Bay Journal

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Bottles, and plastics, and balloons, oh my!

Understanding marine debris by counting trash on Virginia beaches

  • June 18, 2014
Christina Trapani extracts a balloon from seaweed on the beach. Balloons that end up in waterways and the ocean are especially dangerous for wildlife like turtles that mistake them for jellyfish, a favorite food. (Middleton/Bay journal)Kathy O'Hara (left), Katie Register, and Christina Trapani (right) confer about data entry on Fisherman's Island during marine debris beach monitoring project. (Middleton/Bay Journal)O'Hara and Trapani inspect the high tide wrack line where   marine debris is often found. A length of clear plastic mesh fish net over 20 feet long is buried in the sand (in the foreground). (Middleton/Bay Journal)

For many of us, combing the beach for shells and bits of driftwood is part of the ritual of any summertime visit to the shore.

A couple of days ago, I got to walk the beach on Fisherman’s Island with some serious – and veteran – beach combers. Fisherman’s Island is at the tip of the Eastern Shore, part of the national wildlife refuge system, and usually closed to the public.

But these beachcombers have permission because they are a team headed up by Katie Register of Clean Virginia Waterways that’s monitoring trash on Virginia beaches to better understand what exactly is coming ashore and where it’s coming from.

Her team included Kathy O’Hara and Christina Trapani and, for the day, myself. Altogether, Katie, Kathy and Christina have over 50 years of working to reduce marine debris and trash in our waterways.  They call themselves “the trashy ladies,” and probably wouldn’t be offended if you called them that, too.

Kathy O’Hara started the International Coastal Cleanup in the mid 1980s and has been involved ever since helping to keep harmful trash – especially plastics – out of the oceans of the world.

Katie Register became Virginia’s team captain for the coastal cleanup in the mid-1990s, just as she was launching Clean Virginia Waterways, which continues to coordinate river and coastal cleanups every fall in Virginia.

Christina Trapani has been part of the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Program for a decade – and she knows first hand the consequences when marine mammals mistake plastic bags and other plastic tidbits for food.

Trapani set up transects along a 100-meter stretch of beach for the “accumulation” study using a protocol developed by NOAA.

We paired up and counted, photographed, and described on data sheets every scrap of trash in a 5-meter swath from the high tide line down to the water.

Wood, foam, plastic bits, straws, foil scraps, lumber, bait containers, monofilament fishing line, plastic mesh clam bags.

And balloons. Balloons that said, “Happy Birthday,” and “Congratulations, Graduate.”

A balloon with a cardboard tag still attached. “Rest in Peace,” it said. 

Whoever released that balloon probably didn’t know that the balloon itself was resting, in pieces, on the sloping sand beach, O’Hara said.

Other balloons end up in the stomach of sea creatures. Birds and turtles, find balloons floating in the water especially irresistible.

And especially dangerous, explains Trapani. Too many sea turtle strandings – when the marine animal washes ashore dying or dead – are a result of ingestion of man-made items – many plastic, and many of these, balloons.

We found some balloon remnants that had the name of a certain Virginia candidate for Congress. “We’ll probably send a picture to her, explaining the problem with releasing the balloons,” O’Hara said.

In Virginia, it is against the law to release more than 50 balloons into the air. A simple calculation reminds us that just 100 releases of 49 balloons, the legal limit, is still a whole lot of balloons. 

There’s always a spike in the number of balloons found after Valentine’s Day and other holidays, says Trapani, who has been counting trash and balloons on four Virginia beaches,

During the afternoon survey, we count 12 balloons. 

That’s 12 balloons over a stretch of beach about 700 feet long on an undeveloped island at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

A specific part of the work that Register and Trapani are doing – currently unfunded and fueled only by their collective passion – is the Virginia Balloon Study project. They’re trying to raise awareness of the problem through education and citizen science.  Anyone can participate, says Trapani.  If you find a balloon – even a fragment, even just the nub with maybe the ribbon attached – you can help by providing this information via the project’s website.

Marine debris – over 70 percent of which is plastic -- is a growing problem, one that has many researchers trying to understand the scope and impacts. Plastics do break down in the ocean eventually – but these micro bits of plastics are found in seabirds and marine organisms, disrupting digestion, growth, and possibly the entire marine food web.

Driving back to my home in Charlottesville the next day, I heard a story on marine plastics on NPR’s show, All Things Considered.

Marine biologist Richard Thompson of Plymouth University in England described the growing problem, reminding us that it is not plastics per se that are the problem – it’s what happens to the plastic bottles, containers, strapping, tape, signs, and balloons when these things are no longer useful and are discarded or inadvertently dispersed.

That’s where Virginia’s “trashy ladies” come in – and the work they’re doing to keep plastics and other debris out of waterways.

And that’s where we all can have a part in the solution. 

Along with that special shell, I can always pick up an item or two of trash on whatever beach or shoreline I am combing this summer.

If it’s a balloon, I can log my discovery with the Virginia Balloon Study.

And, then, dispose of it properly.



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About Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Read more articles by Leslie Middleton


By submitting a comment, you are consenting to these Rules of Conduct. Thank you for your civil participation. Please note: reader comments do not represent the position of Chesapeake Media Service.

Bee on June 19, 2014:

Unfortunately, picking up trash will not solve the problem. The tide of trash must be stopped at the source. We need bottle deposit laws, plastic bag fees/bans, and other programs and policies that eliminate single-use plastics.

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