“Each beach kind of has its own personality in terms of what washes up on it,” Kurt Cox said. “For some reason, the Tyndall part of Shell Island seemed to collect a lot of stuff that washed up from the Caribbean, from Mexico, and Haiti, and Venezuela.”

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Sea turtles trapped in beach chairs. Sea urchins with Mardi Gras beads laced between the spines. Octopuses choosing old beer cans as shelter.

Marine debris, Steven Breazeale of the Panama City Dive Club, is impacting the local beaches.

“One year we were out there (doing a cleanup) and somebody brought in an old, old beer can and we were all looking at it and inside was a baby octopus,” he said. “The octopus was transported back to the water and the can was thrown away.”

According to the World Plastics Council, around 80 percent of ocean debris begins as land-based litter. This debris enters the ocean by being swept out of landfills and loads by wind, scooped off of the beach and into the water by waves, or brought into the water by streams during heavy rain. Scientists predict there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

Locally, many are trying to do something about it. Government has a 'Leave No Trace' law on the books and contracts daily clean up. Gulf World and Diver’s Den host monthly beach clean ups. The Facebook group Keep PCB Beautiful organize cleanups twice a week. The Panama City Dive Club just held their annual beach cleanup at St. Andrews State Park on September the 8th. Yesterday, multiple groups held trash clean-ups on the sandy shore in honor of World Cleanup Day.

But still, there seems always be trash to be picked up.

When Kurt Cox, a local earth scientist and writer, needs a break from the office, which is often, he spends his afternoons gleaning trash from the beach.

“It all started pretty innocently when I was just going for a nice walk on the beach. I just like to get outside and there was a bunch of trash that had washed up on the beach,” he said. “I thought, well you know, I’m gonna come back here again in the next few days. If I pick up this trash, I won’t have to look at it next time.”

So he did.

It’s been about five years since Cox began collecting and cataloging garbage from the beach. Being a geologist, Cox knew glass and aluminum wasn’t toxic to the environment so he decided to specifically focus on plastic.

Cox has covered over 70 miles of beach, from Destin to Port St. Joe, and says he can almost identify where he is located on that 70 mile stretch based solely on the trash found in that specific area.

“Each beach kind of has its own personality in terms of what washes up on it,” Cox said. “For some reason, the Tyndall part of Shell Island seemed to collect a lot of stuff that washed up from the Caribbean, from Mexico, and Haiti, and Venezuela.”

Cox said he can identify being near a beach front restaurant based on the huge increase in plastics found in the sand. He can also tell when he's near an umbrella rental spot due to all of the broken rubber bands used to hold beach umbrellas closed during overnight storage.

According to Breazeale, the biggest source of trash he finds in the water in this area is monofilament line.

“Probably 85 percent of the trash is monofilament line that the fishermen use to fish with and they get caught in the rocks,” he said. “When that line breaks, it stays there and it drifts in the current, fish swim by, they get tangled in it or get hooked on the hook. I mean we’ve seen fish swim by that have hooks imbedded in their side because they got hooked or swept up into it.”

Aside from fishing line, Breazeale says he routinely finds sunglasses, cellphones, and single-use plastics like straws, cups, and water bottles during the dives.

“Single use plastics are probably the number one harmful thing (found) in the ocean,” Breazeale continued. “For example, turtles feed on jellyfish. To them, a plastic bag in the water may be a jellyfish. They don’t know the difference.”

Plastic bags are not biodegradable. Once a sea turtle or other marine animal consumes a piece of plastic, their intestines become impacted because their body cannot break down and pass the material. Air bubbles get trapped in their system and cause the animal to float, which make sea turtles all the more likely to get stuck at the surface and struck by a boat. If the animal isn’t killed by impact, it will eventually die anyway from the digestive blockage.

And once the debris is in the ocean, it eventually becomes a microplastic— plastic debris that has been broken down over time to an extremely small size by wind, waves, and sunlight. Microplastics then make their way into sea animals, sea animals are eaten by humans, and suddenly humans are ingesting microplastics at an alarming rate.

According to Cox, however, we are not doomed by our reckless use of plastics. But change needs to happen, and fast.

The more trash Cox gathered, the more curious he became about the chemistry of plastic and its potentially hazardous impact on environment and humans due to its wide usage.

“Being a scientist, I kind of dug into the chemistry of plastics and quite frankly, it frightened me,” he said. “Some of the science is still unsettled which is troubling because it seems to me we’re conducting this big science experiment on our own bodies, our own health, because plastics are so new.”

Plastics are made out of oil and natural gas, and are given additives to change their properties to fit a need.

“Some will be as hard as dock boards and some are clothing or Saran wrap,” he said. And now, plastics are everywhere. "Our clothes are plastic, our shoes are plastic, our containers, our houses, our furniture."

His biggest concern about plastic and its toxicity is that we don’t know how dangerous it is because it hasn’t been around long enough to be determined.

“Plastic that is out in the ocean acts like a sponge and it sponges up all these toxic chemicals out of seawater and concentrates them,” Cox continued. “So when marine life eats it, they’re getting an extra dose of these toxins and that’s how some of these poisons are introduced into the food chain.”

The best way, he said,  to help put an end to further damaging the environment in this way is by cutting back on our use of single-use plastics. And next time you’re at the beach and you see plastic garbage, pick it up and throw it away in one of the many garbage cans evenly spaced out along the sandy beach.

“If we stop it at the source, that’s really the only long term answer to keep plastic out of the ocean,” said Cox.

“Next time you’re at the beach, you don’t have to do a big beach cleanup,” he continued. But even filling a small bag of trash makes a difference because “a clean beach, is a safe beach.”