Coasts in Crisis: Plastic on the Shoreline

by Gary Griggs, author of Coasts in Crisis: A Global Challenge

An Earth-changing development took place in New York City in 1907 when plastic was first synthesized. It had all the right stuff for a huge range of uses: lightweight, flexible, strong, moisture resistant, relatively inexpensive, and a quality that has plagued us ever since, durability. This stuff just doesn’t break down or go away very quickly. Throughout the 20th century the development and use of new kinds of plastics and new products and uses proliferated rapidly.

I have spent much of my life studying beaches and coastlines and over 50 years ago I started collecting beach sands from my travels. Each one is unique and I think of them as the DNA or the fingerprint of some particular set of geologic and oceanographic conditions. I now have about 300 or so sand samples stored in glass vials and spread around on windowsills, bookshelves, and in frames, both at home and in my office.

My collection has gotten the attention of a number of friends over the years that now send or bring back beach sand from various far-flung places around the planet. A few years ago, a good friend who travels a lot, usually to coastlines that are often remote and difficult to get to, sent back beach sand samples from the Andaman Islands. This archipelago of 572 islands, many uninhabited, lies in the Indian Ocean, about 350 miles west of Myanmar and about 800 miles east of India.

These islands are not on any of the usual travel paths and are not easy to get to but my friend and his family were able to charter a boat and visit a number of these isolated islands and bring sand home. One of his emails included some beautiful pictures and then the words: “Sadly, although inhabited, and remote, the island was covered with plastic!”

The widespread use and then disposal of plastic as well as other debris has become an issue of global proportions. With the durability of plastic beverage bottles, plastic bags, detergent and food containers, we believe that about 60-80 percent of all marine debris in the ocean is plastic and it’s found on the beaches of every continent and from Iceland to Antarctica, sad but true.

Despite a growing effort to reduce plastic use and consumption, single-use plastic bags and water bottles in particular, globally we produce about 360 million tons of plastic annually, without about one-third of that going into disposable, single use items. Estimates are that about one percent is recycled globally, with most of the rest ending up in landfills, or often transported or blow into coastal waters.

While over a billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, they usually aren’t the ones consuming all of the bottled water. Americans, who are almost all fortunate to have very good quality and regularly tested tap water, consumed 9.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2012. This water was guzzled from 103 billion single-use plastic bottles, or 3,250 bottles emptied every second, all year long. Despite the prevalence of recycling programs and convenient containers for disposal, only about 20% of the bottles are recycled and the rest are discarded, ending up in dumps or in some cases, the ocean or on our beaches.

While cleaning up beaches is helpful and beneficial, the ultimate solution to the problem of plastic proliferation along our shorelines and in the oceans of the world isn’t clean up and removal, but in prevention- cutting off or eliminating the plastic, Styrofoam and other marine debris at the sources. It means taking every action necessary to keep the trash from getting into our rivers, waterways and oceans to begin with.


Gary Griggs is Distinguished Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is author or coauthor of Introduction to California’s Beaches and CoastLiving with the Changing California CoastCalifornia Coast from the Air, The Santa Cruz Coast (Then and Now), and Our Ocean Backyard.