Crew cleans up debris on Washington peninsula

LONG BEACH PENINSULA (AP) — They didn’t sign up to pick up trash. But the four-man crew working the Willapa Bay area in search of marine debris is making lemonade out of lemons — or in their case, out of the plastic foam, plastic bottles and boots that are washing up every day.

Although they can’t say for sure that the debris is related to the March 2011 tsunami in Japan, things with Japanese writing and other Asia-specific items such as purple plastic foam, have come to shore in the last three weeks while the crew has been working.

Other items are being cleaned up, as well — Mountain Dew bottles, Capri Sun pouches and other domestic litter items, including an Oregon Department of Corrections prison ID card.

“All of us feel good when we can fill up a truck with what we find,” crew member Aaron Schlosser said. “We all kind of have a ‘high-five’ moment. But it’s a simple thing. None of us signed up to pick up trash, but we’re all really into it right now. It’s simple. But it’s rewarding.”

Todd Brownlee leads the crew as the operations coordinator, a position he’s held for the last 15 years.

Kevin Palmer has been with the department for seven years.

Schlosser and Ian Brauner signed on in May.

The crew works for the Washington Department of Natural Resources invasive species program. It’s seasonal work, and that season has commenced. But funding provided by the department’s aquatic resources fund has given the crew an additional work period to clean up the debris they were finding anyway.

And day by day, from around 6 a.m. until the tide comes in, and again later in the day, the men are out on the banks of the river and the bay collecting everything from toilets to lawn chairs, to bottles of Japanese dish soap and Chinese shampoo.

“I think one of the most interesting things we’ve found is a shampoo bottle,” Brownlee said. “It had washed all the way up into one of the natural area preserves, up one of the rivers that’s within Willapa Bay. It has Chinese writing on it, so we don’t know for sure whether it came from the tsunami. That’s one of the reasons we’re calling it marine debris because it’s very hard to trace everything back to the tsunami.

“It’s kind of like a treasure hunt. We find something new every day.”

When the tide comes in, the crew comes back to the workshop near the Cranberry Museum in Long Beach to sort it into piles — glass bottles, water bottle caps to keep record of how many bottles have been collected, soda cans, other recyclables, and trash.

A lot of trash, still, is local, not from overseas.

“The people who are putting this stuff into the environment, they don’t want the environment to look like this,” Schlosser said. “And I don’t think people consciously say, ‘I want to do this.’ Just be more conscious with what you do. It adds up. This is the net result of it.”

Brownlee added, “Even if they are littering on land, it often finds its way into the waterways.”

The special items that are foreign, however, are deemed unique and placed on the shelf in the shop.

So far, they have collected bottles with Asian writing, a plastic “county bear” container that was made in Japan and a wooden sculpture of a Tiki-style head.

“My gut feeling is that if there had not been a tsunami in Japan people would not be as interested in marine debris, so it gives us an opportunity to educate people as well as secure some funding to … pick up the marine debris,” Brownlee said. “I doubt that if the tsunami hadn’t happened in Japan that … I would have been able to extend my crew to do this project.”

The season has been extended until Nov. 15. When they come back in the spring to work with invasive species, once again the state will provide funding for them to return a month early and focus on marine debris before beginning their regular work.

By that time, many more items from Japan are expected to wash up.

The Washington Department of Ecology has provided the 20-yard trash bins that the crew fills, as well as the garbage bags used for pickup. Brownlee estimates the crew has already filled two and a half of those trash bins and will likely continue to fill another before Nov. 15.

“It’s interesting that these guys want to fill the truck every day,” Brownlee said. “The truck is literally coming back stuffed full with as much as we can get in the truck.”

Schlosser added, “Personally, I feel a sense of urgency. Our season is ending and my opportunity to do this will go away here in a little bit. So the more I can do today, the better off we are. So we’re just trying to get as much as we can.”

Although there is more debris now — and a lot more expected in the next year — some marine debris has always been there in varying amounts.

“Often times when we’re doing our invasive species work, we don’t have the time to pick up this debris. It’s just not feasible to do that,” Brownlee said. “It’s nice to be able to focus on picking up marine debris and that’s been really rewarding. And I think it’s been pretty fun. It’s been a fun project.”

And although the debris continues to wash up — something Schlosser compared to rolling a boulder uphill — Brownlee says the crew members are thankful that they can help the environment, particularly because of the large pieces of plastic foam they are able to collect now, rather than the thousands of tiny pieces they would have to pick up later.

“Every little piece of foam that we pick up has thousands and thousands of little beads in it,” Schlosser said. “When this breaks down, it breaks down into the crumbled aggregate. So every piece of foam that we pick up is one less thing my daughter has to deal with in 50 years.”

It is estimated that 5 million tons of debris was washed into the Pacific Ocean when the tsunami struck the coast of Japan in March 2011. Some 70 percent of the tsunami debris is said to have sunk, but 30 percent is headed for land.

Things that have washed up this year, including a buoy and fish bin on Sunset Beach and a dock in Newport, were driven by what scientists are calling “windage,” meaning they are pushed toward the West coast more by the wind than by the ocean current.

For those interested in helping by cleaning up the marine debris, Brownlee issues a reminder to not pick up wood debris, which is a part of the natural cycle for waterways.

“So stick to garbage,” he said.