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All I remember learning in school about waste was to look for the little arrow triangle to know if something is recyclable and to cut up the plastic rings soda cans came in so dolphins didn’t get them caught on their noses. We didn’t see what washes up on beaches after storms, we didn’t see what gets caught in grasses and other plants, and we didn’t see what people toss astray out of pure laziness and apathy. There was no stress on the true monumental scale of the waste problem, but based on our regular walks on a 2-mile stretch of beach on the relatively remote Hatteras Island 20 years later, it should have been a critical piece of our curriculum.

We moved out to the island across the street from beach access excited to live 30 seconds from the sea, but our strolls for shells and sunsets quickly turned into sessions combing the sand for stray trash. And not just forgotten beach toys or stepped-on sunglasses–we regularly find the following seven hugely wasteful items perforating the national seashore at the high tide line or strangling the delicate dune grasses. All of these items are things we can all easily get rid of forever, and one in particular will surprise you.

STRAWS

We are better than straws. Humans are perfectly capable of getting a drink into our mouths without the use of a cheap plastic cylinder, but if you need some extra convincing to give them up, watch this video of what happens when a sea turtle encounters one. If going without a straw is simply not an option for you, swap the disposable kind for a durable glass reusable straw.

POLYSTYRENE

Polystyrene, better known by its brand name Styrofoam, is that flimsy white junk that crumbles like a sugar wafer and flies away in the wind. We find it most often in takeout containers, cups and packing material. But why? We have plenty of durable and more cost-effective options for each of these purposes: stainless steel food containers, lids that turn any glass jar into a travel tumbler, and compostable starch-based packing peanuts, to name a few.

SINGLE-USE WRAPPERS

Candy bars, chips, cookies, crackers. The things that come in single-serve wrappers are typically just as bad for you as their wrappers are for the ecosystems they end up in. Instead of reaching for the excessively-packaged junk, opt for snacks with organic, often edible wrapping (fruits and veggies) or make something to carry with you in a reusable container, like granola or a protein smoothie.

DISPOSABLE DININGWARE

Starting to see a trend? Disposable cutlery, plates, napkins and cups are some of the worst things we find, not because of the sheer volume (though we do find a lot), but because by the time we pick them up, they’re shredded and broken into shards. The more a piece of litter gets broken down into smaller and smaller bits, the harder it is for humans to catch but the more edible it looks to wildlife. Despite what its marketers would have you believe, disposable dining ware is not more convenient than its reusable counterparts. Nesting steel containers, a set of bamboo cutlery and upcycled fabric napkins will pay for themselves hundreds of times over in time and money you would have spent buying disposables over and over–and the value to the environment is immeasurable.

DRINK BOTTLES AND CAPS

These two items are made to go together, yes, but that doesn’t mean they stay together. Caps are the most common item we find, so it’s no wonder they’re also so commonly found in the stomachs of sea birds. Bottles are no better; They break down, become separated from their redundant plastic labels, and drift astray. What these bottle contain is just as wasteful–we do not need sports drinks or diet soda or sugared up fruit juices. All we really need is clean water, which we can get from a tap and bring anywhere in a reusable bottle, filtered if needed.

PLASTIC BAGS

Here on the Outer Banks, we’re lucky enough to have a plastic bag ban requiring all stores 5,000 square feet or larger and stores with five or more locations to use exclusively paper bags made from 100% recycled materials and/or reusable shopping bags. But that doesn’t mean our beaches aren’t free from plastic bags. We still find grocery bags left by tourists or swept here by the tide, and far more frequently we find their nasty relatives: sandwich and snack bags, bait bags, freezy pop tubes, and trash bags, to name a few. Unless it’s a biohazard, anything can be stored and carried in a non-disposable bag, like an adjustable juco sandwich bag, a mesh produce bag, and a canvas tote.

BALLOONS AND POLYPROPELENE (PLASTIC) RIBBON

Surprised? Balloons aren’t exactly something we use on a regular basis, but the amount of ribbon and balloons we pick up every single day would shock you. Often, just a small curl of the ribbon is visible above the sand, blending in with the wild grass. But here’s what those small bits are usually attached to:

If this gnarly knot of ribbon and rope and fishing line isn’t bad enough, popped balloons look strikingly similar to jellyfish, regularly deceiving species that eat jellyfish and subsequently clogging their intestines and causing them to slowly starve to death. There are no sustainable alternatives to balloons, not even those that say they are biodegradable, but what do we need balloons for in the first place? Nothing. Instead of birthday balloons, make reusable recycled paper pinwheels, giant flowers, banners or any of the other thousands of DIY ideas on Pinterest. Instead of a memorial or celebratory balloon release, plant a garden. Balloons may be fun in the moment, but their long-lasting implications are anything but. And if you need ribbon, skip the plastic crap and opt for cute cotton bakers twine instead.

 

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS

It’s worth mentioning some other common offenders we find and how we can stop them from ending up as litter and marine debris:

  • Glow sticks – Just stop using them.
  • Tampon applicators – No judgement here if tampons are your preferred menstrual care method. Consider these alternative ways to green your period.
  • Beer cans and bottles – Recycle them, or turn the bottles into reusable glasses, candle jars, or flower vases.
  • Beach toys – Limit the toys you bring to the beach and make sure they all leave the beach with you, consider wooden or biodegradable alternatives, or don’t bring any at all!
  • Shoes and parts of shoes – Take these off the beach when you leave and recycle what you can.
  • Fishing line, lures, bobbers and weights – Ensure your gear isn’t prone to breaking, and bring everything off the beach that you bring onto it.
  • Baby wipes – Be mindful not to let these blow away in the wind, and consider compostable wipes or reusable wipes.
  • Unidentifiable plastic piecesDitch plastic entirely.

 

This suffocating problem has a simple solution: eliminate waste at its source, and when you see debris, pick it up. Making a few easy swaps in your product choices will not only turn the tide on waste, it will save you tons of time and money. And for the litter that does end up astray, take initiative in stopping its harm to the environment by picking it up and recycling it or disposing of it properly.

Leaving a place greener than when you arrived is wonderfully simple and simply wonderful.

READ NEXT: Trash is for Tossers: Living and Traveling with Zero Waste

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