NORTH LINCOLN COUNTY — Refuse of all shapes and sizes can end up in local waterways, and from there it is often washed out to sea. If not for the watchful eye of two Lincoln County residents, several hundred pounds of Styrofoam could have done just that over the weekend.
Neighbors Ken Sund and Tom Gory live on the Salmon River and do their best to keep the banks clean of garbage when tides permit.
“I’ve always done beach cleanups. It’s a healthy activity, and these days it’s one of the few COVID-free activities you can do and you don’t really need to be a part of any big organization,” Sund said. “Since we were kids, me and my brother would clean up local beaches in exchange for free milkshakes from concession stands.”
Sund recently noticed a particularly large piece of debris — a defunct dock, which Gory suspects was from a burned down property further up the river. It had broken free and was headed downstream toward the ocean. Knowing that such docks were often kept afloat by large pieces of Styrofoam, Sund intercepted the drifting structure and pulled it to shore before contacting Gory.
“There was no identification on the structure, and from what we could tell it was a really old system,” Sund said. “I believe new regulations don’t even allow for unsealed floats on docks. I believe the new ones need to be sealed, which are way more environmentally friendly.”
The two then dismantled the dock during the next two days, taking around eight decaying 50-pound floats home on an aluminum boat and a canoe to be properly disposed of later.
“They’re pretty heavy, and after two days of pulling them out and hauling them up the hill, it’s pretty tiring work,” Sund said. “It’s not so much the dead weight, it’s the clumsiness of their size. They aren’t flexible like, say, a mattress.”
Sund said that if left alone, large pieces of Styrofoam such as this break down over time, and little by little, pieces end up all over the river and later the ocean. He added that too much debris isn’t good for the long-term health of the river.
“I’m not a marine biologist scientist, but I do read, and this isn’t good for the health of our coastal rivers here in Oregon,” Sund said. “If I can work with my neighbors like this and clean it up before it gets to the ocean, I feel like I’ve done at least a little bit to help towards the future.”
Sund is now looking for somewhere to properly dispose of the floats like he does the other garbage he’s found, which he and Gory pull out in large amounts. Some of the most common items are tires. The two suspect they’ve collected around 250 tires within the one-mile radius around their homes.
Aside from that, they say plastic bottles, beer cans and Styrofoam shrimp containers are very common items they pluck from the waters and bank.
“We’ve got just a huge pile off junk we’ve pulled out of the river,” Gory said. “When I was a kid, no one wanted to recycle, and they’d just dump it. But now, a lot of that stuff is coming back up out of the sand.”
“This all becomes a part of the environment and eventually makes its way to the sea, which I think probably has enough junk in it already,” Sund said. “That’s the way I try to capture it, so it doesn’t get to the ocean.”
Sund doesn’t do cleanup work as a part of a larger organization, but encourages people who are interested to do so. He pointed to Oregon groups like SOLVE as a good place to start.
“I just do my own thing. If you wait around for Earth Day, then the grass can grow up, and you can’t see these things. If you follow the king tides though, the debris floats into the estuaries and stuff is left high and dry — that’s when I like to attack it,” Sund said. “I can paddle my canoe out into the meadows and just pick stuff up off the top of the grass where it’s visible.”
Sund did caution anyone who might be looking to do waterway cleanup like he does, noting that it takes experience and knowledge of water safety to do so properly.
“I wouldn’t promote it unless you really know what you’re doing,” Sund said. “I’m a sea kayaker and sea kayak surfer, so I’m familiar with cold water and how fast moving streams are. So I wouldn’t advocate anyone do anything like this if you don’t know water safety. Instead, tie into a local group when they announce a cleanup.”
Both Gory and Sund noted that Newport would be considering a Styrofoam ban soon. While they both advocated for a similar measure in Lincoln City, the two voiced a desire for a countywide ban to help cut down the amount they have to end up pulling from the river. Newport was scheduled for its first hearing to consider such a ban Tuesday night, but it will be a while before a measure comes up for a vote.
“It’s mostly Styrofoam cups and other things, restaurant stuff and that wouldn’t apply to these floats, but its a good start,” Gory said. “You have people doing bobber fishing with shrimp containers sitting on the bank, losing or leaving things on the bank. If it was paper instead, it would deteriorate quickly, but plastic doesn’t. The amount we pull out is really unbelievable.”
For those looking to get involved in cleanup events, SOLVE has a searchable directory of events online at www.solveoregon.org.