Only You Can Prevent Beach Trash

Last updated on February 11, 2024.

Trash with the words "100% Leakproof" on it
“100% Leakproof.” Photo by Marie Cullis.

In my recent article about my trip to Hilton Head Island and its environmental consciousness, I mentioned that the beaches are really clean and well-maintained. Even with their efforts, I still picked up about 300 pieces of trash during my week there. Of course, I logged these into my Litterati app.

I thought I could put the images of my trash to good use, to show people how they can prevent beach and ocean pollution!

I bet you already know a lot about this. But if you share this article, it might enlighten others who will then use preventative measures. And then the world could be a less polluted place!

“Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic.” -National Geographic1

Common Types of Beach Trash

I noticed that the same types of trash commonly appear on beaches all over the country. So I’ve divided this article into sections based on the common types of trash I’ve found.

Image of a Plastic water bottle in the surf with a blue label.
Plastic water bottle almost in the surf. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Plastic drink bottles and caps

These are the most common items I pick up EVERYWHERE, and not just on beaches. Our love affair with drinks in single-use disposable plastic bottles and cups (I’m including styrofoam in this classification because styrofoam is chemically a plastic) is completely out of control. I even picked a red Solo cup that I used to collect cigarette butts and microplastics! I picked up many single-use disposable drink items like these:

What can you do?

Buy a reusable drink container (or two) and use that for all your liquid refreshments. I have two: a Kleen Kanteen for water; and a Hydroflask coffee cup. They handle pretty much everything.

If you must buy a beverage, please dispose of it properly.

Food and snack wrappers

I find this type of litter on the beach (and everywhere else) very often. This includes food wrappers, containers, zipper bags, etc. Below is an image of a washed-up cannonball jellyfish next to the plastic lid of a cylindric chip container.

Plastic bottle cap next to a washed up jellyfish.
Plastic lid next to a washed-up jellyfish. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Here are some additional examples of food and snack wrappers:

What can you do?

Follow the saying, “Leave it cleaner than you found it.” Or “carry in, carry out.” Don’t lose track of your trash and disposables. Put them inside your beach bag until you can find a proper trash can. You can also consume less prepackaged food, which will be better for your health as well.

Beach Toys

This is one item that is particular to beaches but so easily preventable. Children scatter and lose their things easily, and almost all beach toys are made of plastic. When people leave these items on the beach, they go straight into the ocean during high tide.

Toy pink crab sand toy.
Photo by Marie Cullis.
A toy buried in the sand.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

You can see how easily small toys are overlooked in the next image. Can you guess what that is?

A toy car buried in the sand.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

If you guessed a toy car, you’ve got a good eye!

Here are some other examples of left behind or broken toys:

Yellow plastic toy boat.
We found this and my son named it “Mr. Boat.” We kept this one and donated the rest. Photo by Marie Cullis.

In particular, we found multiple plastic bucket straps, as they are not usually permanently affixed. These are easily forgotten about but this cheap plastic will make it into the ocean by the next morning.

There are a few brands, such as Green Toys, that feature a rope strap that is not easily removed. The bucket is even made of recycled plastic. It’s the one we own and play with year-round.

What about the packaging for all of those beach toys?

A plastic net bag that the plastic beach toys were sold in.
A plastic net bag that the plastic beach toys were sold in, from American Plastic Toys Inc. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Below are images of a discarded boogie board left at a wash station near the beach. I’d seen these little styrofoam balls lining parts of the beach and I couldn’t figure out what they were from. I did not manage to get a good photo of them. Once I found this broken board and looked at it closely, I could see that these cheap boards were simply nylon or polyester fabric (fabrics made from plastics) over styrofoam. You could not make a worse product for the beach – a product meant to be used in the water that is made of cheap materials and not meant to last more than one vacation – WOW.

Please don’t buy these. This one made it into a proper trash can, but how many end up in the ocean?

What about the dog’s toys? These can be easily lost. And yes, they are made of plastics and other synthetics.

A yellow tennis ball made by Kong.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

What can you do?

The best thing you can do is to not leave beach toys behind. The best way to keep track of your children’s toys is simply to own less of them. Perhaps just one bucket and one shovel, for example. In general, kids don’t need many toys when playing outdoors to stay entertained and engaged. Besides the sand and water, the beach offers so many shells, sticks, seaweed, and other washed-up items that kids are curious about and love to experiment with.

Place broken toys in your beach bag immediately so that you don’t accidentally leave them behind.

As for dog toys, how about throwing a stick for Fido instead of a ball or plastic Frisbee?

Items related to smoking

This is another common item I find everywhere and not just at the beach. Corporations make cigarette butts out of synthetic materials that do not biodegrade. Plastic lighters are found in the stomachs of birds and marine animals. Honestly, I used to smoke a long time ago and I sometimes threw cigarette butts on the ground. I had no idea how bad they were for the environment. I pick them up regularly now as part of my Litterati mission, as I feel like I owe the environment for this terrible habit I used to have.

Cigarette lighter lying in the ocean's surf.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

I gathered dozens of cigarette butts and several lighters on the beach, here are a few examples:

I also picked up plastic tips from Swisher Sweets, a brand of inexpensive flavored tip cigarillos.

What can you do?

Don’t smoke! But if you do, can you please discard your waste properly?

Straws

Aren’t straws like so last year?

No, not really. Not yet. Despite straw bans in different parts of the world.

Everywhere we went in Hilton Head served straws, sometimes automatically in the drink. I’m not criticizing the Island for this, because it happens in my town too. But I hope all eateries eventually end this practice. The exception was the Watusi Cafe on Pope Avenue, which served paper straws – thank you!!!

What can you do?

Ask the server to not give you a straw before he or she brings your drink. I used to decline the straws when the server would set them down on the table, but since so many places automatically put them in the drink, I try to cut them off at the pass. Once that straw is opened and in a drink, it doesn’t matter whether or not I use it. The restaurant will now trash it.

I don’t use a straw very often anymore, but if I need one, I have my Final Straw.

Plastic Bags

I still found a couple of plastic bags on the beach despite the town’s ban on plastic bags!

White transparent plastic back stuck to dune fencing.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

What can you do?

Decline plastic bags no matter where you live! Bring your own cloth bag.

If you don’t have a bag, can you carry your items without one? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped at a store and purchased one item that the cashier bagged. I don’t need a bag for one item! Give them the bag back right away and say thanks but no thanks!

Many stores do have a paper bag option if you ask for one. If not, they likely have an empty box readily available that you can put your purchases in.

Beach tent/umbrella parts

Many people bring their own beach tents and umbrellas to the beach. But sometimes they leave waste from them. Below you can see where I found a plastic tent stake accidentally left behind and a zip tie of which I found several. The last image is of a full plastic water bottle that someone tied to a nylon string. I found this buried in the sand but the string was sticking out. Once I pulled it out, it was obvious that someone most likely used it as a weight to hold something down. Clever – but forgotten, an immediate pollutant – this would’ve been in the ocean after high tide.

What can you do?

Collect all of the parts to your tents and umbrellas, even if it’s trash. Double-check before you leave that you haven’t forgotten anything.

Everyday Non-Beach items

I find many items on the beach that are not necessarily beach items but items that people use daily. These items include wet wipes or baby wipes (most often not made of anything biodegradable even if the packaging makes that claim); dryer sheets; plastic dental picks; cellophane; condom wrappers; and even a bullet casing (pictured below).

Wet wipe or baby wipe in the sand
Wet wipe or baby wipe. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Wet wipe or baby wipe in the sand
Wet wipe or baby wipe. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Dryer sheet in the sand
Dryer sheet. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Bullet casing on the beach, red plastic.
Bullet Casing. Photo by Marie Cullis.

The most surprising things I’ve ever found on a beach were plastic tampon applicators in the Gulf of Mexico. At first, I thought, there’s no way someone changed their tampon on the beach! But I found not just one, but multiple of these and I’ve also since found them along the Tennessee River. It dawned on me that these items were not left behind by careless beach-goers, but more likely washed up from trash and from sewage disposal that made it into the ocean. It turns out that litter collectors colloquially call these “beach whistles.”

"Beach whistle," or tampon applicator
“Beach whistle,” or tampon applicator. Photo by Marie Cullis.

What can you do?

In general, the best thing you can do is cut down on disposable items, especially single-use disposable plastic items. Even if you’re not leaving these items on the beach, they’re making it onto the beaches and the items are only a portion of what’s washed up from the ocean. Meaning, there’s way more in the ocean.

The answer is to not use disposable items. It isn’t always easy, so just work on solving one problem at a time – that’s what I’m doing and sharing with you on this website!

Beach sunset
Photo by Marie Cullis.

Thanks for reading, please subscribe in the box above. Love your beaches and ocean. And keep being the change!

 

Footnote:

  1. Education page, “You Can Help Turn the Tide on Plastic. Here’s How,” National Geographic, June 2018.

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