Sifting sand for marine life

UC Irvine professor teaches sixth-graders how to comb beach sand for plastic, which kills sea birds and fish.

March 11, 2010|By Tom Ragan

Turtles often mistake floating plastic bags in the ocean for jellyfish, and they eat them in their entirety.

Sea birds think those tiny blue beads of pre-manufactured plastic are actually fish eggs, and they swallow them whole. Their digestive systems can’t take it, and the creatures end up starving to death.

The end result is dead fish and more dead sea birds as plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean mounts.

As many as 1 million sea birds die each year and up to 100,000 sea turtles die from the consumption of plastic, that inanimate object that has frustrated environmentalists for decades.


More than a dozen sixth-graders at Lincoln Elementary School took in such facts at a special after-school gathering Wednesday at Crystal Cove Park — courtesy of the Crystal Cove Alliance and UC Irvine professor Bill Cooper.

There, the students took samples of sand from the beach, then sifted the grains for plastic, learning all about how scientists quantify the volume of plastic along a 3-mile strip of beach like Crystal Cove State Park.

It’s something Cooper happens to be an expert at, and it’s relatively easy: You measure one square meter of sand where there’s a lot of plastic, then measure another area where there is very little. The difference becomes the average.

The kids caught on quickly. They helped shovel centimeters of sand into a bucket, where they later sifted it for plastic.

Cooper and his assistant, Tova Handelman, made the special appearance as part of Crystal Cove Alliance’s last in a series of school programs that seek to join university intellectuals with the classroom — in this case Rebecca Westover, a science specialist at Lincoln Elementary.

“This will get them involved in real research, and it’s not often that you can actually get it from the university level,” she said as the sixth-graders started to show up on the beach Wednesday.

A week ago, as a sort of primer to the field trip, Handelman briefed the children on the concept of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is where garbage that winds up in the Pacific Ocean collects.

In some cases, the plastic and the trash makes its way into the ocean from as far as the Southwest, winding up in the greatest concentrations near the Hawaiian Islands, she said, adding that the waste catches rides to the ocean via various water ways and tributaries that lead the sea.

“It’s hard to believe that a small piece of plastic particle can fly off a train or from some factory a thousand miles away and wind up in the ocean, but that’s what happens,” Hendelman said.

The moral of the story, of course, is to recycle, and recycle well. But for the day, the lesson plan was to see real live research at work, as presented by Handelman and Cooper, director of UCI’s Urban Water Research Center.

Harry Helling, president of the Crystal Cove Alliance, said he’s happy the alliance could offer the after-school programs, which have been going on for four months now.

“All these kids are here and they don’t have to be,” he said. “They volunteered their time after school to learn about the environment. They’ll probably remember this for the rest of their lives.”

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