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The mystery of Kitsap's trash - Olympic College professor researches where beach debris comes from and how to prevent it from washing ashore

Olympic College geography professor Susan Digby unearths a teddy bear on the Dyes Inlet shore near Old Mill Park in Silverdale. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Olympic College geography professor Susan Digby unearths a teddy bear on the Dyes Inlet shore near Old Mill Park in Silverdale.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

Susan Digby found two little feet jetting out from a dense pile of wet twigs on the beach near Old Mill Park on Monday.

“Will you look at that,” she said.

She pulled at one of the feet until the entire body surfaced, revealing a brown teddy bear wearing a Santa Claus costume. She propped it in a sitting position near a plastic crate, also washed up on the beach in Silverdale.

“I wonder who that belongs to,” Digby said, gesturing toward the bear. “See, there’s a history behind all these things.”

Finding these objects’ history has been part of Digby’s work for the past three years. As an Olympic College geography professor, she leads monthly beach clean-ups with students at Old Mill Park. They catalog the collected items in an effort to find a pattern to where beach debris comes from. The data is sent to the Ocean Conservancy, which tracks the garbage found at thousands of sites throughout the world.

“Where this stuff comes from is a bit of a mystery,” Digby said. “What’s clear is there’s lots of it and it doesn’t belong here.”

The accumulation of trash at Old Mill Park tells the story of the paths Kitsap’s waterlogged waste takes. Storms push debris from the Bremerton area north through the Port Washington Narrows and up to Dyes Inlet, making it a catch-all for Bremerton and Silverdale’s marine garbage.

“It’s sort of like the end of a sock where all the lint collects,” Digby said.

Digby combed the beach just weeks after the most recent student clean-up and found bottles, straws, a glowstick, a lighter and numerous rubber and tennis balls, likely neglected by dogs.

“This was all clean two weeks ago,” she said.

She picked up fishing nets and a light bulb to throw away.

“It’s really a puzzle,” Digby said. “How does this light bulb get here?”

The trash accounts for pollution that can be seen, but the Kitsap Health Department regularly closes Silverdale Waterfront Park to swimming and warns people not to touch the water, especially following heavy rains that wash bacteria into the inlet.

For more visible pollution, the biggest problem on the beach is the amount of styrofoam piled up on the shore, broken off from floating docks. It ranges from four-foot-long chunks to miniscule bits ingrained in the organic matter, impossible for students to extract. The smaller pieces especially can be ingested by marine life mistaking it for food, Digby said.

Teresa Brooks was one of the students who participated in the most recent clean-up and took her 15-year-old and 13-year-old daughters along. She said the project was an eye-opening experience for all three of them.

“You kind of knew that there was garbage, but once you went out there and picked it up, it seemed more real,” Brooks said. “It made you think about, when you find the item, the history behind it.”

Digby can identify the source os some of the debris, namely missile labels and other items from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

“Materials we get from the shipyard are the only things that we can say, ‘A-ha, we know where they come from,’” she said.

The shipyard has used “best management practices” for several years to help prevent water pollution and debris from entering the Puget Sound, according to information provided by shipyard officials.

As for the rest, one can never be sure, she said. It could be tossed by cars driving nearby on Bucklin Hill Road, washed on shore or blown by the wind from unsecured garbage bins. Part of Digby’s mission is to find how different kinds of debris gets there so it can be reduced.

Kitsap County Water Quality Manager Mindy Fohn said Kitsap’s water quality has improved in recent years, thanks in part to efforts by the county to encourage commercial property owners to regularly clean and maintain their stormwater drains.

Fohn didn’t realize how severe the problem of beach debris was until she went out to the beach with Digby.

“It opened my eyes to the issue of commercial debris,” she said.

In 2004, the county started inspecting commercial storm drains every two years to ensure they were clean enough to effectively filter the water being funneled out to the Puget Sound. Since 2008, inspections have been made annually.

“Property owners have made the connection between clean stormwater and clean water running into the bay,” Fohn said. “And they do their part.”

The county also confronts property owners about messy dumpster areas and loading docks, which contribute to beach debris when the wind blows garbage away.

In the last five years, Central Kitsap water quality has improved, Fohn said, adding that bacteria levels have decreased in Clear Creek, Strawberry Creek and Dyes Inlet.

The county is also in the process of formulating a stormwater retrofit plan, which would include the construction of rain gardens and permeable pavements that would act as additional filters for storm water. The countywide plan is expected to be finished by the end of the year, Fohn said.

Additionally, the county has been using new high efficiency street sweeper machines that suck up more of the smaller plastics and toxic metals that would otherwise find their way to the Puget Sound and be potentially ingested by animals.

In addition to helping marine life, reducing debris helps human health and the local economy, as well, Digby said.

“We live in an area that’s really so beautiful and beauty has an economic value,” she said. “Keeping it clean is good for our physical and mental well-being.”

There are also several unknown effects, such as how plastic ingested by fish might affect humans that eat the fish, Digby said.

Despite the seemingly never-ending stream of garbage washing up on the shores of Dyes Inlet, Digby is optimistic that Kitsap can find a way to reduce beach waste. She will present her findings at an American Association of Geography conference in Seattle this spring.

“If we all can contribute, we can all be a part of the solution,” she said.

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