LONG BEACH PENINSULA, Wash. — 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 money 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.