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Surprising Results of a Beach Trash Study by a Rising Tide Explorer

a close up of a sandy beach

Robin Serne, a new member of the Rising Tide Explorers team recently finished a months long marine debris survey on the beaches of North Carolina.  Robin walked eight blocks on the high tide line of the beach three times per week, for nine weeks, as a part of a Citizen Science project.

She has been interested beach trash’s effects on wildlife for quite a while – sparked by her experiences working at a wildlife hospital helping birds and animals who had eaten plastics or become hopelessly entangled in fishing line and hooks.

Despite having been an avid beach trash collector for years, the results of her study surprised her!


Her main questions were:

1.WHAT IS IT ?  What are the five most common types of trash found on the beach?

2.WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? Is most of the trash freshly left by tourists or washing in from the ocean?

3.WHEN? Is there more or less trash after storms or king tides?  Does the abundance of trash change as the tourist season winds down?



What can we expect to find?

a person sitting on a beach


The National Top 5 Beach Trash items:

 Cigarette butts

 Food wrappers

 Plastic bottles

 Plastic bottle caps

 Plastic straws and stirrers


What do these items have in common? 

They are all single use plastic items!

In all, Robin picked up 4,619 items!  

chart, line chart

The biggest surprise?  King Tides have a HUGE effect on beach trash!

As you can see in the graph above, the majority of the items were collected during the week of King Tides in September (about 70 items per block).  King Tides are naturally occurring super high tides.  They often occur during new or full moons, or when the moon is at its closest point to earth during its orbit.  The King Tide made a huge difference in trash frequency on the beach, and based on this data it would be ideal to coordinate beach trash cleanups during future King Tide events.


Unsurprisingly, there was more trash on the beach during the tourist season (15.2 items per block average), versus after the season ended (7.6 items per block).

Based on some back of the envelope calculations, Robin estimates that only about 14% of the debris came exclusively from beachgoers – items such as fishing lures and lines, beach toys, paper and cardboard, fireworks, food wrappers, and clothes likely came exclusively from visitors.

About 43% likely came from both the ocean and the beach- the number one item- cigarettes, plus fabric pieces, cigar  tips, straws, plastic bags, metal bottle tops, and bottles.

And about 38% washed in primarily from the ocean, mostly during the King Tide.  Items such as hard plastic fragments, bottle caps,  foam fragments, film fragments, rope and net pieces, rubber fragments, balloon pieces, and sea glass were found in abundance during the high tide, but were rare during the rest of the study.

But, this information can seem misleading-  don’t forget that 80% of marine debris comes from land – trash is thrown out of cars, or blown out of the backs of trucks, and is left on roadsides and parking lots.  Then it is washed into storm drains and rivers that eventually lead to the ocean.
20% of marine debris comes from boats.  Fishing vessels abandon very dangerous deadly ghost nets– enormous fishing nets that are lost at sea but continue to catch, entangle, and drown whales, turtles, fish, sharks, dolphins, seals, and more.  International freight ships are also responsible for marine debris, especially when shipping containers are lost overboard during rough seas.
a group of stuffed animals sitting on top of a table
Robin’s most common items were:
Cigarettes- 1,808         18 months to 10 years to disintegrate
Hard plastic fragments – 1,049       500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate
Food wrappers and film fragments- 401       500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate
Foam fragments – 289       50 to 500 years to disintegrate
Bottle caps- 251         500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate
Fishing lures and lines – 129          500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate
Toys-95            500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate
Remember, all of the plastic that has ever been made still exists (unless it was burned)

So why does it matter?

The ways wildlife interacts with marine debris, including fishing lines, wrappers, plastic bags, and fragments, is a heartbreaking problem.

a close up of a bird

However, less visible but more widespread and deadly is ingestion and bioaccumulation.

Plastic doesn’t “break down” and biodegrade, its Breaks Up into smaller and smaller fragments called Microplastics.

Microplastics are found across the globe, even in the sediment in the deepest most remote parts of the ocean.  Microplastics are small enough to be consumed by plankton- the foundation of the food web of the entire ocean, but they can not be digested so they clog up the plankton’s stomach.  Plankton, in turn, are eaten by small fish, and bigger grazers like whales, which then accumulate the plastic in their stomachs.  Small fish are eaten by larger fish, and so on, up the food chain to sharks, birds, tuna, and humans.  The plastic prevents the stomach from having room for real food, or digesting it.

To make matters worse, plastics have been found to accumulate heavy metals and other toxins in the ocean, so when fish and birds end up with bellies full of plastic they are also getting an extra dose of toxic metals and chemicals in their weakened systems.


We can solve the problem of plastics by recycling, right?!  shape, icon

shape, arrowDid you know….  The chasing arrows recycling symbol does not mean that an item is recyclable?

This symbol only tells you what type of plastic the item is made from.  And type 7 is “other” !

Currently, in most places, only type 1 and 2 bottles are recycled, and ideally they are clean and dry, with labels removed.

A few years ago, China stopped taking recycled material from the US, and since then municipal recycling centers have been scrambling to find new buyers for all of our trash.  Because the price of oil is subsidized in the US, it is actually less expensive to make new plastics from oil than to sort, clean, shred, melt, pelletize, and transport recycled material to manufacturers to make new products.  There is also a large water and carbon footprint from this process.


              Have you ever “WishCycled” ?  We all have. 


WishCycling is when you put an item in the recycling bin, unsure if it is recyclable or not, and hope for the best.  Nationwide, about 25% of the items in the recycling bin are not actually recyclable.  If batches of recycling are too contaminated the whole lot is taken to the landfill.

What are the most likely offenders? 

Styrofoam is never recyclable in any municipal system. It breaks apart into millions of tiny bubbles that then further contaminate the environment.

Plastic bags gum up the sorting machines and get caught in the tines. Take them back to the grocery store and put them in the special plastic bag recycling bins out front.

Greasy or food covered containers–  plastics need to be clean, free of food, grease, and labels, to be recycled.

Wishcycling is the main reason why other countries no longer accept our trash.  Non-recyclable items gum up the machines, forcing them to stop more frequently for maintenance.  Some of the most dangerous items- garden hoses, propane tanks, and aerosol cans.


a person sitting on a beach

What can I do to help?


Despite the fact that the oil and plastic industry has shifted the blame for single use plastic waste onto the consumer by telling us it is our job to recycle, instead of their responsibility to make better products….

The good news is, there is a lot you can do to help.

As Robin proved during her research picking up over 4,000 pieces of trash, our actions as individuals do add up!


Remember the 3 R’s ?   Lets revisit them-

Most importantly, Reduce your consumption of plastics.

Secondly, Reuse as many items as you can.

And, thirdly, as a last resort, Recycle.


How to reduce plastics in your life 

  • Bringing cloth bags to the grocery store.  You can actually use them at all stores!
  • Shop at the farmers market to reduce the amount of packaged veggies you get, and keep money in the local economy.  You can even get little mesh bags to keep fruits and veggies organized on the way home.
  • Get a reusable water bottle.  You can support the Friends of Rookery Bay by buying a Nalgene bottle with their gorgeous logo on it!  Glass jars can be reused many times to store food in the fridge or pantry, or as water bottles.

a person standing on top of a sandy beach

  • Ditch the single use plastic cutlery- go put a set of silverware wrapped in a dishtowel in your car,  now you can say “no than you” to those terrible plastic forks and spoons that don’t work anyways 🙂
  • Try shopping at a Zero Waste store, if you are lucky enough to have one.  In south Fort Myers we have one called Conscious Space, you can buy bulk soaps, dishwasher powder, herbs, teas, oils and vinegars, and more with zero waste if you bring your own reusable containers.  The containers can be anything- you just weigh them at the store before you fill them up!  Conscious Space also has items made from recycled or renewable materials- for example, compostable pet waste bags, trash bags made from recycled plastic, and toilet paper made from recycled paper with no plastic wrappers!  Robin suggests stopping by your local zero waste store and scoping out what they have, then in the future you will know what to buy there first, before going to the ‘normal’ grocery store.
  • Shopping second hand at thrift stores is another fantastic way to reduce the amount of plastic packaging you purchase.  You can also find items there to repurpose and reuse in your home, to further reduce what you buy new.



More ways to be more sustainable a hand holding a cellphone

  • Do you eat seafood? Buy from locally owned seafood places as much as possible.  If you find yourself at a restaurant or grocery store, download the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Sea Food Watch App, it tells you what the most sustainable types of seafood are, based on where in the country you are- so you can be confident you are buying sea food that is fresh in your area, and is sustainably caught.
  • Do a water audit of your home and life.  You will be shocked by how much water is hidden in the items you buy, and the food you consume.
  • Start a compost pile in your yard, if you can.  This will save a lot of waste from the landfill.
  • Contact your local municipal waste department and find out what is actually being recycled in your area so know how not to wishcycle.
  • Next time you visit a beach you can contribute to a citizen science project!  Collect beach trash and add it to the national database – Just download the Marine Debris Tracker App!


Most Importantly, spread your knowledge to others! 

Share with your friends and family all the new sustainability tips and tricks you have tried, and inspire them to join you!


You can find Robin working as a sweep, and some day soon as a guide, on the Rising Tide Explorers Mangrove Tunnels and Mudflats Kayak Tour, Heart of the Rookery Bay Kayak Tour, and Sunset Bird Rookery Kayak Tour.  She would love to talk all day about plastics, recycling, marine debris, wildlife, and birds!


For more information on how to get out and explore the estuaries of Naples and Marco Island on a biologist guided kayak tour with Rising Tide Explorers, visit for more information or to book online.  Call (239)734-3231 to reserve via phone.

Keep up with Rising Tide on FacebookInstagram, and YouTube to see all the latest discoveries and adventures!

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