Beach trash collected during one walk. Photo by David Mickey
Beach trash collected during one walk. Photo by David Mickey

By David Mickey

Ocracoke Island beaches are recognized as among the best in the world.

Ranked fourth in March of this year by an AARP worldwide survey (Ocracoke Observer May 2015 click here), the Lifeguard Beach was first in Dr. Stephen Leatherman’s 2007 ranking of the nation’s best beaches.

Known as “Dr. Beach,” Leatherman is director of The Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University.

His annual ranking of beaches uses “50 Criteria” (click here) to provide a useful scorecard for anyone deciding on a beach destination.

One of Leatherman’s criteria is “Trash and litter (paper, plastics, nets, ropes, planks)” found on the beach during the vacation season.  Other obvious and potential detractors include floating waste, oil and tar balls, glass and rubble.

“Cigarette butts are the number one form of litter on beaches,” he said in a story about this year’s winners in the Tallahassee Democrat. “Plastics–in terms of volume, but in terms of numbers it’s cigarette butts. So I’m giving extra credit for no smoking.”

Until now, previous winners have been retired from the competition.

“I’m going to start all over next year,” Leatherman said.  “This is the end of a 25-year, quarter-century run and every beach is eligible again next year.”

Trash in the ocean doesn’t stay in the ocean.

Pat Garber’s March 2015 Observer article (click here)  noted the estimated 269,000 tons of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.  Currents circulate the plastics and other wastes and trap it in one of the five ocean “gyres,” or huge concentrations of floating debris.

Not all of the trash stays offshore.

Some of it washes up on Ocracoke Island and there it stays until someone picks it up or the next tide washes it back out to sea.

A Turkish ice cream lid, “Rhum Bakara” bottle from Haiti, barnacle-covered lids, bottles, and buckets, fishing gear, toothbrushes, plastic dinnerware, toilet seats and anything discarded at sea or washed downstream can find its way onto the beach.

While Hyde County provides recycling at the Ocracoke drop-off site, options are limited in the seashore.

The Visitors’ Center and the campground have a recycling station but parking areas and beach access ramps do not.  Recyclable cans and bottles not recycled in the village end up in the park’s trashcans.

Cyndy Holda, a Public Affairs Specialist for the Park Service, emphasized their “pack in/pack out” policy that encourages visitors to remove everything brought to the beach.  Ideally visitors would “leave no trace.”

Park Service personnel will remove marine debris and large objects, such as the boat that washed up on the beach in May (Ocracoke Observer, June 2015, click here), that are hazardous to people or wildlife.  However, the Park Service does not have the resources to remove all litter from the beach.

“Rangers do not routinely pick up trash on the beach because they’d be doing that all day long,”  noted Ed Fuller, the district supervisor on Ocracoke.

The Park Service did celebrate World Oceans Month by hosting a beach clean-up June 24 at the Lifeguard Beach and all along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

With a reputation as a top beach, Ocracoke benefits directly when visitors to the island can enjoy a trash-free shore.

And it scores points with Dr. Beach.

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