Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Bountiful Shore: Collection Report June 22-2010

Tuesday, 6/22, 7:30AM saw me in the car on the way to Bay View. It had been 6-7 days since my first collection. I didn't know what to expect. I had scoured my two zones well the week before. But it had been hot & sunny (by Maine standards) -- and also early days of school vacation. What would an under-the-radar local beach offer?

A first glance on the N zone suggested an active week:
Signs of life at the party log
Caffeinated chain-smoking

I dug in. And I have to say, whatever I expected from zone N, this wasn't it.
205 finds!
  • Building materials: 1 (piece of wooden lathe/fence rail)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 9
  • Food-related plastics: 38 (inc. Hershey's, Rice Krispies Treats, AirHeads, various gum wrappers, 3 straws/stirrers, Listerine Cool Mint single-pack, "Great Value" granola bar)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 14 (inc. 2 bubble blowers, bandaid, plastic pail sticker, Trojan packet)
  • Cigarette filters: 93
  • Cigarette package debris: 5
  • Paper, identifiable: 7 (New England coffeecup, Hallmark store bag, Star magazine insert, salt packet, label for a folding chair, "Jack's Jokes" bubblegum joke card, scrap with food ingredients)
  • Paper, unidentifiable: 5
  • Glass bottle/can: 7 (2 beer bottles, beer can, can scrap, 3 bottlecaps)
  • Misc: 26 (gum, 2 pieces twine, plant pot, 3 socks, wooden kite rod, 2 pieces sea glass, 16 pieces of fireworks)
A few of the highlights:

Food plastics

Non-food ID'able plastics

Unknown plastics

All of this... in six days. A few were clustered -- the party trash around the log (beer, cigs, candy, and fireworks), the chainsmoking coffee-drinker. The rest were mostly random. Most of it was fresh. (Maybe 20 things had signs of age on them -- cig butts, the can scrap, most of the foam bits, a few candy wrappers. Either I missed them on 6/16, or winds and feet shifted the sands and revealed them.) Most of it was plausibly beach-related. The one thing that struck me: nothing fishing-related. No piece of line, no claw band, nada. First time ever since starting my beach jaunts.

Of the 205 items, a lucky wind would have easily blown at least 180 of them right into the ocean. What gets me is, maybe a lucky wind did just that with another 180 some time between 6/16 and 6/22. If so, who knows where and when they'll return to land? But one way or another, they probably will.

Compared to the N zone, the S zone was a different world.
Only 32 finds here.
  • Building materials: 1
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 7
  • Fishing rope: 2
  • Fish misc/claw bands: 1 (claw band)
  • Food-related plastics: 3 (inc. another "Great Value" granola bar wrapper)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 5 (beach umbrella base, Secret deodorant scrap, tissue box lid seal)
  • Cigarette filters: 10
  • Misc.: (2 sea glass, winter slipper)
Wow. This gave some cred to my initial hypothesis -- that beachgoers will stick to the N zone due to the "Private Beach" signs separating "N" from "S". Also, what was there was less identifiably "beach" stuff. The cigarette butts & granola wrapper, sure. But the abraded deodorant scrap, a plastic shred that maybe was a bottle cap LONG ago, the shreds of foam -- and especially the winter slipper (which I promise I didn't miss on 6/15!) -- those seem to tell a different story. One of washed up or blown in debris -- one that gets to the heart of what I'm trying to find out. Take the slipper.
As found on the beach

What happened here? Washed up last week? Buried by sand until last week? Not sure. But a quick peek at the bottom reveals...'s made of the kind of stuff that could survive months -- or years -- at sea.

Thus ends Week #2 at Bay View. A productive -- if maybe depressing -- window into how we treat our public spaces. Zone N was mostly littered by local, recent, beach-related trash. Zone S was more likely to be older trash, seemingly brought from elsewhere.

What will the next trip bring? Who knows.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Losing Yourself

The Diaries came about from raw emotion. Love for my daughter, sadness and anger at a polluted beach, hope of making a difference -- fear of living a life that didn't make a difference.

My time spent beachcombing is also filled with emotion, and wonder. Not to mention a sensory cornucopia -- the roar of the surf, the texture of the sand, the scent of salt, the sight of a gull diving down right behind me to "recycle" a small, shiny, dead fish that had just washed up seconds before. The air bubbles escaping from underground as a wave recedes.

Plus a thousand other things that don't register as strongly in my memory.

We've all got the things that we're attuned to -- that matter to us, that move us. We are very much a product of our experiences, and our surroundings. For some it's the fishing fleets on the horizon that speak to them. I don't recall whether there have been any fishing boats out in the water -- they didn't register. But I do remember the tiny ripples of fresh sand running in a winding ribbon along the beach where the recent high-tide had just laid them.
They're like snowflakes. Alone, they're helpless & fragile. But given time, they can utterly reshape a landscape. (Gentle summer waves add sand to a beach - burying what's there under fresh layers. Strong, storm-fed winter waves tend to erode the beach, exposing deep layers and buried flotsam.)

All of which brings a problem for a Flotsam Diarist: You have to constantly be on guard against letting your own biases dictate what you look for, what you collect -- even what you see. At Ocean Park, I rarely picked up wooden slats, or pieces of napkin, or little chunks of asphalt and concrete. I don't even remember if I saw any. I wasn't interested. Trouble is, I have to be. This isn't the "Plastics Diaries" -- it's supposed to be a chronicle of all human debris. It's all part of the story. And even if, say, a few pieces of shaped wooden lathe or half a brick don't float my boat, they're no less relevant to the story.

So, doing this work right means being objective. It means losing myself.

And it's funny, as I learn to lose myself when I walk the beach at Bay View, I'm amazed at how much more I see. And that in itself is a valuable lesson.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Baseline: Collection Report June 15/16-2010

Discovering Bay View brought a lot to the table: nearby beach; distinct high-traffic and quiet zones; no industrial disturbances. A real find and a great location for a budding beachcomber.

But location is only half the game. Clueing in about how & why debris ends up on a beach means knowing just what's there from week to week. (An obvious concept that still took me a couple months to learn.) So I resolved to pick up every last scrap of trash that I could find, each trip. A burden? For me, the scent of saltwater carried on the crisp morning air, and the rhythmic crashing of the ocean in my ears, is anything but.

So, last week I created my baseline. On 6/15 I scoured the quiet, "S" section of Bay View beach, picking up every piece of manmade debris I could find on the surface. Results:
53 finds:
  • Building materials: 6
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 14
  • Fishing rope: 3
  • Fishing misc.: 2 (inc. 1 claw band, lobster trap tag not associated with any trap found yet)
  • Food-related plastics: 5
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 11
  • Cigarette filters: 9
  • Unique: 3 (cardboard package; Y-shaped plastic... thing; "Sea Bass" fish fillet knife sheath)
No clue whether the plastic thingy is a toy, or a disposable tear-off cap to a bottle, or what. Thoughts?
The knife sheath was neat, given all the clamming and shoreline fishing that I've witnessed -- and given its age & wear. Otherwise, there was little that stuck out, except maybe the bits of broken red balloon. How many are released every year, to explode high in the sky and cascade to the ground who-knows-where?

 The next morning, 6/16, I hit the "N" section:
A true mother lode! 271 finds in all:
  • Building materials: 14
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 17
  • Fishing rope: 20
  • Fish misc/claw bands: 14 (inc. 8 claw bands)
  • Food-related plastics: 33 (inc. 7 straws/stirrers, 2 forks, PB cracker wrapper, 5 bottle caps, 2 ringpops)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 44 (inc. Bubblemaker cap, Trojan wrapper, adult & kid bandids, ChapStick)
  • Cigarette filters: 95 (!)
  • Paper, identifiable: 10 (inc. dryclean tag, Whole Foods napkin, Hannaford coupon, Walmart receipt 5/26/10) 
  • Paper, unidentifiable: 17 (inc. 5 pieces of bonfire cardboard)
  • Misc./unique: 7 (flipflop, soda can, 2 can scraps, 2 wads of gum, pillowcase scrap)
And there we go. Two sections of a southern Maine beach, picked as clean as possible. Some eye-openers among the bags too. 104 cigarette filters total, that blew me away. The Walmart receipt was interesting -- it shows that even fragile paper withstands exposure to sun & storm for weeks at least. But what really gets me is the breadth of finds. It's not just the expected "beach" stuff. It's a full slice of life -- commerce, industry, retail, sex, household, food, bad habits, even a late-night bonfire or two. This little stretch of little-traveled shore is a snapshot of American life.

At any rate, now the fun can really begin. I left my "N" and "S" sections as trash-free as I could. I've got my baseline. This week I'll be going back. And I'm actually excited to see what's arrived in the interim.

How weird is that?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Re-Education, Part 2

OK. Finally coming back to the post I started last week. One-line summary: My original plan to record flotsam at Ocean Park wasn't going to work, so I made a new plan.

Welcome to Bay View.
This little gem is maybe a mile south of Ocean Park, but it has no restaurants or stores nearby and is mostly overlooked by summer crowds (and beach tractors). It has a small parking area and public access path. It's mostly used by locals (many of whom enjoy early morning clamming out on the mud flats at low tide).

Why did this seem a good place to do my new hunts? You tell me.
Fishing rope decorating the access path
New beach, new derelict lobster trap

Doesn't take a rocket scientist to know he's on to something here.

But Bay View is more than just a ratcheted-back Ocean Park. Because it's lightly traveled, people don't have to sprawl out up and down the shoreline for a good spot. Most visitors seem to hug close to the access path. Plus, about a football field to the south, a private deck juts out ominously and boldly plants its flag.
This little impediment makes beachgoers even less likely to wander. Which is great news for a flotsam hunter. Because it gives me two distinct zones to collect & compare: the busier "public" area to the north (N), and the little-traveled beach beyond the private deck to the south (S). (A respectful jut down to the high-tide line when crossing the private area keeps everyone happy.) I can collect debris from these two distinct spots and see if they really do tell different stories about where litter is coming from & how it arrives. Score!

So here's a little map of the two zones I've started collecting from (with Mr. Menacing Deck neatly separating the two):
The zones are about 270 X 100 ft each (my awful drawing above notwithstanding). The N zone starts from the path and gets close to, but doesn't quite reach, the private deck. The S zone starts at the southern edge of the private deck and heads south the same distance. (Which in a way gives me a control -- the beach in front of the deck. I'll be able to see what's happening there without disturbing any of it.)

So after all that, the big question: Is there enough trash at a quiet beach like this to make the effort worthwhile? I'm still putting together the details of my hunt. But for the moment, a teaser:
Bay View, I think I'm going to like you.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Soda Can Experiment Update - June 14, 2010

So the experiment to see how aluminum cans rot at the beach continues. And this time, things are getting interesting.
Test cans soaking in seawater, 6/14/2010

In my last report (June 1: "Day 8-5"), I had added a third can, so I had three cans, all soaking in about 2 1/2 qts of seawater, left mostly undisturbed:

(1) A control can
(2) A can sitting with iron nails to test galvanic corrosion
(3) A sanded can in nails, to test if sand abrasion helps

Then about 6/3 a thought occurred. A can at the beach may accumulate more salt over time, as waves splash over it, and the water evaporates leaving salt behind. If I was trying to recreate conditions at the beach, perhaps I should steadily increase the salt levels. So I decided to remove the plastic coverings from the 3 containers and let the water evaporate naturally. This would increase the salt concentration more & more.

On 6/7 I added about another quart of seawater to each container to top them off.

And by 6/10, something neat started happening:
Around the cans' lips, little hard white deposits were starting to form. This was happening with all 3 cans, but most noticeably on can #3, the one I had pre-sanded.

This process is continuing, and seems to be accelerating. Just now I pulled out can #3 to get a better look:
I scratched off two of the deposits along the lip (leaving several others undisturbed) to see what was happening to the metal beneath. And sure enough, there seem to be some shallow divots in the aluminum itself. Also, the exposed aluminum on all 3 cans is starting to discolor & darken. Not corrode, but definitely oxidize. I don't know if this is salt action, or if there's just more oxygen in the water now that the covers are completely off.

Anyway, a pretty cool turn of events. The whole "needs iron nearby" thing seems more like a red herring. Meanwhile, the common-sense ideas of (1) sand abrading the cans to expose the metal and (2) heavier salt concentrations attacking the metal are both looking stronger.

I think I'm going to let this one ride now for another week without poking & prodding, and will post another update then. Oh, and if you were wondering, yes, this is fun! I highly recommend testing stuff.

Friday, June 11, 2010

An Interlude

Before moving ahead, there's a little housecleaning to do, stuff that I've come across that deserves a place in the diaries.

To be honest, a couple of my recent trips to Ocean Park didn't seem so enlightening at first. When you go to the beach one morning in mid-May and find:
...there's not a whole lot to add. Midnight party, cheap booze, story of mankind for at least 5,000 years.

And when you go a couple days after Memorial Day weekend and find:'s hardly surprising.

Still, as I've learned, sometimes those cases you'd normally dismiss are exactly the ones you should look at. Take picture number two -- there's actually something there to work with. For one thing, there's context. This isn't old trash that randomly arrived over months or years. This was as crisp and fresh as if it were dropped a day or two before, because it was. It's a time capsule of Memorial Day Weekend 2010. There are stories here: dates, families, friends, kicking off the beginning of Maine summer in traditional fashion. And leaving evidence strewn across the sand in their wake.

A nosh, or pick-me-up, or maybe part of lunch:
Maybe a burst of fresh breath, or a treat for a well-behaved kid:
A beach game, possibly bought that very morning at the local store:
My favorite - an apparently unsuccessful attempt at a love connection:
And of course, cigarette butts:
How'd each of these things get left behind? Thoughtlessness? Ignorance? Spite? Blown out of reach by a gust of wind? Picked out of a trash can by a scavenging seagull? Don't know. Maybe all of the above.

What I do know is that only two of the things I picked up would actually biodegrade over the next several months/years: the notecard, and the wooden popsicle sticks.

What about the others? Well, a couple examples:

* Cigarette filters: made of thousands of fibers of cellulose acetate (a plastic). Breakdown time, about 10 years (many of the toxins trapped in them persist in the ground much longer). Total number of cigarettes smoked in 1998: 5.6 trillion; total weight of disposed filters in 1998: 2.1 billion lbs. Number of littered cigarette butts picked up worldwide by Ocean Conservancy Clean-up Day Volunteers, one day -- September 19, 2009: 2,189,252.

* Cape Cod chip bag: made up of two layers of #5 plastic with bonding layer of #4 plastic, inner film aluminum-metalized (found this info by e-mailing Cape Cod customer service; yes, really!). Non-recyclable. Breakdown time: centuries, possibly millennia. Annual retail sales of potato chips just in the U.S.: $6 billion. At an average of $1 per bag, # of these bags thrown out each year in the U.S. alone: 6 billion.

The peanut butter bag, Kit-Kat bag, candy wrappers, game bag -- all are also made of plastics or plastic composites that will persist for centuries, or longer, if not disposed of or recycled.

Plastics are cheap to produce & convenient. The flipside is that trillions of single-use bags & containers -- and cigarette filters -- are made every year. Plastics can be made very thin & lightweight. The flipside is that they blow away down a windy beachfront very easily. Plastics are durable & impermeable and good at keeping food fresh. The flipside is that once a piece gets lost in the sand, or blown out of a car window, or dragged from a trash bin by a scavenger, it doesn't go away.

So really, if I don't have all the answers about it now, not to worry. There's plenty of time to figure it out.

My photojournalist daughter hard at work

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Re-Education, Part 1

Context. Another archaeology term. It means that an artefact's true value comes from understanding how, when, and why it ended up where it did. The same is true of flotsam. Finding a piece of trash is great. But only by knowing the how, when, and why will it tell you its whole story.

My initial plan was simple: pick an area of a beach I love, walk up and down the high-tide mark for a couple blocks, collect whatever trash I notice, catalog it, report it. And then -- most important -- learn something from it.

I posted my March 8 & March 19 finds to this blog a month ago. To any who think I then quit, oh no. Below are results of my April 3 haul:

My half-hour two-block stroll on April 3 netted me: Several pounds of commercial fishing rope, an unidentified burlap scrap, 8 scraps of aluminum can, 24 lobster claw bands, a plastic cup, two cup lids, a plastic knife, two plastic forks, various scraps of cups & plates, a popped balloon enmeshed in kelp, a decayed rubber baseball, a shotgun shell, two beach umbrella bases, some newspaper, a 10-inch-tall oil filter, part of a "No Trespassing" sign, and a few bits of unidentified molded plastic.

I have more plastic bags of trash down in the shed waiting to be cataloged, from 4/14, 4/20, 5/11, 5/18, 6/2.

One problem: My initial plan? It kind of sucked. The story lacks context. Turns out, I didn't have very good controls at all. Instead, my plan let in too many holes -- too many variables -- to actually say much.*

Hole #1: Randomness -- Picking casually, instead of fully clearing an area, hamstrings me. Did that oil filter arrive between 3/19 and 4/3? Or was it there long before? No idea. Did it wash in by normal waves? By a storm? Get tossed intentionally? No clue.

Hole #2: Outside influence, small-scale -- There may be others collecting trash. And for sure there are others collecting kelp (with its debris) to use as compost. So even if I collected everything I found, does that mean I've collected everything that was there? No idea.

Hole #3: Outside influence, large-scale -- Tractors now hit the beach frequently, and they're drastically churning & changing the landscape. As of 6/8, most (not all) of the lobster traps have been hauled off. If I had started my hunt this week, there would be much less meeting my eye than there was in March. What else have they been hauling away or burying? No clue.

In the end, my first method was hopelessly lacking in controls. It left me unsure of when debris arrived, how it arrived, and how much of it arrived. It's time for a new approach, and I think I've found it. Stay tuned.


* Lest this seem all doom & gloom, the past couple of months have opened my eyes in -amazing- new ways. And the trash itself has at least spawned good questions, if not always good answers. The aluminum can scraps, for example. By studying them, I'm learning that the insides are mostly intact. They've been eaten away from the outside. Something besides seawater (which obviously sloshes around inside -and- outside a can) may be the culprit that's rotting these cans down. More to follow.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What lies beneath

Memorial Day has come and gone, and the unofficial start of Maine summer is here. At local beaches, that means one thing:

Industrial Cleanup (June 2, 2010)

At Ocean Park, summer tourism = beach tourism. And beach tourists expect clean sand. So for the past week the tractors have been hard at work, trawling, smoothing, respreading. And clearing away the huge mounds of kelp along with their tangled flotsam.

Former site of kelp field

Looks pretty good. But again... dig a little deeper. I stuck my toe in the sand, and found kelp. I dug down with my hands, more kelp. I spent about 2 minutes casually hand-sifting and digging through a few square feet. And in just that time, I found, amid the decaying organic matter:

Plastic debris found amid buried kelp

The tractoring, and the trawling -- it wasn't actually ridding the beach of all its junk. Much was just being churned up, covered over, made to look good. No doubt the intent is to let nature run her course with the organics and eventually leave clean sand through & through. But nature can't run her course with everything. There are things churned into the sand that do not go away.

Still, this does give me a little more insight into some of what I've been finding at the beach. Yes, clearly much is washing in from the ocean. But perhaps other bits too were lost right here one summer past, and then churned under the sands for years until re-emerging? It really does make you wonder just how much is lying in wait. And how much more is added every year. Especially when the technology tasked with removing it isn't able to do so.
Debris left on ground in wake of tractors

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Soda Can Experiment Update - The Plot Thickens

So it's been a week since I started my aluminum-can-in-seawater test. An update seems in order.
(Tues. June 1, 2010, 8:00PM)

I know, I know. I started with two cans and suddenly there are three! Explanation following. First, the originals: The left container is just seawater (refreshed once) and ginger ale can. There is no noticeable change to the water or the can. The middle is seawater (also refreshed once), ginger ale can, and iron nails -- working on the evidence that seawater helps iron to erode aluminum. This can too seems unchanged.

Back on 5/28 I thought about this, and did some more research. It turns out that aluminum cans are coated inside and out at the factory -- there's no aluminum actually exposed to the elements. So to truly test why the cans at the beach are so rotten and eroded, I had to think how nature could expose the aluminum.

Didn't actually have to think hard. Presumably, a beach is sandpaper at its most pure. Add some scouring action from wind & waves, and it's a fair guess that a soda can will have its outer coating scraped away naturally (though again, exactly how long is unknown). So I helped the process along with a third can, using a bit of fine (180 grit) sandpaper to expose some (but not all) of the actual aluminum.
Then I dunked this can in seawater with iron nails as a second test subject. It's now been sitting for 4 days straight (the far right can in the first picture above). So far, it's unclear if there's any change in it. It feels like it -might- be thinner & weaker when I touch it, but that may just be from the sanding. So the fun continues!

My prediction is that Can #1 (no iron) and Can #2 (iron & unsanded) will not change much even given weeks or months. Can #3 (iron & sanded) is what will make or break this test.

(Dating note: As of today, 6/1, the first two subjects are on Day 8 (having finished 7 days), and the third subject is on Day 5 (having finished 4 days). My notation for that is "Day 8-5," which is a system I'll keep until the experiment ends.)