Marine experts at Coastal Carolina University say the single most common piece of trash abandoned along the shores of the Grand Strand is cigarette butts. They're not biodegradable, which means they'll sit in the ocean for decades.
But most of the debris found in the ocean or washing up on the shores is plastic, the study says, because it too doesn't breakdown easily, and it doesn't sink. While plastic doesn't biodegrade, the sun breaks it down until it's smaller and smaller.
"Scientists have now estimated that if you look under a microscope, there's 4 to 6 times the plastic that there is plankton, marine life," says Dr. Craig Gilman, CCU's Associate Professor of Marine Science. "The surface layer is becoming saturated with plastic that we can't even see, besides all the plastic that we see that washes up on the shoreline."
That's not good for aquatic wildlife. "The oceans are slowly becoming toxic," Dr. Gilman says. "The marine organisms: that's their environment, that's where they live. We're putting in this chemical that's not good for life and it's getting into their systems, and it's becoming a dominant feature of the oceans."
The plastic that gets into the ocean now is normally swept much further out to sea, far beyond your range of sight, so you won't see much except what washes ashore.
Dr. Gilman says Americans consume plastic the most with grocery bags and plastic water bottles.
"It's now estimated in the United States, we give out more than 1 million plastic bags a minute in the United States. And that adds up to billions a year. Buy yourself a water bottle and save a hundred to 200 bottles a year; you can bring your own bags to the grocery store."
Gilman says a lot of the trash on roads or in towns often ends up in bodies of water - not just in the ocean, but waterways, inlets or streams.