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


  1. great investigative work, interesting data to point out to people, I'll be sure to do that!

  2. Thanks for spreading the word! It's funny; you'd think picking up trash over & over would be depressing, but the more I do the more fascinating I find it.