OCEAN PARK, Wash. — Most of the people who participated in last year’s annual July 5 beach cleanup tossed their bags of soggy Independence Day litter into the dumpsters. But environmental activist Ellen Anderson took her trash home, sorted it into tubs and buckets, and analyzed the contents.
Anderson is concerned about an issue that has special significance on the Peninsula, where thousands of visitors come to take part in the annual no-holds-barred Fourth of July celebration: The environmental damage caused by certain types of fireworks. She says one popular type of device, Saturn Missile Batteries, creates more plastic garbage than all the others put together — garbage that can pollute water and soil and harm aquatic animals.
For the last several years, she and the other members of her group, Environmentally Friendly Fireworks, have been trying to get policymakers and citizens to understand that this plastic litter can continue hurting the planet long after the party is over.
On June 11, Anderson laid a collection of tubs and buckets out in the garage of her beach-front Ocean Park home. A small pail was filled with flashy packaging and bits of rope. Other tubs contained bulky plastic and cardboard bases in a variety of shapes. Several others contained colorful collections of plastic propellers, tubes, wings, spinners, and caps.
“I’m sure I’m the only one who collects this,” Anderson laughed.
There’s one collection that Anderson finds especially troublesome: The shoebox-sized container that holds more than 1,500 bits of plastic shrapnel collected from a roughly one-mile stretch of beach in a single day last year.
These bits are the byproduct of Saturn Missile Batteries, a common type of aerial firework consisting of a cardboard base packed with anywhere from 25 to more than 1,000 “shots” — small gray plastic tubes filled with explosive powder.
When an SMB is detonated, each of those tubes shoots into the air with a shrill whistle, shatters apart and falls back to earth, creating a shower of litter that’s hard for even the best-intentioned reveler to clean up. Unlike colorful caps and wings, the dull gray or green SMB litter blends into sand and soil. With partiers across the state detonating thousands of SMBs in the week around Independence Day, it quickly becomes apparent just how much garbage is literally raining down on the Evergreen State.
After setting of a single medium-sized SMB, “You’ll have 297 of these that are scattered all over,” Anderson explained, sifting her hand through the box. “You’ll never ever close to getting the total number that get blown up, because you can’t see them.”
Anderson insists that she is not anti-fireworks or anti-fun. If someone manufactured plastic-free fireworks, she says might buy them herself. But she points out that, in some cases, manufacturing standards for fireworks are too outdated or vague to address the problems caused by plastic components. She wants legislators to restrict or prohibit SMBs, and she hopes to convince consumers to stop buying them.
“If we don’t get serious about how we reduce [plastics] we’re really leaving a legacy that’s for the worse for all the generations,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of like patriotic pollution of our oceans. I don’t get that!”
Little pieces, big consequences
The thousands of plastic bits certainly make the beach look bad July 5, but Anderson says the ugly litter is the least of it. Over time, plastics break down into tiny pieces, called “microplastics” that can disperse widely in water or soil. Those microplastics are then absorbed and stored in animals’ bodies, where they can release harmful chemicals. Animals and humans who subsist on seafood can end up with high concentrations of toxic substances in their systems as a result.
Animals can also be injured when they get tangled up or cut by plastic garbage, or mistake it for food and eat it.
In 2007, Anderson was walking on a path near her house, when she spotted a flash of bright red in the dune grass. When she parted the grass, she found the carcass of a northern fulmar, a type of sea-bird. She was shocked to see that its digestive tract was full of chunks of plastic.
“I cried. I just stood there and cried,” Anderson recalled. “I was so stunned. And then I really got involved in trying to understand plastics in our oceans.”
It was hardly an isolated incident — a Google image search for “northern fulmar plastic” instantly produces dozens of disturbing images of birds that died after mistaking plastic for food.
“They dive for it and consume it, and then it’s too late,” Anderson explained.
A considerable cause
Anderson has dedicated considerable time and energy to this and other local environmental causes. After she and her husband retired from the Seattle area several years ago, they decided to make their home in Ocean Park. Anderson serves on the board of the Wildlife Center of the North Coast, and helped to found the “Grassroots Garbage Gang,” along with Shelley Pollack.
She still volunteers for GGG, which sponsors three well-attended annual cleanups, including the one on July 5. But she started Environmentally Friendly Fireworks so she could do political work related to plastics in the environment without distracting from GGG’s mission. The group consists of a handful of locals who help with outreach efforts.
Citing health, safety and fire hazards, many states have already banned consumer fireworks or prohibited certain types. Idaho, Oregon and California only allow so-called “Safe and Sane” (nonaerial) fireworks, and Arizona has banned almost every type. But Washington allows virtually all types of consumer fireworks.
M-80s/M-100s, firecrackers skyrockets, salutes, chasers and bottle rockets are specifically prohibited under state law, but many of these are readily available on reservations, where the rules are different. Cities and counties can pass laws or ordinances that place additional restrictions on fireworks, but Pacific County has not chosen to do so.
Anderson says her efforts to win over legislators yield a variety of reactions.
“I’m surprised at how many of them write back to me and say, I had no idea there’s plastics in fireworks!” Anderson said. A few say placing restrictions on SMBs on fireworks would impose on their constituents’ freedom.
Others insist that it’s not their problem, because the cities in their own district don’t allow aerial fireworks. Anderson says this misses the point, since neither fireworks, nor the damage they cause, stay in the district where they were purchased.
“I want to tell them, ‘Do you think that this is the end of it? Do you think waterways don’t travel through your jurisdiction on the way to the ocean?’ These things float wonderfully,” Anderson said.
So far, the groups’ victories have been small.
“More people know,” Anderson said. She understands it will take patience and time to get people — especially lawmakers — interested in such an under-recognized issue.
“They’re not going to do anything if they don’t know about it. So the first big issue is making sure people realize,” Anderson said.