you want to spend your vacation.”
The situation is not all hopeless and helpless – Rice says just five minutes of picking up the trash can make a difference. And it can be done anywhere, not just the beach. If you find trash along your city block, pick it up and add it to your color wheel.
After almost an hour leading seven volunteers in July’s debris survey, Rice had collected a trash bag full of waste. Some of the contents included broken glass, beach toys, bandages, a tampon (unused), a La Croix can, a beach towel, mismatched socks and a lot of plastic pieces.
That was all from one small area in front of Haystack Rock that gets cleaned and surveyed each month.
Out of the trash bag, she pulled a pink beach toy shaped like an elephant. Rice said perfectly intact beach toys are among the most common types of debris she finds. Oftentimes, families will leave toys on the beach for another family to use.
But, Rice thinks, most have learned from a young age not to touch other people’s belongings. When the tide comes in the toys get swept away, broken and often mixed into the sand.
While there are several local organizations that organize beach clean-up events, Trash Talk is rethinking what can be done with debris.
“We want people to apply value to this art material which is just waiting for them to collect and use it in a different way,” Rice said.
While the HRAP program offers events focused on turning marine debris into art, Rice’s ultimate goal is to have a “creation station” where visitors and artists alike can have access to a grinder, melter and even a 3-D printer to make art from found debris.
Think of it as an art studio where it’s BYO-Debris. The materials are free, it helps the environment and you walk away with a one-of-a-kind art piece.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the amount of trash collected by SOLVE.