ANACORTES — While the sun warmed the sand and gravel beach along Ship Harbor, Port of Anacortes staff and community volunteers searched among the pebbles, dried seaweed and nearby bushes for trash.
“Look at this, how small it is. I just saw it because it’s blue,” volunteer Cathy Hannah said as she held up a dime-size piece of shiny, sharp-edged plastic in the palm of her red-gloved hand.
Hannah and her grandchildren, 7-year-old Mario Westcott and 9-year-old Sienna Westcott, were among those equipped with gloves, “picker-upper” tongs and trash bags for the Earth Day event.
“When we first started, I found a dirty wet wipe,” Sienna shared mid-cleanup. Mario said he found a bit of rubber, too.
The port invited community members to three Anacortes beaches — Ship Harbor, Railroad Avenue and N Avenue — along north Fidalgo Island between the port’s marina and the state’s ferry terminal for the Earth Day cleanup.
“We wanted to hit some places with good public access, but didn’t want to just be self-serving by doing our own marina,” Port of Anacortes Executive Director Dan Worra said while visiting the N Avenue site.
Here and at the nearby Railroad Avenue beach, retired Anacortes Police Chief Bonnie Bowers led a group with port commissioners and staff, and three girls from a local Brownies troop. Bowers said they found mostly plastics — a material of growing, global environmental concern — along the shoreline.
Back at Ship Harbor, Hannah, the Westcott children and the rest of that group recovered items including bits of Styrofoam large and small, to-go cups with Pepsi and Starbucks labels, a beer bottle, a metal bottle cap, a bright pink straw, and many bits of cigarettes, plastic and twine.
“If it doesn’t belong on the beach, let’s pick it up and throw it away,” Brian Tottenham of Anacortes Parks & Recreation said, giving examples by holding his fingers less than an inch apart “whether it’s this big” and then his arms fully outstretched “or this big.”
The largest item recovered during the cleanup was an about 3-by-8 foot piece of plywood boards held together with nails and bolts. The smallest were like the blue bit of plastic Hannah recovered, with others found in shades of yellow and red.
Those items are particularly concerning because they can break down over time into microplastics so small they are difficult to see. That makes them harder to clean up, and also makes it easier for marine wildlife to mistake the plastic for bits of food — putting the animals’ health in danger.
“Imagine if you had a mouthful of sand and you thought it was a mouthful of Honey Nut Cheerios,” said Kevin Anderson, the port’s environmental specialist. “It’s not going to do anything for you.”
The Port of Anacortes has in the past partnered with Friends of Skagit Beaches’ Trail Tales program and the Skagit Marine Resources Committee on Earth Day and other environmentally focused events. After broad cancelations of such events in 2020, the port decided to forge its own plan this year.
“As a manager of shorelines and part of the community, the port wanted to celebrate Earth Day in a meaningful way,” Anderson said.
Spacing the event across three locations was meant to improve the ability to adhere to public health distancing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to make a broader impact on local shorelines.
“Beaches are really dynamic. Every few hours or so the tide can bring new stuff up, so you never know what you’ll find,” Anderson said.
BEYOND THE BEACH CLEANUP
Off the beaches and behind the scenes, the Port of Anacortes is taking other new steps to protect the environment.
Anderson said the port recently partnered with Puget Sound Energy to move port operations — which consume about 270 households-worth of electricity each year — to 100% renewable power sources such as solar, wind and biogas.
“It’s not insignificant,” Anderson said, pointing to Guemes Island across the water and comparing it’s about 300 households to the port’s electricity use.
The switch took effect in mid-March through PSE’s Green Power Program. It will reduce the port’s carbon footprint by about 3.5 million pounds of emissions each year.
“The cost for the carbon reduction was minimal,” Anderson said. “We pay a small monthly markup.”
The city of Anacortes recently increased its use of renewable energy through a PSE program as well, and discussions continue to grow on local and international scales about the need to transition from fossil fuels like gasoline and natural gas to renewable energy sources in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global climate change.
On Earth Day, President Joe Biden began a two-day Climate Summit to address the issue with world leaders. The Associated Press reported that Biden, who campaigned on promises for a high-employment, climate-saving technological transformation of the U.S. economy, pledge to halve the nation’s emissions by 2030 compared to levels seen in 2005.
The internationally recognized Environmental Law Institute released a statement about the need for and challenge of achieving an overall energy transition.
“The objective cuts against currents of the Industrial Age that have become ingrained in our social fabric, economic order, and everyday lives,” the statement reads. It “will require meaningful change in most aspects of economic activity in this country and in our basic systems for powering our homes, offices and mobility.”
Earth Day began in 1970 amid a U.S. landscape where polluted rivers caught fire, and the event pre-dated the passage of the landmark Clean Water and Clean Air acts. In decades that followed, attention turned to a less visible threat: climate change spurred by the amassing of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as they floated from smokestacks and sputtered from tailpipes.
Scientists and government leaders say action is needed now to address the climate change crisis.
“As we mark the second half-century of Earth Day, we have much to celebrate and much, much more to do,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in an Earth Day statement. “Our air and waters are cleaner, more of America’s remaining wildlands are protected, and many American businesses are championing environmental causes. But none of that progress will matter unless we address the looming climate crisis.”
Cantwell said she supports Biden’s latest emissions reduction goal and will work in the Senate — particularly as chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee — to encourage additional steps toward an energy transition.
“We must also make progress on advancing sustainable fuel sources to help decarbonize our transportation system, support electrification where it makes sense, and invest in climate science to drive technological solutions,” she said.
U.S. Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., also released a statement in support of emissions reductions.
“When it comes to the climate crisis, inaction is not an option,” Murray said.