Local groups test EPA program

September 30, 2018

PADILLA BAY — Bent, broken, twisted and discolored items collected from the beach at Crandall Spit were laid out on a table Tuesday at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Items that could have come from a summer picnic — plastic water bottles, glass beer bottles, a Doritos bag, granola bar wrapper and the plastic handle of a kitchen knife — were among dozens of items and fragments of items recovered from the beach Monday.

The items were sorted to help test a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency method for identifying trash recovered from places it doesn’t belong.

Seven members of local environment groups and volunteer programs meticulously separated the items based on whether they were paper, plastic, metal or glass, whether they were whole or fragments, different sizes of fragments, or fit into specific categories such as construction debris.

Many of the items were single-use food and beverage packaging items: a barnacle encrusted Busch can, a brown glass bottle with its Mongoose IPA label beginning to peel, several clear plastic water bottles, colorful plastic bottle caps and plastic straws of various shapes and sizes.

The EPA wants to see less of these materials in streams and bays, and on beaches.

Toward that end, the EPA’s Trash Free Waters Program released in June its draft Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol for identifying and categorizing marine debris and other trash such as that found on roadsides.

Organizations within the state, including RE Sources for Sustainable Communities out of Bellingham, are testing the protocol during a pilot phase.

Feedback from groups participating in the pilot will be incorporated into the final protocol, according to EPA documents.

Once the protocol is finalized, community groups throughout the nation can use the same method to record their findings and then contribute those findings to a public database.

That data could be used to determine problem areas where trash comes from and where it is most likely to end up. It could also help inform regulations about certain materials that are being found in waterways throughout the world.

“We think it is important to have a robust citizen science protocol that can impact regulation of plastics in our waterways ... to clean up and reduce plastics in our waterways that have harmful impacts to not only aquatic life, but humans as well,” RE Sources lead scientist Eleanor Hines said.

RE Sources, in partnership with other local organizations, has tested the EPA’s draft protocol at several beaches in Whatcom County and in Skagit County at the former Custom Plywood mill site and at Crandall Spit.

Hines said single-use plastics such as water bottles have been a frequent find in the area.

Plastic items outnumbered those of any other material found Monday on Fidalgo Bay’s Crandall Spit.

That food packaging and single-use plastics were prominent on the list of items recovered at Crandall Spit is not unusual, according to the EPA.

As more and more plastic items accumulate in the world’s oceans and the material breaks down into smaller and smaller particles called microplastics, it poses a variety of threats to the environment, wildlife and human health.

Nets and other items can entangle or trap wildlife, fragments of plastic can be mistakenly eaten and lead to starvation, and chemicals can leach from materials as they break down in the water, according to the EPA.

Hines found at least one piece of evidence of those impacts in the items from Crandall Spit: a plastic tube with several small, dead crabs trapped inside.

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