Plastic ocean

by Amanda Raxlin
Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Staff photo by Allison Potter

Members of the Surfrider Foundation distributed blue T-shirts showing their support for a smoking ban on Wrightsville Beach at a public forum on Thursday, March 8.

Sitting on your longboard on a peaceful morning, the water is refreshingly cool. A warm beam of sun hits your face and you squint your eyes to gaze across the waves back to shore until something touches your leg. You look down, floating in the water, moving slowly with the waves, something thin and wrinkled strikes, a jellyfish, you decide, and paddle quickly away to safety.

What if that jellyfish is really a plastic bag? Imagine if the ocean had more plastic than it did plankton?

One University of North Carolina Wilmington researcher, Bonnie Monteleone, has been working with undergraduate chemistry students who have taken random surface samples a meter square from the wrack line along the beach strand of Wrightsville Beach. 

The wrack line is defined as the line of items washed onto the beach from the open sea like kelp and sea grass that is cast up onto the beach by surf, tides, and wind and includes plastic, glass, metal and other marine debris. Wrack accumulations on beaches usually mark the high tide line.

In a letter addressed to the Town of Wrightsville Beach’s Board of Aldermen last week, Monteleone stated that the students bring their samples to the lab then separate the manmade debris from the natural. 

"What I am most impressed by … is the void of fragmented pieces of plastic," Monteleone continued. "Thus far, the majority of the manmade debris turns out to be cigarette butts. Bar none. The remainder of the manmade debris appears to also be local debris that people leave on the beach and is not what is washed in from distant waters," she stated. "This is a very pleasant surprise. As I lay testament to, I have not visited a beach in other parts of the world that did not share the fate of plastic fragmented debris washing in on its shores."

Monteleone, currently working with a film crew in Fiji — videographers for the BBC film "Blue Planet"— on a major motion picture project, "Plastic Oceans," that will be out in the spring of 2013, bringing awareness of this issue into the social conscious on a global scale. She has been studying plastics in the marine environment for the last four years. 

"I have traveled to beaches in Hawaii, Bermuda, South Africa, Brazil and California taking beach samples from the wrack line. On all the beaches mentioned (except Wrightsville), I have found a higher concentration of broken fragments of plastics than cigarette butts," she said.

Leaders of the UNCW chapter of the Surfrider Foundation say that plastic makes its way into the food chain every day.

Misty Wilbanks, president of the UNCW chapter said, "We want our beach to be clean. We want the animals to be healthy and live a long life. We make an effort to gain support and activate people. We are not in your face, but still effective."

Surfrider is an international organization comprised of more than 80 chapters that protect the oceans and its marine life. One common misconception about Surfrider is that surfers predominate the group’s membership.

"Our most active member welds cranes for a living," said Sean Ahlum, chair of the Cape Fear Chapter. Ahlum introduced Surfrider to UNCW, creating the very first college chapter of the organization. He explained how he wants to spread the knowledge to youth because of its unlimited potential to make a difference. He said his greatest accomplishment thus far has been, "the relationships established. Just watching people who had no idea how to get involved in the community develop such passions and use their power to make a change."

The UNCW chapter gathers every Tuesday to discuss what should be done to protect the beaches.

"We are focusing on Ban the Bag," Wilbanks said. She explained how the group plans to eliminate all plastic bags in New Hanover County by asking stores to stop using them.

"We are hoping that UNCW will be the model for this movement, causing other locations to catch on," she said. "Think about all of the plastic you use in a day. You only use it for about five minutes, then you throw it away. What if you just didn’t use it? This is what we are hoping to teach people about."

Both Surfrider chapters are always looking for new members who bring innovative ideas based on their love of ocean life. Because many environmental groups have a stigma of being too extreme, some may hesitate to join. Surfrider knows this, and prefers the behind-the-scenes work.

"We don’t march around and protest; we just like to educate," Wilbanks said.

Ahlum explained, "We support groups who are already fighting that battle ... we are not the lead group in that fight."

New Hanover County beaches possess the ability to lead the East Coast and the entire country in all issues concerning the environment, Ahlum said.

"Sustainability… we are right for it. Our area lends itself to it," he said.

If New Hanover County begins to leverage its ability to market the area as a leader in this movement — for example, businesses that use good, clean, sustainable resources would flourish by serving the wants and needs of its residents — Wilbanks and Ahlum believe it will see economic benefits as well.

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