SAVANNAH - Dodie Sanders and her student volunteers never came back empty handed whenever she led them to the beach to clean up trash, sometimes filling as many as five waste bags with plastic bottles, wrappers and other garbage.
The sandy shores Sanders visited regularly to pick up litter for two years had no nearby hotels or restaurants and no big crowds on spring break and summer vacation. They were the beaches of Wassaw Island, one of the most primitive and unspoiled barrier islands on the Georgia coast.
Sanders' trash-collecting trips were part of a study by the University of Georgia and its Savannah research campus, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, that examined how garbage - especially plastic, which floats easily and takes a long time to decompose - piles up on beaches and marshes along the state's 100-mile coast.
Researchers found trash such as bottles, six-pack rings, plastic forks, candy wrappers and fishing lines accumulates even on secluded islands protected from development and reachable only by boat. And sites that get cleaned up don't stay free of litter for very long.
"Marine debris along the Georgia coast is everywhere at any time," said Sanders, a UGA marine educator who takes visiting school groups on field trips focused on coastal ecology and biology. "If you can find a beach where you go out and find not one manmade item, I would be surprised."
Though it's only a short span between South Carolina and Florida, coastal Georgia has an abundance of unspoiled beaches and marshlands. Only four of Georgia's 14 major barrier islands are developed and linked to the mainland by roads. The rest remain largely untamed, in many cases thanks to federal and state protections.
Still, none of Georgia's islands are immune from trash. Skidaway Institute researcher Richard F. Lee looked at the weight of trash collected by several conservation groups that routinely pick up garbage along the coast. Not surprisingly, the most litter was found on Tybee Island. Volunteer cleanup groups at Georgia's largest public beach reported hauling off anywhere from 2,900 to 5,400 pounds of plastic trash in a single sweep.
But conservationists also collected plenty of beach garbage, between 396 and 1,102 pounds, on state-protected Ossabaw Island and federally managed Blackbeard and Cumberland Islands.
What those numbers often lacked was a sense of how long garbage had been accumulating. Sanders sought to find out how quickly trash returns to areas that had previously been cleaned. Between May 2012 and April 2014, she made trips to Wassaw Island every one-to-three months with students to clean up two specific stretches of beach, each measuring roughly the size of two football fields. She found each trip yielded between less than half-a-pound to nearly three pounds of plastic.
Researchers suspect some of the trash on remote islands was left by boaters and beach visitors, but they're confident most of it traveled to the coast along inland streams and rivers after being tossed into creeks or kicked into storm drains. Lee was traveling abroad last week and unavailable for an interview. Some of the numbers he studied came from Clean Coast, a Savannah-based volunteer group that collects trash on Georgia beaches once a month.
"A huge amount of it is plastic beverage bottles, because people drink things on the go and throw it away on the street," said Karen Grainey, president of Clean Coast. "It washes into rivers and canals and streams and eventually a lot of it ends up in the ocean. And it can float for a long time until it reaches the beach somewhere."