Unfortunately, not the last straw

by Bob Nanninga

Pop Quiz!
Question: What do hypodermic needles, tampon applicators, and Otter Pop wrappers have in common? Give up?
Answer: They can always be found on your local beach.

ow don't get me wrong, it's not like the local coast line is covered with the face of Little Orphan Orange. That wouldn't be fair to all the other trash finding its way to our beaches.
Before I start listing boring trash statistics - and don't worry I'm not going to do that - let me explain to you where I'm coming from. My partner and I have adopted a beach. You wouldn't believe how easy it was: no waiting, no evaluations and no nosy social workers. We just walked west with canvas shopping bags in hand until we hit the coast.
Our section of South Carlsbad State Beach extends north from the end of the bluff to lifeguard station number one, a distance of approximately 100 yards. There is no sand on this section of coast - the jetties took care of that years ago - so it's not your usual sunbathing spot. Yet, it is beautiful none the less.
When I first started cleaning the area, I was surprised at how much garbage our society allows to foul the coastline. After a while, I found myself becoming a sort of "beach archaeologist," piecing together pieces of a dying culture.
Distinctions are important. There are two types of trash: stuff that washes in with the tide, and the stuff people leave behind. The stuff that washes up is varied and at times very disturbing. The aforementioned tampon applicators belong in this category. I have come to the conclusion that these are thrown overboard with the other trash boat owners don't want to bother with taking to shore.
Damaged lobster traps also make their way to shore, slowly rusting. They help collect trash in their own idle way. PVC pipe is another mainstay. I'm sure these remnants were once part of irrigation systems belonging to bluff-top homes. As the bluffs make their way to the sea, so do the plastic pipes.
While I'm on the subject of plastic, let me say that discarded and misplaced plastic is far and away the majority of all the trash on the beach. It is ironic that when the Exxon Valdez spilled all that oil on the beaches of Alaska, America was up in arms. Yet the amount of plastics currently littering our coastline goes unchallenged. Plastic is a petroleum product. Therefore, all the styrofoam, plastic bags, six-pack rings, bottle caps and litter bottles are nothing more than a well-mannered oil spill. An oil spill that's easy to overlook, because we put it there.
OK, so maybe you didn't run down to the beach and personally place each piece of trash. Don't laugh, some people are doing it at this exact moment. But like it or not, we are all responsible. The trash you walk past in the street is just a storm drain away from the beach.
It goes something like this. Candy wrapper gets tossed in the street. Wind, rain or other action washes it down the storm drain. The storm drain is the express route to the ocean, and if some aquatic animal doesn't choke on it first, it makes its way to the beach.
With regard to the unthinking members of our species who don't give a second thought to their actions: what's up? Could someone please explain to me the thinking behind the decision to just leave all your trash on the beach?
A couple of weeks ago as I was arriving for duty, I noticed a fisherman and his son packing up to leave. When I finally made it down to where they had been, I could not believe this man's total disregard for the ocean, from which he was pulling fish. He had left all his trash: bait wrappers, beer bottles, and a McDonalds bag and all the wrappers right where they had fallen. This man evidently did not have a grasp of the consequences of his actions. He could have saved us both a lot of energy if he would have just purchased a couple Filet O'Fish sandwiches while he was at McDonalds and taken his son to a tractor pull.
Another article of garbage to be found in large quantities and in all shapes and sizes is the plastic baggie. Now, I know some are sandwich bags left over from an innocent seaside picnic. Most, however, seem big enough to hold only rock cocaine. These little bags are usually found next to used matchbooks and soda cups.
While I was at the beach this morning, I also retrieved three milk cartons, a half-full Big Gulp, an old Swatch, at least 2 complete newspapers, 6 styrofoam take-out containers, about 10 feet of nylon rope in various pieces, gum and candy wrappers, some cardboard, and a rotting tennis ball. On top of all this was the king of all beach trash: the straw. Soda straws, coffee stir straws - you name it. They are there in every color imaginable. For every piece of garbage I pick up there is an accompanying straw. The ones from McDonalds are the easiest to identify: red and yellow stripes, and slightly thicker than all the other anonymous straws.
As I pick up these wonders of human progress, I can't help but think there is something terribly wrong with our species. I mean, have we completely lost the ability to drink without the use of little plastic tubes? This seems to be a collective loss of motor control. Do we really need straws? Are we just so lazy a culture that we are willing to endanger our environment just so our lips will never have to touch the drinking vessel? And if straws are so vital to our continued existence, should we be discarding them at such an alarming rate? Straws are just one more example of how we are burying our planet under a blanket of unnecessary toxins, all in the name of comfort.
If we really want to clean up our beaches, we must start consuming less, and we can begin by boycotting the use of straws. Let merchants know that straws only hurt the environment, and that you would rather save space on the beach for really important things. Like tampon applicators and beer bottles.

Bob Nanninga is an independent video producer, a practicing vegan, and an active and vocal member of the Green and Environmental community. Mr. Nanninga is also the only person the editor knows that has a tattoo in the shape of a recycling symbol.