Mapping Plastic: A Circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island

By Liesl Clark

Many have done it by sailboat, motorboat, even kayaks. One person recently swam it. But how many people have hiked around Bainbridge Island? I mean all the way around, skirting its shores, circling the entire landmass like a May pole?

Circumnavigating Bainbridge Island To Map Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

The 53-mile circumnavigation is precisely the journey we’re embarking upon, but it’s not just a walk in the rock-strewn, slimy, barnacle-laden park, nor is it a pristine walk on the beach. This journey has a critical element: We’re picking up all the man-made trash we see on the shoreline along the way. What sorts of debris are washing up on this 36-square-mile island, 8 miles off the coast of Seattle in the middle of Puget Sound?

Circumnavigating An Island’s Shores Bring New Light to Single Use Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

We’re no strangers to beach debris, more accurately described as “everyday plastics.” My friend and colleague at Trash Backwards, Rebecca Rockefeller, and I have traversed many island beaches picking up plastics. Indeed, we’ve spent months inventorying the buggers, listing them by item. We’ve created disturbing art about our beach plastics, have conducted beach pick-ups and art projects with local classrooms, and are now developing an international web tool that provides viable non-plastic alternatives and more sustainable solutions for each item we’ve found on our beaches. If we’ve learned one thing in the last 3 years of research it’s this: If it’s made of plastic, it will end up in our waters.

Beachdebris, Robbins Island, MA, Photo © Liesl Clark

The obvious solution to our dependence upon plastics is to find reasonable alternatives and obvious reuse solutions and convince people to choose those over buying new plastics. We aim to show people in innovative ways how plastics will never go away and are ubiquitous in our environment. Hence, we collect those plastics we find washing up on our beaches and determine where they’re coming from. What percentage are single-use plastics like straws, syringes, and water bottles and tampons? What percentage are coming from the fishing and shipping industries, from construction projects, and from our own homes and cars? The only way to find out is to pick up a sampling from every shoreline on our island, to prove they’re on every beach, washed down our watersheds or blown ashore by the prevailing winds.

A few hundred yards’ collection of plastic, Photo © Liesl Clark

Bainbridge Island is like any landmass, encircled by the waters of Puget Sound, some beaches more exposed to currents and wind drift than others. We see this circumnavigation as a sort of metaphor for all islands, indeed all continents, with watersheds and beaches dumping and receiving debris over time.

Storm Drains Go Unfiltered and Unchecked on Bainbridge Island, Photo © Liesl Clark

My online search for the earliest pioneers to have circumnavigated our beloved island brought up a single result, and an ironic one at that: Bruce Barcott, writer and friend. We had no idea Bruce had taken on the journey, let alone that he wrote about it in Backpacker Magazine. He even self published a book about it, having also mapped his route on Google Earth in an incredible interactive tour-de-island-force worth checking out. Bruce’s map will be our baseline, a critical resource to discover interesting shoreline features as well as the ins and outs of the inlets, coves and private properties potentially off-limits to hikers like us. But if we’re doing some good (picking up pollution) will we be barred from passing? Due to tide constraints, Bruce apparently didn’t actually complete his full circumnavigation, opting for inland trails instead. We’re going to try our had at completing a full circumabulation.

I first met Bruce Barcott in Seattle at the offices of Alpine Ascents International. My husband, Pete Athans, and I, along with our 1 and 3 year olds, had just moved to the area from north of Boston, one of the furthest points on the continent away from Seattle. Bruce and Pete were hired by Alpine Ascents International to assist them in procuring a coveted mountaineering concession on Mount Rainier. Two  years later, when we were headed for a month to Nepal, Bruce and his family were looking for a home to occupy while house-hunting on the island. They house-sat for us and quickly found a home for themselves on the island. Bruce, in an effort to get to know the island first-hand, decided to hike around its shores, mapping his progress on his iphone.

We, too, will employ iphones and our trusty GPS to log in waypoints and document our progress. Other essential tools will include reusable bags, backpacks, and haul bags for collecting plastics, strapping the big pieces to our backs, and a knife for cutting marine rope and fishing line from rocks and washed-up tree trunks. Our cameras will record specific plastics that marine biologist friends are interested in documenting, and the essential iphone app, Tide Chart.

Plenty of Pens on the Beach, Photo © Liesl Clark

With a population of 20,000 and 36-square-miles of land, our island demographics prove that there are approximately 834 people per square mile on this speck of Northwest terra firma. That’s a lot denser than I would’ve thought, but significantly less than Seattle’s 7,251 people per square mile. We’re all contributing to the plastics that are making their way down from our homes, cars, and businesses to our seas. And our islandround journey is yet another means to figure out where it’s all coming from, why, and how we can stop it.

Come Help Us Inventory Bainbridge Island’s Beach Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

If you’re on Bainbridge and want to join us, please contact us and we’ll coordinate days and times to meet up for a leg of the journey. We’d love to have your eyes, hands, and backs for the recovery of human-made debris from the sea. We welcome classrooms, community groups, and all our island friends on this journey. And when this encircling of our island is done, we’ll welcome help in inventorying the plastics, measuring the yardage of marine rope and fishing line, separating cigarette lighters from bottle caps to obtain a final count. It’s winter storm season, and we expect some sobering results and strong shoreline winds but hopefully we’ll encounter some unanticipated surprises as we map our collective plastics, coming closer to uncovering the truth behind the flow of synthetic polymers into our seas.

Voyager Montessori School’s Rainbow of Puget Sound’s Beach Plastics, Photo © Liesl Clark

Click Here to go to our next dispatch on our journey to map Bainbridge Island’s plastics.

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Categories: Mapping Plastic, Trash Pile - All Our Stuff


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7 Comments on “Mapping Plastic: A Circumnavigation of Bainbridge Island”

  1. November 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Thanks to you, my recycle bin has been increased in size to a recycle garbage can and I fill it to the brink every 2 weeks. I have far less trash to send to the dump! I’ve substituted pencils for pens; have taken the wax bags out of cereal boxes and used them to pack our lunches; and use glass to store leftovers whenever possible instead of plastic. I like this! However, it’s challenging to figure out how to replace ziplock plastic bags with something better and less polluting. My husband is a lettuce addict -even when I tell him it’s not in season – and loves those bags for storing his precious leaves. Help! Keep on doing the good work you’re doing to raise consciousness and decrease our use of plastics.

  2. lieslclark
    November 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Oh Christine! Have I got the perfect link for you!

    Lettuce stores MUCH better in a jar than plastic and check out how beautiful it looks in a mason jar in your fridge. You’ll be reaching for it more often. We store ours this way and undeniably it keeps at least twice as long. Skip the Ziploc bags for lettuce and enjoy the crispy results glass jars bring.

  3. Ellen Carleson
    November 7, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Can we help you with your Island circumnavigation? On Monday, Nov 19, our pre-k class, the Orca class, from Island Co-op Preschool, has it’s second Nature Day of the school year. We would be happy to visit a portion of the Island’s beaches to search for plastic. This fits well with our attempt to become an Eco-School. Our fall goal is waste reduction and learning about garbage and recycling. The tide may not be with us, however. We have a Nature Day every third Monday of the month. I would love to help, and your ideas about when is the best time. Ellen Carleson Teacher Island Cooperative Preschool 206-842-3013

    Date: Tue, 6 Nov 2012 20:46:20 +0000 To:

    • lieslclark
      November 8, 2012 at 8:46 am #

      Hi Ellen! We’re thrilled to hear from you and would love to have your Orca class join us on a plastic mapping beach walk. I wonder if it might make sense to have you all join us when we’re traversing either Fay Bainbridge or Lytle Beach? Both are easy for kids to access and are public shorelines. We could coordinate a date when we’re going to be on those beaches, as they are not tide-dependent, or we could do them out of sequence with the other legs of the trip. Most of the other shorelines will require low tide walks, for ease of getting from A to B, but the plastics are all at the wrack line, the median high tide line. Alternatively, if any of your students’ families own beach-side property, we could coordinate to cross and pick up plastics on their beach, to make it a more personal learning experience. This project is perfect for kids so we’re excited to partner with you and find the right date. Feel free to email me directly at


  1. Mapping Plastic: The First Days of Our Journey « Trash Backwards - November 12, 2012

    […] journey started on a windy day. Circumnavigating Bainbridge Island to map the plastic on its shores has started off like any other beach walk where we tease plastic detritus from tall grasses, […]

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