On an overcast Saturday in Seattle, a group of volunteers combs a small section of the beach at Golden Gardens Park for trash. With 5-gallon buckets in hand, they slowly fan out and search a roughly rectangular zone marked by cones, passing over the same spots several times from the grass to the waterline as they look for even the tiniest things that don’t belong there.

Unlike several other Earth Day weekend cleanups going on farther down the beach, this group has been given special instructions that will help them categorize and log everything they find, from food scraps and toys to tiny pieces of foil and, of course, many types of plastic.

From large pieces, such as bottles, cups, and even a Smurf action figure, to tiny microplastics — fragments, films, fibers, or foams less than 5 mm long — plastic is one of the most common pollutants this group will find, mirroring what cleanup crews regularly see across the country.

Recently, international attention has homed in on the problem, which is only growing worse as plastic doesn’t decompose but degrades into smaller pieces that will remain in the environment for thousands of years. Single-use plastics will be phased out of national parks by 2032 after an announcement in June from the Biden administration, and by the end of 2024, the United Nations plans to have a legally binding plan to end plastic pollution globally.

But groups like this cleanup crew are helping answer a more basic question: Where is this stuff coming from?

Read the full article about the cause of pollution by Samantha Wohlfeil at Grist.