Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Part III

Long-time readers may remember that I'm doing a cigarette filter decay test (first post here, November followup here). It's been almost two months since my last update, so it seemed a good time for a new one!

The premise was simple: I'd read that cigarette butts are plastic, cellulose acetate, and that they don't break down like natural fibers. So I wanted to see if it was true. My experiment began on August 28, 2010, with a freshly scavenged cigarette butt. I plunked it into a bucket of fresh water to simulate it being tossed into a gutter and carried to a nearby river or stream.
Day 1
Each day I swirled the water 25 times to simulate the scouring effect of the river. Over the next five weeks, the cigarette butt became waterlogged & sank, and the paper started flaking off.
Day 35
At Day 3537, I switched to saltwater to simulate the filter reaching the ocean. I then added a rock for extra scouring, and upped my daily swirls to 50. I tossed in a piece of paper flotsam too, for comparison.
Day 37
By a little over two months, the receipt was a mushy pulp, and the filter paper was gone.
Day 69
But the cigarette lived on.
Day 69-b
Which is where I left it off.

Three weeks later, November 26, it still looked mostly the same - tar stains and all.
Day 91
Then it occurred to me that something was lacking. I had the seawater right, and the sand at the bottom, and the rock, and the swirling. But I hadn't added any new life - I hadn't added the micro-organisms that could potentially digest this thing and break it down. So on December 1 I added a couple teaspoons of yeast. Would anything happen?
Day 99 - December 4
Why yes. Yes something would happen! It worked like a charm. The yeast activated (slowly - the water was only room temperature after all). Within a few days it had devoured the paper pulp and left a brown, slightly smelly residue in the bottom and along the sides of the bin. But the cigarette butt? Unchanged, unaffected. Uneaten.

Moving on through Hannukah, my early-December birthday, and finally Christmas, we come to today, December 30, 2010:
Day 125
Day 125 - Ready for the closeup
So. More than 4 months in, under fairly savage treatment, attacked by sand, rock, swirl stick, bacteria, light, water, salt. And this still looks like what it is: a used, fouled cigarette butt.

Cigarette butts are a scourge. They are everywhere. In gutters, playgrounds, plantingsparks. Flicked out of car windows, stubbed out at the beach. I've recovered some 2,000 from Bay View. Danielle Richardet in North Carolina has collected over 12,000! With no sign of stopping.

They're not just ugly, they're poison. One used cigarette butt in two gallons of water is enough to kill the low-order life in that water. The world produces 5.5 trillion cigarettes each year. If only 10% of those were littered, that's still 550 billion -- 550,000,000,000 -- cigarette butts polluting our world. Each year. Here's a handy list of just a few of those pollutants:
Pick any, they're all good
And, as I hope I'm starting to show, they don't break down. That cigarette your co-worker flicked into the gutter last winter? Still around. The cigarette your careless buddy tossed out the car window a decade or two ago when you were all young & crazy? Still around.

But don't worry, it's got plenty of company.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Collection Report Dec 16, 2010

Good morning from Bay View beach, Saco, Maine. A crisp 23 degrees at 11:30AM.
So many footprints
I think I might be getting the hang of this. Recent storms leave little flotsam visible, while gentle waves seem to bring it in abundance. This was a gentler week (minus one big storm), so my hunch was I'd find a good haul. And I was right.
Waves gathered together a
pile of wood chips...
...and more
At Bay View, "stuff" tends to stick together. Somehow, all these various bits & bobs manage to find each other, and make something larger than themselves. It happened the week before too...
Dec. 8, more of nature's handiwork
...only to be blown apart by a fierce storm on Dec. 12:
Dec. 13, same spot
I'm watching a Teaching Company series now on the physics of history; there's great tidbits on how stars & planets coalesced from dust. And, in a way, I'm watching the same things happen right in front of my eyes - on a smaller scale.

I also love that different flotsam tends to come to shore in different weeks. Curt Ebbesmeyer wrote about this in Flotsametrics. He tells how the slightest shifts in wind or warmth or density can utterly rewrite the map of surface currents, gyres, eddies, etc. At Bay View, December 16 was the day of the aluminum can.
Delicious irony
All told, I pulled up 20 scraps of soda/beer can - which blows the roof off the 6-month curve. And proves that you just never know. Also, this day greeted me with 3 shoe soles, when usually I find zero. Plus two new lobster traps, probably brought near the shore by the storms and then carried to the sand by the calmer waves.
Tag # 9488 A1 0206 ME 06 Z:G
Tag # 6814 A1 0225 ME 08 EEZ Z:G
Intact, still w/40 feet of buoy rope
So a very interesting day. On to the counts. Zone N:
74 finds:
  • Building materials: 4 (asphalt, plaster from bucket, wooden floorboard scrap, slat)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 15 (trap bumper, trap scrap, 5 scraps of trap coating, claw band, rope, trap name tag (B. Emmerson 461), shotgun shell, sinker, 3 shell waddings)
  • Food-related plastics: 5 (ketchup pack, bottle cap, cap seal, bit of straw, torn-off packet corner)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 18 (10 can tops/bottoms, 5 can scraps, 3 bottle caps)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 24 (2 bags, scrap of siding, lg o-ring, small o-ring, bandaid, 7 scraps, 1 hard escutcheon scrap, bottle cap pull, rubbery buoy (?) top, 2 vinyl scraps, lacework, clear circle, black molded sphere top, clothes pin, electronics battery cover, piece of tube)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 2 (bar code, swiffer)
  • Misc./unique: 5 (shovel handle, glove, circuit board, leather shoe sole, bit of steel)
On to Zone S:
62 finds:
  • Building materials: 16 (5 slats, 2 metal plates, very worn composite lumber stair step, wiring sheath, 2 chunks asphalt, 5 asphalt roof tile bits)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 10 (2 whole traps, rope, trap bumper, claw band scrap, 5 bits of trap coating)
  • Food-related plastics: 3 (collander, straw, gum wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 7 (2 sea glass, can, 4 can scraps)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 21 (bag, bag scrap, 7 various colored scraps, bit of blue upholstery vinyl, 2 bits of tube, tie strap, 2 rubberbands, o-ring, hairband, conditioner bottle, cap/plug, SKU tag, weatherstrip)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 1 (small wood block)
  • Misc./unique: 3 (2 shoe soles, 1 rubber floormat scrap)
So. 136 more pieces of garbage to add to the tally. Almost all of it from the sea. In one week. And there's no sign of it slowing down.

On a final note: Dear San Francisco Soap Company, #3 plastic is PVC, which releases serious toxins both in production and incineration. With all the other materials available, how about package your personal care products in something else?
We can do better

Friday, December 24, 2010

Season's Greetings

When words fail, I turn to voices far wiser than my own.
"There's some good in this world..."
"...and it's worth fighting for."
Sam Gamgee, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
movie version
A very Merry Christmas, from The Flotsam Diaries to you and yours.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Deconstructing a Winter Storm

So the last several weeks have been weird at the beach. When the storms are their most violent, the flotsam is nonexistent. When the weeks are the calmest, litter runneth over. What gives?

Well, by chance, I found a big clue in another blog.

5 Gyres is a group of scientists & marine adventurers, with a twist. They raise awareness about ocean pollution by actually getting out in the oceans and documenting it. One gyre at a time, they're proving to a skeptical world that every last corner of our planet is infected by the plague of plastic waste. And that we have to do something about it.

In November they set sail from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, across the South Atlantic Gyre to Cape Town, South Africa. En route they set out scores of trawls to capture flotsam. Sadly, every single trawl brought in plastics - even in the middle of the ocean, 1500 miles from land.
Sad, eye-opening, and a blog that's VERY worth reading from beginning to end. A pretty epic adventure.

But for my purposes, one part especially hit home. Early in their voyage they hit days of horrible weather - raging wind & seas. And guess what? All that energy in the ocean? It pushes things down in the water column. Their trawls still found plastic, but it was almost invisible on the water's surface.

So maybe when huge storms rise in the Gulf of Maine, all that energy does the same thing - pushes floating bits down toward the seafloor, where they have a hard time washing in to shore?

The other possibility is that they wash in to shore just fine, but are quickly buried by the same kind of brute force that can do this.
That's not supposed to happen
After all, I've pulled out plenty of three-foot-long fishing rope scraps that only had 2-3 inches exposed. And I've watched something as light as a dry old leaf stay put while Mother Nature's winds piled sand on top.
If it can happen to a leaf...
So what's happening at Bay View beach when a storm comes in? Probably, as always, a combination of both of the above -- along with a dozen other things. And as I've shown, my understanding of the whole shebang is... limited. But at least I'm in good company. The best minds in the world are only now starting to unlock the mysteries of how oceans work, and how important their health is to life as we know it.

It's great to be along for the ride.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Collection Report Dec 8-9, 2010

Welcome to Bay View beach, on a sunny 28-degree December 8.
Bright sun helps when it's 28; as do 3 layers
It had been another week of heavy storms and winds from the SE -- from the ocean. High tide was near, and nature was very much on display.
December on a deserted beach can be magical
But, just like the previous week, there wasn't much garbage to see. A stroll along a clean beach is always a nice treat. Still, I didn't dare to hope that "I didn't find it" meant "It's not there."

I decided I had to come back to check out the low-tide line; that way I'd know for sure what was there. So, I did. The next day, December 9, was my birthday. And at 9:30AM on my birthday (at a balmy 21 degrees!), I arrived back to Bay View to this:
I guess there is just no cutoff date for thoughtlessness. But I can't get my head around hot chocolate, a Pepsi from the local Pizza Hut, and half a dozen raw eggs on a 20-degree night.

Well, what can you do? As it turns out, that was about the only new junk there was to see. All the expected low-tide-line debris? Barely a scrap.

So, as with December 8, I used the time to soak in more of nature's works.
Sea trees du jour
"Cobbled" together by nature, just cuz
Anyway, business at hand. The Zone N haul:
28 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (chunk of asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 1
  • Fishing misc.: 1 (scrap of lobster trap)
  • Food-related plastics: 2 (lid, whole Pepsi cup from Pizza Hut, w/ straw)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 7 (sea glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 5 (kite string reel, 2 wrapper scraps, end-of-finger bandaid, white scrap)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 4
  • Paper/wood: 5 (egg carton, coffee cup, cup sleeve, 2 gum wrappers)
  • Misc./unique: 2 (long pink string, waistband)
Pretty much nothing to say about this lot. What about Zone S?
21 finds:
  • Building material: 4 (chunk asphalt, chunk of burned asphalt, 2 bits of bathroom tile)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 5 (bits of lobster trap coatings)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 10 (2 aluminum scraps, 2 sea glass, 6 fresh glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 1 (small blue scrap)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
Again, little ooh/ahh factor. Except perhaps:
Life, the universe, & everything?
OK. So, two weeks of storm, wind, & tidal madness that does this to a bench at Ocean Park, a mile to the north:
Glad I don't have to dig this out
Yet over two days I find only a few dozen objects, many of which came from some local miscreants.

Why so little? Well, one of three reasons:
  • The Gulf of Maine is strikingly clean. 
  • The storms actually kept trash offshore.
  • The storms buried the debris under a foot of sand.
Which is it? I'm already working up a post answering that. But I'll give you a hint. It isn't #1.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Look What the Current Dragged In, Part II

Back in August I wrote a little piece on a curious lobster trap tag that had floated in on the tide. With help from the good folks at the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, I learned that the tag had taken a 200-mile journey from Canada.

Since then, I've recovered many "Wild Canada" claw bands, as well as half of a recycling bin from New Brunswick. The reason for all this Canadian flotsam is simple. Coastal Maine is fed by the Labrador Current, an ice-cold flow that originates on the western side of Greenland, arcs past eastern Canada, and washes down through the Gulf of Maine.

So it's little surprise that Canadian litter reaches Saco's shores. It's also little surprise that, given the complexity of the Gulf of Maine, things sometimes go a bit wacky.
Occasionally, a Flotsam Diarist stumbles upon the coolest resources to help learn about the world. Take Environmental Monitors on Lobster Traps, an ingenious collaboration between local researchers, universities, and fishermen. Together, they collect live data on surface currents by launching dozens of drifters with GPS transmitters. Here's a good one that was tracked for several months just this summer:
Released May 8 near Portland, ME
Died Sept. 4, Georges Bank, 150 mi E of Cape Cod
Victim of Hurricane Earl
As the eMOLT track above shows, not everything that flows from the north ends up at Bay View beach. Wind & current may just as easily pull it southeast. If so, it can get caught in one of the Gulf of Maine's many small gyres -- vortexes of swirling waters. There, a piece of flotsam may be trapped for years, and eventually flung out in most any direction. (In larger gyres like the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, millions of scraps of plastic debris churn endlessly in a toxic soup. There are five such gyres of swirling trash now recorded in the world's oceans; there is no known way to effectively clean them up.)

So what happens if a piece of Maine or Canada flotsam gets dragged farther and farther southeast?

Take the example of this little guy:
Just an average Maine lobster trap tag
Sometime after 2007, this tag broke free from its trap, and rose to the surface. Bobbing on the waves in the Gulf of Maine, it stumbled into a gyre or two. Mother Nature eventually cast it southeastward. One fateful day, it met the famous Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream gets its start in the tropical waters of the Caribbean and southern Florida. It flows northward along the eastern U.S., veering eastward south of Long Island, NY. It rides south of Cape Cod, warming the shorelines of southern New England on its way.* Eventually its tropically-toasted waters cross the entire Atlantic and flow past the UK and Ireland. These isles, even though they lie nearly 10° farther north than Maine, are made temperate by waters originally heated thousands of miles away.

That little red lobster trap tag, still in nearly perfect condition? Found here:
Gower, South Wales, UK
(image snapped from Google Earth)
In early November 2010, beachcomber Rik Bennett was wandering his local shores in southwest Wales, when he came across this tag. Curious, he scanned the Web to see if he could learn anything about it. Eventually, his search brought him to The Flotsam Diaries. And brought this tag's 3,500 mile journey to light!

A wonderful and poignant reminder that the world is a small place. Everything connects, somehow, with everything else. And water -- the ocean -- is the constant. If you treat your part of it well, it will remember. If you treat your part of it badly, it will remember.
from - another priceless resource
for a budding Flotsam Diarist

* The warm Gulf Stream waters never reach Maine. All we get is the Labrador -- which is why Maine's ocean temperatures rarely break 60 degrees F, even in August. Actually, Saco Bay records the warmest ocean temps in Maine, being fed by the major Saco River, which is heated by the sun as it travels its 134-mile course.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Collection Report Dec 1-2, 2010

Welcome back to Bay View beach, Saco, Maine. December 1 was mild, mid-40s, but blustery. (In fact, a gust clocked at 41 mph.) Gray clouds were gathering, so I snuck in before the rains -- and the next high tide.
The flats at low tide
Remember the two tide lines & the berm of just one week before? All that stuff I thought I was figuring out about how the contour of the beach was changing? Well, do you see any of that in the picture below?
Me neither
Clearly I have a lot to learn about how wind & tide, current & rain really behave. Here's one thing I did discover. The winds buffeting me on Dec. 1 were largely from the SE; they were blowing in, fiercely at times, off the ocean. Pushing the tide unnaturally high, and blasting the heck out of the prior week's landscape.

At first I thought this meant another bumper crop of debris, fishing rope, boats, you name it. But it wasn't to be. Bay View had been assaulted by forces that can bury 3 feet of fishing rope without a thought.
What do you mean three feet?
Oh, that's what you mean.
It was dumb luck that I found that bit of rope. Most anything else? Blown away or buried deep. In the end, my trash bags were very light.

On December 2, I decided to take another quick swing by. The lay of the land looked much the same. The wind had raised foot-high sand drifts in places. And did other weird things.
Sand blows, but leaf doesn't blow?
When I spotted this leaf, I knew this week's collection would be hopeless. A light, dry leaf didn't blow away, but the sand did blow across and nearly cover it. WTH?

A short walk up Zones N & S proved I was right. Very little debris to be found. Not that it wasn't there, just that it couldn't be seen.

So, a collection of Zone N:
37 finds:
  • Building materials: 3 (2 fence slats, 1 chunk of asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 6 (inc. a piece from the boat insulation)
  • Fishing misc.: 8 (7 scraps of rope, 1 claw band)
  • Food-related plastics: 2 (bottle caps)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 4 (aluminum can, can scrap, 2 bits of sea glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 11 (3 scraps of packaging, 2 bits of grocery bags, 3 hard plastic scraps, 1 scrap of boundary tape, 1 tiny bit of balloon, 1 sm. red hard plastic bit)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 2 (scrap of fabric, freshly-lost tennis ball (dog toy?))
A bunch of usual suspects. Though, to be honest, 37 is more than I thought I'd collected. It doesn't take long to add up.

On to Zone S:
18 finds:
  • Building materials: 2 (fence slat, chunk of asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 4
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (shotgun shell wadding, 2 bits of rope, claw band)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 8 (bag scrap, green soldier, tampon applicator, bandaid, tie-band, clear scrap, green scrap, yellow scrap)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 0
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
Quick closeup of the small, but delightfully varied, non-food plastics:
Would be OK not finding another tampon applicator
So this week, I was well & truly schooled. Nov. 24-25 had put assumptions in my head that didn't last seven days. Which just proves that it might be a bit early for me to be making assumptions. Still, every idea that we get wrong gets us one step closer to getting it right.

Besides, I like a world that's full of surprises.