Plastic is everywhere in our lives, and unfortunately, much of it ends up in the ocean. Most of the plastic in the ocean comes from municipal storm drains and water that flows from rivers and creeks that all eventually drain into the ocean.  Drop litter on the sidewalk or leave a plastic bottle on the creek bank while hiking and it may end up polluting the ocean. But a significant plastic in the ocean also comes from visitors leaving plastic on the beach which inevitably ends up in the water.  

According to the California Coastal Commission, marine debris is a global pollution problem that impacts human health and safety, endangers wildlife and aquatic habitats, and costs local and national economies millions in cleanup costs, wasted resources, and lost revenues. California residents and tourists love our coast and ocean, making more than 150 million visits to California beaches each year. Any even though most visitors take care to bring their trash home, the plastics that do get left behind add up fast. A recent study found more than 300,000 pieces of plastic per square mile in the North Pacific Central Gyre (sometimes referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

All this debris in the marine environment means hazards for animals and humans. A recent study found documented cases of entanglement or ingestion by marine animals in nearly 1,000 separate species including all known sea turtle species and about half of all marine mammal species. And most of these incidents involved plastic debris like fishing line, strapping bands and six-pack rings which can cause trouble with eating, breathing, and swimming and may have fatal results. And unless the plastic is physically removed, it will remain in the ocean forever. Plastic does not biodegrade and may continue to trap and kill animals year after year.

Birds, fish and mammals can mistake plastic for food. Debris may cause choking and injuries, and with plastic filling their stomachs, animals may have a false feeling of being full and may die of starvation. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. Ingestion of debris has been documented in 56% of cetacean species, including whales. The Laysan albatross is a sea bird that nests in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The adult birds collect colorful plastic debris (along with food) from the ocean to feed to their chicks. In a study of dead chicks during 97.6% were found to contain plastic.


Plastics are the most common form of marine debris. They can come from a variety of land and ocean-based sources; enter the water in many ways; and impact the ocean and Great Lakes. Once in the water, plastic debris never fully biodegrades. Yellow text in the above graphic shows sources of plastic that eventually end up in the ocean. Orange text shows ways that these plastics move into the ocean. Red text provides examples of the harmful impacts of this debris.


Marine debris is not just an issue for the surface of the ocean. Debris is also found on the deep ocean floor. An extensive survey extending down to 4,000 meters off the coast of Monterey found that debris was more common in the deeper parts of Monterey Canyon, below 2,000 feet. Found items included large numbers of plastic bags, as well as metal cans, fishing equipment, glass bottles, shoes, and tires. A study of microplastics in Monterey Bay found particles widespread throughout the water column depth range, with the highest concentration between 200 and 600 meters deep.

Marine debris can present a danger to human health as well. Nails, glass, and syringes on the beach can cause physical harm to beachgoers. Additionally, trash in our waterways can contain harmful chemicals, negatively impacting water quality. Plastic debris serves to concentrate and transport chemical pollutants into the marine food web, and potentially to human diets. A 2015 study of fish and shellfish for sale in markets found 25% of individual fish sampled in California contained human-made items in their digestive tracts. 

Read more here:

What can you do to help?

  • Start with bringing as little plastic to the beach as possible and making sure you keep track of all of it and take it ALL back with you as the trash receptacles are often overwhelmed. Consider ideas like reusable metal water bottles, beach toys made of metal or wood, and take care that plastic wrappers, straws, cigarette butts, etc. do not get blown away or left on the beach. Even consider bringing a pair of gloves and picking up some abandoned plastic -  leave the beach better than you found it!
  • Consider joining an upcoming special event sponsored by Sea Hugger, a local Half Moon Bay nonprofit founded by local Shell Cleave, whose mission is “to educate the public to reduce plastic dependency, while focusing on protecting the marine environment, ensuring the intrinsic rights of aquatic life, and helping create sustainable communities that are no longer affected by plastic pollution”. The family friendly and fun event will be held on Saturday, June 22, 2024 from 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM at Montara Beach.  It will include a beach cleanupbeach volleyball tournamentsand castle competitiongiant bubble station, and more. Details here:
  • Are you up for helping out even more?  Consider participating in California Coastal Cleanup Day on September 21, 2024. Here’s the link:  “California Coastal Cleanup Day has successfully diverted millions of pounds of plastic debris from the ocean, but at the end of the day, this event is about much more than picking up trash. Over the years, the event has created a long-term dataset that describes the prevalence of different types of debris on our beaches and shorelines, which is used by policy makers to shape and monitor the success of plastic pollution prevention efforts. Moreover, it's a chance for Californians to join people around the world in expressing respect for our oceans and waterways, as well as an opportunity for the community to send a statement and demonstrate its desire for clean water and healthy marine life. Finally, it's a moment to share with one's neighbors, family, and friends, coming together to accomplish something vital and worthy on behalf of the places we treasure.”  Here’s a shocking account of what was collected from 1988-2022:


TOP TEN ITEMS 1988-2022



#1. Cigarettes/Cigarette Filters



#2. Food Wrappers/Containers



#3. Caps/Lids



#4. Bags (paper and plastic)



#5. Cups/Plates/Forks, Knives, Spoons



#6. Straws/Stirrers



#7. Beverage Bottles (Glass)



#8. Beverage Bottles (Plastic)



#9. Beverage Cans



#10. Construction Material








And one more step you can consider is to use less plastic and make careful consumer choices.  The more trash we create, the greater the potential for marine debris to result. Questions to ask yourself when shopping: Do you need the item or can you borrow it or buy it secondhand? Is it available with less packing or is it reusable? Is it available in a material other than plastic or is it made from recycled materials?

All of us can help combat the growing crisis of plastic in the ocean with the simple knowledge and steps above.  Our spectacular beaches are our last line of defense.  Help keep them healthy and pristine.  Thank you!!

Article written by Pam Koch​, Coastside State Parks Association Board Member