The Persistence of Plastic: 5 Ways to Decrease Marine Debris 

 In Beach Clean-up, Coastal Cleanup Day, Environmental Education

This year’s Santa Barbara County Coastal Cleanup Day presented us with the opportunity to band together to clean up our shorelines for the first time in over a year since the pandemic. The three-hour cleanup, with sites all along Santa Barbara county’s coast, yielded over 6,000 pounds of trash. Our month-long cleanup effort in September alone totaled a whopping 6,104 pound

Throughout all sites, the top 5 most abundant debris (and the # of items found this year on Coastal Cleanup Day) were:

  1. Plastic pieces (6,783)
  2. Cigarette butts (6,314)
  3. Food wrappers (3,469)
  4. Foam pieces (2,579)
  5. Plastic bottle caps (1,268)

Although these items may initially seem diverse and widespread, there remains one relentless common denominator of our waste: plastic.

Plastics are the most common form of marine debris. Although they come from a variety of sources on both land and water, once plastic enters our oceans it never fully biodegrades. Instead, it breaks down into smaller and more harmful pieces called microplastics.

Unknown to many, plastic can be found in even the smallest of items. Cigarettes filters, for example, contain plastic, making them frequent finds (usually amongst the top 2) that ultimately end up on our beaches. The harmful effects of plastic go beyond the physical. Not only are plastics being consumed and entrapping organisms (humans included), but most plastics, including the cellulose acetate fibers found in cigarette butts, can leach chemicals like nicotine, flame retardants, and colorants into our natural spaces. By helping out at events like Coastal Cleanup Day, we are removing more than just what the eye can see!

I find it can be extremely difficult to remain hopeful about environmental issues when constantly faced with disheartening statistics and the increasingly apparent repercussions of our actions. But stopping the phenomenon of plastic can be helped by addressing our consumption and “throw-away” culture. I find it helpful to think of this quote, “There is no such thing as “away.” When you throw something away, it must go somewhere” -Annie Leonard.

Hopefully, the information that follows can show us new ways to reduce plastic use and prevent its entry into our environments.

Reduce plastic use

Think of all the ways you use plastic every day. Count the number of plastic items you reuse, buy, and throw away. Once you address how much plastic exists in your life, it’ll get easier to reduce and prevent use of it, specifically single-use plastics!

Bring your own

This is linked to reducing plastic use but can be an easy one to forget! It’s easy to pick up a plastic fork, cup, or other plasticware when you’re on the go. Try keeping reusable items in a place you won’t forget, like your car, before grabbing that plastic bottle at the grocery store.

Recognize your power as a consumer

Show companies the power of your dollar by putting it where it counts! By choosing to buy food and other products that lack plastic packaging, we can begin to make a change. Try buying in bulk and shopping at stores/local farmers markets that don’t prioritize plastic.

Reuse plastic products

Hesitate before throwing something away. If we take the time, we can find creative, fun ways to reuse plastic products. Check out this article for 30 ways to reuse your plastic items:

Recycle, but make it your last option

Recycling is great, but not always foolproof. It requires a large amount of resources and power to extend the life of a product, and oftentimes not everything can be recycled. Look for certain numbers on plastic packaging to determine recycling eligibility! This is often dependent on the region you live in. Enter your zip code/recyclable product in question into this website ( to determine your best options.




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