Saturday, November 27, 2010

Collection Report Nov 17, 2010

A chilly and rainy week. But the clouds finally broke briefly in the early afternoon of November 17, so off to the beach I went.
Surf's up
The ocean was still all worked up from the various storm systems that had passed through. There were even whitecaps out on Eagle Island, a little spur of rock and grass 1 1/4 miles offshore.
A rare sight
So it was with some surprise (relief?) that this particular outing brought in a fairly small haul. Though, as always, a couple eye-openers. For one thing, if there had been any doubt before about the source of all the shotgun shells and wadding I'd been finding, this dispelled it.
What -won't- a barnacle grow on?
For another, Mother Nature had managed to cart up a curious 3ft x 2ft chunk of fiberglass.
Bathtub surround?
On to the report. First, Zone N:
35 finds:
  • Building materials: 3
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 12 (mostly the backing from the bathtub surround)
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (2 bits of rope, 1 barnacle-encrusted shotgun shell, 1 buoy scrap)
  • Food-related plastics: 8 (inc. freshly dropped chocolate milk bottle)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (beer bottle scrap)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 3 (grocery bag scrap, bit of pink ribbon, bandaid)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 3 (2 local + 1 bit of plastic wrapper)
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 1 (fiberglass panel with foam backing)
Except for the fiberglass panel, a dull day in Zone N. Which is fine by me. Next, Zone S:
15 finds:
  • Building materials: 3
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 2
  • Fishing misc.: 2 (buoy scrap and strand of rope/line)
  • Food-related plastics: 5
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 2
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1 (floater)
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
A grand total of 50 pieces of debris. First I thought, "Wow, that's great news." Then it struck me... A small stretch of 40-degree beach, almost deserted for a month, pelted & churned by rain, and I'm excited that only 50 pieces of trash were visible? How low have I set the bar?

Then again, it is nice to be able to spend a little time enjoying nature, rather than stooping down every few seconds. You see things you normally wouldn't. Like the way a tide line can smooth out the pockmarks of an autumn storm.
Look ma, no debris
Or the way a saturated shoreline creates its own network of rivulets that branch back toward the sea. Ever toward the sea.
A tree grows in Bay View
So. Is this what's in store for the many frosty weeks to come? Or was this clean beach an anomaly, a one-off? What will next week's collection report tell? Turn the page... But I will give you one hint. That bit of fiberglass? It wasn't from a bathtub surround.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Soda Can Experiment - Postmortem

Longer-time readers here may remember an experiment I started back in May with soda cans. When I started my beach walks, I came across lots of badly mangled aluminum.
Like these
It occurred to me: If learning about the things that persist is important, so is learning how & why some things don't persist. After all, the Internet is flooded with sites claiming that an aluminum can will last for 80 to 200 years (or more). Which is not what I've been seeing.
Circa 1810? Anyone buying that?
So in late May I started an experiment to see what breaks an aluminum can down. I tried 3 cans: one in a bucket of seawater, one with iron nails added (to test for a galvanic reaction), and one I had scoured with sandpaper. At first, the scoured can corroded a little. But that soon stabilized. By mid-July, the experiment was pretty much DOA. (Feel free to catch up on all the details hereherehere, and here.) I've only just now finally emptied the buckets and officially killed the test.
Can #2 today, caked in salt, otherwise pristine
But I learned something. You see, aluminum is funny. It oxidizes easily. But that layer of oxidation actually protects the fresh aluminum underneath. It's like an impermeable film. For a can to corrode away, something needs to keep rubbing off that film. No rubbing of film, no corrosion. No corrosion, and boom, you've got a can that lasts for decades -- or centuries.

But take a can and place it at, say, the beach. Well, gee, what do we have at the beach that's abrasive and can rub off an outer protective film layer repeatedly? (This is a rhetorical question: there are no points for answering.)

So the future task is clear: toss a can into a bag of sand, shake it vigorously once a day, then let it spend the rest of its time in a bucket of seawater. And see what happens.

In the meantime, a last tidbit. In 2008, Americans recycled 53.2 billion cans. But they consumed 98.3 billion cans. Say only 1% of the 45.1 billion non-recycled cans got littered and found their way into the sea. That's 451 million cans added to the sea floor. Each year. And that's only from the U.S.

So maybe this year, a partier tossed a beer can into the ocean. From there, maybe it settled down to the bottom in a nice little nook. Where it lay, and lay. Then maybe in late 2209 a large storm will wash up that ancient soda can onto the beach. And maybe in the summer of 2210, your great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter will wander the beach and step down on a sharp, jagged bit of that can, as it finally rots away.
Linked from

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Collection Report Nov 4-11, 2010

So early November was a tricky one for a Flotsam Diarist. Fun fact: Novembers in Maine are kind of cold, windy, dreary, and rainy! I tried to hit the beach on Nov 4, but the wind and rain chased me off after only a few minutes. All I accomplished was a quick scan of the high-tide line for the obvious bits.

I managed to get out for a few more minutes on Nov 7. As you can see, nature had been busy scouring the sands.
The cleanest of slates
My daughter came along too, carrying her own special bit of flotsam - her new favorite yellow shovel, rescued from the beach in August.
Flotsam Diarist 2.0 beta
As the attire shows, November 7 also wasn't an ideal collection day. Plus, a 3-year-old doesn't really have that kind of patience. So on to November 8. Which started interestingly enough:
Ooh, little bit of rope
Or not so little
You just never know
And after this moment, what would happen? Yes. More rain.

But finally, November 10 was... well, it was cloudy, 41 degrees, and insanely windy. But for an hour, it actually wasn't raining. So I finally got in the full walk.
The proof is in the footprints; all mine (OK, except the dog's)
So this is a slightly unorthodox collection report, from a slightly unorthodox two weeks. Here's Zone N.
67 finds:

  • Building materials: 8 (7 slats, one post end)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 12
  • Fishing misc.: 10 (2 buoy bits, 1 lobster trap entry net, 4 rope scraps, 2 long bits of twine, 1 shotgun shell wadding)
  • Food-related plastics: 8 (inc. banged-up coffee lid scrap and very eroded plastic/foil scrap)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 5 (1 can, 1 can scrap, 3 bits of sea glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 15 (inc. shovel, hard solid plastic rod/fitting, balloon scrap, 5 bits of plastic bags, central webbing from bandaid
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 4 (3 locals + 1 floater)
  • Paper/wood: 3 (1 swiffer cloth, 1 dryer sheet, 1 Dubble Bubble wrapper)
  • Misc./unique: 2 (Buzz Lightyear balloon, golf tee)

Some usual suspects. And one not so usual.
To Infinity and...
This collection's biggest haul by mass was fishing gear.
Wish I had the whole buoy #
Here's a closeup of that contraption (part of a lobster trap, it turns out) that was mostly buried in the sand:
Not part of a Lady Gaga costume
And my current nemesis, styrofoam:
Same colors show up week after week 
Unlike last week, Zone S didn't produce much of note, except an abraded lobster trap tag from 1999.
25 finds:
  • Building materials: 5 (asphalt chunk, 4 fence slats)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 5
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (3 bits of rope, 1 trap tag)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 2
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 7
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 2 (1 local, 1 floater)
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0

All in all, the finds are still across the spectrum, and are still coming from local drops, blow-ins, and wash-ins. (The latter two more than the former now, which makes sense.) And the cigarette count remains utterly collapsed -- a welcome sign, but one that's making me rethink some of my assumptions.

This was a period of biting wind, drizzling -- sometimes pouring -- rain, and shifting sand. The slope of the beach is changing, but in ways I wasn't quite expecting. Close to the water, it's eroding fast. But close to the dunes, new sand has been dumped. The beach is becoming steeper, and every week the contours change. As shown by the lobster trap/rope, the surprises are there. Just biding their time. What will the next report bring?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Supermarket Bay View II

Following up a little tally I made in August. Here's an updated list of all the brands & foods for which I've found plastic trash littering Bay View beach:

Fruit Candies:
* Walmart Fruit Smiles - Raspberry
* Fruit Rollups
* Kellogg’s Fruit Rolls - Wizards of Waverly Place
* Yogos Crashers - Berry Melon Mania
* Welch’s Fruit Snacks - Mixed Fruit

* Austin - Peanut Butter
* Lance - Smoke House Cheddar
* Ritz - Peanut Butter
* Kraft HandiSnacks Crackers & Cheese

* Kettle Brand - Salt and Fresh Ground Pepper
* Pringles Multigrain
* Cape Cod - Sea Salt & Vinegar

Grain/Granola Snacks:
* Rice Krispies Treats - Original
* Walmart Granola - Peanut Butter & Choc Chip
* Nature Valley Granola - (Unk. variety)
* Quaker Chewy Granola - Chocolate Chunk
* Quaker Chewy Granola - Smores
* Quaker Dipps Caramel Nut
* Sunbelt Chewy Granola - Chocolate Chip

* Hershey’s Bar - Original
* Airheads
* Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
* Tootsie Roll
* Tootsie Roll Pops
* Betty Crocker - Scooby Doo Fruit-Flavored Snacks
* Good Humor - Ice Cream Sandwich
* Columbina Chomp - Orange
* Columbina Chomp - Lemon
* Ghirardelli Chocolate
* Jolly Rancher - Watermelon
* Jolly Rancher - Cherry
* Whoppers
* Twix
* KitKat
* Butterscotch
* Snickers
* Twizzlers
* "Crazy Candy" - unknown flavor
* Nik-L-Nip Wax Bottle

* Ketchup - McDonald’s
* Ketchup - Heinz
* Generic - Pepper pack
* Salad Oil - generic
* Grated parmesan cheese - Single Serv
* Taco Bell Border Sauce - Fire

* Listerine Cool Mints
* Trident
* Wrigley’s - ?
* Wrigley's - Spearmint
* Hall’s
* Extra
* Juicy Fruit

* Sam’s Club - Water
* Capri Sun - Fruit Punch
* Capri Sun - Surfer Cooler
* Capri Sun Roarin Waters - Grape
* Shaw’s - Natural Spring Water
* Gatorade - Performance (Orange)
* Poland Spring - Water
* Price Chopper - Sparkling Water (Blackberry)
* Price Chopper - Sparkling Water (Raspberry/Blackberry)
* Coors Light
* Niagara - Water
* Rite Aid Pantry - Water
* Diet Pepsi
* Powerade - Mountain Berry Blast
* Miller Lite

Drink Flavorings:
* Crystal Light - Green Tea
* Crystal Light - Fruit Punch
* Generic - Raspberry
* Totally Light - Lemonade
* Koolaid Singles - Grape

Fresh Fruit:
* Banana
* Apricot
* Nectarine
* Apple - Macintosh
* Apple - Granny Smith #4017
* Apple - Empire #4124
* Apple - Fuji #4129
* Lemon - California #4958

Meats/Serious Foods:
* Little Caesar’s Pizza Heat Sheet
* Oscar Mayer - Lunchables w/cheese
* Hannaford - Turkey Club Wrap
* Slim Jim (OK, not a serious food and only questionably meat, but this is the best fit)
* Red Swiss Chard
* Bread (unknown brand)
* Stonyfield Organic Yogurt - Vanilla
* Gogurt SpongeBob - Strawberry

I'll repeat my comment from August, because it still applies: "We all know it's a plastic world. But when you start tallying the list of ordinary, everyday food packaging that winds up as permanent junk on a nice beach -- that's when you realize just how far down the rabbit hole we've come."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Collection Report Oct 28, 2010

Wow. I'm getting behind here. Not cool. Quick catchup from a bright and unseasonably warm October 28.
My kind of busy
The high-tide line was not hard to spot. A fairly lazy high tide following a cold but mostly forgettable week. (Though a good shower the day before had churned things up nicely.)
Tell-tale kelp line
My stroll this day brought some things small:
Easy to spot when your eye is in
Some things not so small:
Huggies or Pampers? I didn't look that closely
Some things that look like other things:
Bag scrap masquerades as withered seagrass
Some head-scratchers:
Cap to a diner table syrup bottle? Really?
And some things that magically washed up as I ambled along the shoreline on the way back to my car:
Leather shoe sole, tossing in the surf
All told, an interesting haul. Here's Zone N:
54 finds:
  • Building material: 3 (1 slat, 2 chunks of asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 12
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (lobster trap bumper, rope, shotgun shell wadding, claw band)
  • Food-related plastics: 5 (including label from a lemon)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 6
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 12 (inc. grocery store bag, bag scrap, toy beach rake/fork, 2 bits of netting, diaper)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 8 (1 local, 6 floaters, 1 plastic cigar end)
  • Paper/wood: 1
  • Misc./unique: 3 (woven plastic sack, packaging from a present, lonely heart note)
This collection included one of the more poignant bits I've found - a note written to "Dear Universe," from a lonely heart looking for Mr. Right. When I found it, it was melting away from the rain. I saved it and brought it back home, which felt right at the time. Now I'm not so sure. Was that note an intrusion on the beach? Or was my taking it home an intrusion on somebody's heartfelt wish? All I know is, I hope her dream comes true.

An annoying find was the label from a lemon.
*Paramount Citrus, CA Lemon, USA 4958
Plastic. How can it be that now even every piece of fresh fruit at the supermarket is graced with it? Enough already? Then again, it has been a neat mystery for the past couple weeks -- who brought a lemon to the beach in 40-degree late October, and why?

Moving on to Zone S:
39 finds:
  • Building material: 12 (5 fence slats, 1 thin post, 4 chunks of asphalt, 1 bit of brick, 1 bit burned painted wood)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 7 (inc. large chunk of buoy?)
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (3 bits of rope, 1 bit of lobster trap coating)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 6 (inc. syrup bottle lid, caution tag)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 6 (2 local + 4 floaters)
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 4 (leather shoe sole, 3 pcs blue fabric)
The foot traffic of summer is gone; Zone N's numbers have stabilized well below the 200+ bits it had been giving. And it's interesting to see how Zones N & S now start looking so alike. Not surprising. But nice to see a hypothesis blossom: Yes, beachgoers leave a fearsome amount of trash; but the debris that fouls the coasts of southern Maine has a thousand fathers.

The other big thing to note is the recent collapse of cigarette debris. Of course there are fewer people on the beach, thus fewer smokers. But the ones that wash in at high-tide line with their paper worn off -- they're way down too. Why? Only one way to find out. Keep counting, and turn the page...

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Part II

A month ago, I wrote about a little test I'd been doing with cigarette butts. Do they really take ages to break down in waterways?

As a quick recap, on August 28 I took one of the thousands of cigarettes I've picked up from the beach and plopped it into a 5-gallon bucket of freshwater.
Day 1 - August 28, 2010
This simulates a cigarette butt falling from a gutter into a local storm drain.

From the storm drain, a cigarette butt will travel through a network of pipes until it dumps into a stream or river. And except in a few cities, there is nothing -- nothing -- to stop that cigarette (or any gutter trash) from going straight into the great waterways of the world.

So for the first month, I simulated the cigarette floating through storm drains. I put sand and a rock in the bucket to simulate the scouring effect of pipes & debris. Every day I took a stick and swirled it in the water 25 times to agitate it. By day 35 the paper was worn but the cigarette filter itself was still completely intact.
Day 35
Which is where my 1st post left off.

On now to the 2nd phase of the test. I switched gears and simulated the cigarette butt emptying out into a river. I doubled the daily agitation to 50 swirls. And I added a second piece of trash for comparison.
Day 37
Let's see what happens.
Day 40 - paper receipt settled to bottom
Day 47 - receipt already disintegrating
Day 51 - filter paper finally unraveling
Day 61
And finally, to today.
Day 69
And for fun, here's a closeup, taken this morning during the 30 seconds it's been out of the water since August 28.
Day 69-b
The filter paper is gone. The receipt has turned into an unrecognizable pulpy mass. But the cigarette butt lives on. Because it's plastic: a polyester called cellulose acetate.

Again, 5.5 trillion cigarettes are smoked each year. If even a miraculous 90% of them were disposed of properly, that leaves 550 billion littered each year. 550,000,000,000. That is 17,440 cigarette butts littered every second. Every second.

Here's another way of looking at it. Say a cigarette butt is an inch long. In only 20 days' time enough would be littered to reach the moon and back. And that's if only 10% of all cigarettes are littered. Do you think only 10% of all cigarettes are littered?

So my experiment goes on. Now at a little over 2 months, I'm going to switch to saltwater to simulate it reaching the ocean. And again, we'll see what happens.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Collection Report Oct 20, 2010

October 20th at Bay View beach in Saco, Maine brought a long-lost sight.
Sandpipers and their overlord
Which brought a smile to my face on a very chilly morning. When you spend each week scouring the world for the ugly, it's all the more crucial to notice the beautiful. Sometimes -- no, especially -- in places you least expect it.
Someone's collection of found art
Because we all know there's plenty of ugly to go around.



I was just about to do the fancy segue. You know -- first show a few pretty pictures, and then hit folks with the ugly; insert obligatory shots of trash on the beach, tug at heartstrings, yada yada yada. Then it occurred to me, this one time I don't want to do that. That's so predictable. There are plenty of other pages on the Flotsam Diaries choc-a-bloc with depressing imagery. So many. Today as I write this, the sun is just rising over the treetops. Our home is bathed in a golden glow, and the branches outside that aren't yet bare are aflame with their last hurrah of color -- coppers and rusts and vermillions.

This one collection report, my heart isn't into the ugly.

But this is still a collection report; so I'll at least post what I found. If briefly.

Zone N, 77 finds:
  • Building materials: 16 (fencing, asphalt chunks, brick bits, roofing tile bits)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 10
  • Fishing misc.: 5 (shotgun shell wadding, bits of lobster trap coating, trap bumper)
  • Food-related plastics: 4
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (scrap of aluminum can)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 11
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 23 (14 local + 9 "floaters")
  • Paper/wood: 1
  • Misc./unique: 6 (glove, chunk of wax, furniture fitting, gum, 2 bits rotted shoe leather)
Zone S, 43 finds:
  • Building materials: 17 (mostly fence slats and bits of asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 11
  • Fishing misc.: 5 (lobster trap feeder plate, bit of rope, shotgun shell, 2 shell waddings)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 7
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 0 (!!! a first)
  • Paper/wood: 1
  • Misc./unique: 1
All told, 120 more bits of trash to add to the list.

It's so easy to cross that line between caring about something and being consumed by it. I was a guy who saw trash on the beach, and now I'm a Flotsam Diarist. It's clear that we're creating a plastic world, and that tugs at me. But in my heart, I'm not an outraged activist. I've tried that suit on, and it doesn't fit. I'm a radical moderate, who just wants to leave the world better than he found it.

A parting picture.
Scoured sand
The winds of October have already begun to reclaim the beach and return it to the ocean. As they have since the dawn of time. Much of the loose top sand has already been scoured, leaving an older and harder layer exposed. Throughout the winter, the sand will move far offshore, one storm at a time, and the beach will sink and be scooped away. Then the tides of summer will again slowly deposit it back, one wave at a time.

This is a good world. We should keep it that way.