Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Toy Story

Behold, the mighty Lego:
On July 20, during my weekly collection at Bay View, I picked up this little guy and plopped him into the bag. No biggie, just a toy at the beach.

It was only a few days later, when sorting through the bag, that it struck me: Who brings Legos to the beach? They're way too easy to lose. They don't lock together right when sand gets in them. They're just not a beach toy.

It so happened that I was reading a neat little book on marine debris at the same time:
(Burns, Loree Griffin. Tracking Trash. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.)

It tells the story of oceanographer & beachcomber Curtis Ebbesmeyer. In 1990, he heard of Nike sneakers washing up in Washington state. Turns out a cargo ship had hit a storm in the Pacific. Five shipping containers of the sneakers went overboard. Dr. Ebbesmeyer contacted beachcombers up and down the West Coast to find out when and where the shoes were washing up. Then he and his friend, oceanographer Jim Ingraham, started plugging the data into computer models to learn how currents move.

Their work has brought the science of ocean and wind currents leaps beyond where it once was. And 20 years later, they're still at it. Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham are tracking the flotsam of a dozen major container spills. One happened on February 13, 1997, 20 miles west of Land's End, Cornwall, England. The Tokio Express, en route from Rotterdam to New York, was struck by a rogue wave and lost 62 containers.

One of those containers held 4,756,940 brand new Legos.

Fast-forward to Bay View, July 20, 2010. The Lego I picked up came from high-tide line, as though washed in. It's an unlikely thing to bring to the beach. Did this little toy travel the North Atlantic for 13 years and several thousand miles? I don't know. In a bucket of still water it sinks; I have no idea what it would do in dynamic ocean water.

What I do know is that it was never used.

Under a 30x - 21mm jeweler's loupe it is pristine. Not one scratch, no wear, no sign that it was ever connected to another Lego, top or bottom, ever dragged through the sand. This Lego was lost before it ever touched a child's hand, and was found before it was ever worn down by beach & wave.

I've sent an e-mail in to Dr. Ebbesmeyer. He has the full cargo manifest, and will know if the style of piece I found was onboard. Being so generic, I'll probably never know exactly where it came from. But if it dropped locally, I'll eat my hat.

It's a big world, and a big ocean... until it isn't.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Collection Report July 20, 2010

Yet another stretch of sweltering heat and sunny days. On Monday night, 7/19, a doozy of a storm came through, but it unleashed far more lightning & rain than wind. Would it leave its mark on the finds at Bay View this week?
Well, this week it was a little bit of everything. Finds ranged from the sweet...
(Hoping in vain the owner would return) the wacky...
(Reward for discovering what this is) the poignant...
(No caption needed) "how did you forget this when packing up?":
On to the specifics. Zone N, easily the most colorful and diverse haul since I started:
196 finds:
  • Building materials: 3
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 10 (inc. weird yellow felty foamy scrap)
  • Fishing misc.: 2 (commercial rope, first bit washed in for a few weeks)
  • Food-related plastics: 33 (inc. nectarine label, banana label (see pic above!), "Produce from Mexico" band, 4 ketchup packs [two unopened], 2 spoons, Welch's Fruit Snacks, Quaker Chewy Granola Bar, Yogos Crashers, Capri Sun, various wrappers)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 8 (3 beer bottle caps, one pulltab, 2 gum wrappers, one half-used soggy roll of mints, one applesauce lid)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 31 (inc. small bucket, half-burned BIC lighter, bizarre plastic thingy (pic below), Lego piece - more on this, 2 bandaids, pen cap, bright orange syringe cap?)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 87 (78 local, 9 maybe washed in)
  • Paper/wood: 15
  • Misc./unique: 6 (full Circle K coffee cup, 2 flipflops - one broken, 2 paddle pieces, 1 weird rubbery "fish tail" or something?)
Actually a lot of bizarre finds. The rubbery, wiggly fishtail thingy has really taken a beating. Maybe a fishing lure at one point? Seriously no clue. It's on the right in this picture:
Here's another weird one. Solid circular base. Then perforated side, and then 4 "arms" sticking out of it. Doesn't look like a toy, and doesn't look like it was just lost at the beach yesterday either:
But here's the one I really want you to see:
"Dude, it's a Lego." Yes, yes it is. But, seriously, who brings Legos to the beach? They're tiny, they get lost, they don't work when they get sand in them. Maybe this wasn't a beachgoer's Lego? It turns out, there's an excellent story, involving .... well, I'll write a separate post about that. Soon. It's a good one. Stay tuned!

Anyway, quick recap of Zone S:
28 finds:
bottlecap, 4 plastic scraps, 2 pieces of foam, 4 pieces of food plastics (possibly all from the same meal - sandwich wrappers, oil packet, fork), 14 cigarettes (10 local, 4 maybe washed in), paper UPC tag, popsicle stick, and... new mascot! I found him right at high-tide line. It's hard to picture anybody dropping & losing something so bright & shiny. But he's also very clean & fresh, and it's hard to picture that he's from the ocean. Still, in my mind, he's traveled a very, very long way, and has quite a story in him. And again, if anyone knows who or what this thing is, please tell me!

A light week (by recent standards), but an intriguing one. Don't know if the big storm blew debris into the ocean, or punched it deep into the sand, or if there was just less trash. At any rate, it was a nice change.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Snapshots of a Moving Target

A wise old Greek once said, "The only constant is change." He also said, "You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on."

He may as well have been describing the beach at Bay View.

Each week I step onto the sand, the scene evolves. Wind, waves, paws, feet, fingers, trowels. The timeless mechanics of moon and tide. The crumbling sand towers of a child's imagination. A "bonfire log" that makes its way up and down the beach from week to week.

Or a wrecked lobster trap that washes ashore with all its annual tags still intact...
(as seen on June 8, 2010 - no idea when it actually arrived) a week later, when all the tags had been torn off and lay amid the wreckage...
(June 15, 2010) a week later, when it was moved alongside a heavily wrecked friend...
(June 22, 2010) a week later, when it was again by itself and all the tags had been stripped away except the owner's nameplate (found the tags dozens of yards away in the sand)...
(June 29, 2010), finally, a week later, when it was gone and forgotten:
(July 6, 2010)

All of which is to say that the beach is a dynamic place. A guy and a trash bag can't hope to understand everything that's happening, because it's happening all the time, day and night. It moves on, regardless of the schedule of a Flotsam Diarist.

And that's OK. Sometimes the best stories are the ones that don't answer all the questions, but instead leave you free to think up new ones to ask.

As a side note, I've started a page of all lobster trap tags I've uncovered in my wanderings. So far I've found tags identifying 14 unique traps lost to the sea and eventually washed up on shore. Here's the thing, each year the State of Maine issues licenses for some 3 million lobster traps. By some estimates, tens of thousands -- perhaps more than 100,000 -- are lost each year in Maine waters. (Like most "marine debris" issues, there's more guessing than facts. But the folks at the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation have started gathering the data, and are finding hundreds of old pots at a time.)

If the actual number of derelict lobster traps is only 1/100th of the worst case, that's still 10,000 traps lost over a decade. As the grills rust, and the plastic coatings tear and break loose, how many more of this...
or this...
...can you expect to find on your day at the beach?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Collection Report July 13, 2010

Another hazy start to the day, Tuesday, July 13, 7:30AM. Following on from another hot, muggy, beach-weather week.
So, what did the morning on Zone N bring? Well, the big:
... the small:
... and the weird (a good candidate for distant wash-up if there ever was one):
The previous night's high-tide had been a doozy, wave marks far up the beach from normal. So, what would the waves do to the debris on the shore? Three possibilities: (1) Wash half the beach's debris out to sea, (2) compress it on the thinner "high ground," or (3) bury it under several inches of sand. So, which was it?
Well, the find count falls in what's become "normal" for Zone N after a week. So, for now I'm going with #2.

246 finds:
  • Building materials: 5
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 19
  • Fishing misc.: 2 (bit of fishing line, bit of plastic coating from lobster trap cage)
  • Food-related plastics: 27 (inc. Capri Sun bag, Ritz cracker wrapper, another peanut-butter cracker wrapper, a Nature's Valley granola bar wrapper end, chip bag, 7 straw wrappers, 1 straw, ketchup pack)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 10
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 29 (inc. measuring cup-as-sand-castle-maker, angel Silly Band, backpack buckle, mauled bottlecap ring, 5 shards of broken, aged hard plastic, pail handle)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 125 (all cig filters - wet bag makes source unknown)
  • Paper/wood: 20 (inc. Bazooka Joe cartoon, "Great Taste" ice-cream cone wrapper, someone's name & phone # written on a scrap, half-burned cardboard kindling from a bonfire, remains of egg carton like that found on July 6)
  • Misc./unique: 9 (7 firework pieces, 1 rubber strip, 1 nylon strap)
Here's the likely-washed-in-doohickey from above. Maybe a beach umbrella cap? It's definitely weathered & sun-faded.
And here's an only slightly disturbing find:
The cap to some kind of medication. Gives you the warm fuzzies, no?

On to Zone S, where the evidence of the previous night's huge tides was hard to miss:
Blue marks the usual high-tide line; red marks Tuesday's, the biggest of the month according to the local tide charts. Waves washed some 35 ft further up the beach than typical, in places nearly reaching the dunes.

Even with such a compressed beach, this was mostly a usual haul:
45 finds:
  • Building materials: 3
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 2
  • Fishing misc.: 1 (large fishing lure - complete with 6 insanely sharp, garbage bag-eating prongs until I clipped them off)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (a straw)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (a wrapper)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 11 (inc. a stick-on K and M, purple seahorse mold, heart-shaped child's barrette, shotgun shell)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 23 (all filters, bag wet, couldn't tell source)
  • Paper/wood: 2
  • Misc./unique: 1 (bit of sea glass)
One thing I'm starting to find is how much these little bits & bobs travel. Case in point: plastic bits from Zone N...
...match up to bits found in S, a football field away:
Wind-borne? Wave-borne? Don't know. But the fact remains, shards of what was once one item were strewn at least 300 feet along the beach. Don't mess with Mother Nature.

My big nugget for this week: Summer waves giveth, not taketh away.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Breaking It Down

"It doesn't go away." A phrase repeated a number of times already in the short life of this blog. Modern flotsam is a problem because so much of it is persistent -- it doesn't go away.

But everything rots, right? I mean, a plastic bag or flowerpot gets brittle and shreds if left out in the sun over a summer.
(photo courtesy flickr/wygd and licensed by Creative Commons)

So clearly, plastic does go away over time, right?

Wrong. With other trash, like, say, a napkin (which is just tree pulp) or nail or chicken bone, nature has had hundreds of millions -- in some cases billions -- of years of trial and error in figuring out how to recycle it.

Not so with plastics. The first artificial plastic was created in 1862, but plastic use only really exploded after World War II. For all intents and purposes, nature has only been exposed to plastics for a few generations.

And it has no idea what to do with them.

Plastics are synthetic polymers - long, large chains of (mostly) carbon and hydrogen molecules composed of repeating structures that are tightly bound together. The bonds that make them strong also make them incredibly resistant to microbes, weathering, rainwater, freeze/thaw, anything that can break a plastic back to its carbon and hydrogen. Science still knows of nothing that can be used in nature to break it up. (A high-schooler made big news in 2008 with a possibility, but there has been no effective follow-up since.) Estimates on how long plastic takes to break down in nature range from a century to thousands of years, for a simple reason: nobody knows.

Back to the shredded plastic bag. It's not biodegrading, it's photodegrading. Sunlight can make plastics brittle and break apart. But they're not breaking down -- they're just becoming smaller versions of themselves. Eventually they get small enough to swirl around the ocean as a "soup" of tiny colored fragments that can be ingested by plankton and then work their way up the food chain.
This picture, courtesy the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, shows the contents of a brief sample trawl in the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex in the ocean hundreds of miles from any island or shipping lane. That's all plastic, brought in by the currents.

Sometimes, plastic doesn't have to break down too small to have an effect.
This image, from CBC News, shows a dead albatross on Kure Atoll in the middle of the Pacific. This and other atolls around Midway are dotted with the carcasses of hundreds (thousands?) of albatross like this one. They ingest colorful plastic bits floating in the water, which (surprise!) don't break down in stomach acid. Eventually, the bird always feels full and stops eating altogether, ultimately dying of starvation.

Kure Atoll is 1200 miles from the nearest inhabited island.

When you see a piece of milk bottle floating in the harbor on a cruise, or see plastic wrappers on the beach at low tide that all get washed into the ocean at high tide, just remember: they don't go away.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Collection Report July 6-7, 2010

(Broke this one into two days, coz 7/6 pinged the mercury at 82 degrees before 7:30AM.)

Bay View public beach, Saco, Maine, following the fabled 4th of July weekend. And a sweltering one at that. The aftermath was going to be interesting, for sure.

First, new sign on the lifeguard station:
A new one-week record for cigarette butts from zone N suggests otherwise. But if you get lemons, make lemonade. This week's "bounty" got me thinking of a new way to look at cig waste. I started separating out filters that looked ocean-borne (paper wrapper missing, bleached/washed filter). It may be possible to tease out a bit more of the story from these little pockets of poison. (Yes, appearances can deceive, which is why I'm already noodling ways to test whether a filter has been immersed in seawater.)

All told, predictable remains from a busy week. Zone N, July 6:
304 finds in total:
  • Building materials: 2
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 12
  • Fishing misc: 3 (1 rope, two fairly fresh claw bands)
  • Food-related plastics: 59
  • Food-related metal/glass: 8
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 41 (inc., 2 Trojan wrappers and 1 photographed but uncollected Trojan... gack; untossed bag of dog poop... gack; yellow hair roller, pail handle, 3 bandaids, 2 small pieces of broken vinyl from a lobster trap cage, Blistex tube, Home Depot price tag for a sling chair -- $19.98!)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 121 (112 local cigs, 8 likely ocean-borne, 1 wrapper)
  • Paper/wood: 25 (inc. Subway sandwich wrapper, Slush Puppie cup, Earl & Wilson beach towel tag, beach hut instructions, Skimboard user guide, AutoZone receipt, matchbox)
  • Misc./unique: 33 (23 firework pieces, one boy's jersey, one flipflop, one toddler "water shoe," one black sock, one white sock, one piece of rubber sole, 3 plastic tie-bands, 1 kite string/handle)
Zone S (July 7) was, as usual, much cleaner, and in many ways much more interesting.
48 finds:
  • Building materials: 5
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 1
  • Fishing misc.: 1 (rubber lobster trap bumper)
  • Food-related plastics: 3
  • Food-related metals/glass: 3
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 7
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 25 (17 local cigs, 7 likely ocean-borne, 1 wrapper)
  • Paper/wood: 2
  • Misc./unique: 1 (piece of firework)
Again, less foot traffic = less disturbance. Stuff that washes in doesn't move around as much as at zone N. It's still got its context. I managed to find many pieces lying at high-tide line right where the sea had last dumped them:
What does ocean-tumbled plastic and cigarette waste look like? Just like these things. Context!

So, the celebration of our nation's founding brought extra waste and litter to a beautiful beach. But it also brought more opportunities to learn. Which is, after all, the point.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Spotlight - NOAA Marine Debris program

Research is a funny little business.

It starts so small. A simple question, like "How did this widget end up on the beach?" Just a fragile, ephemeral thought. The kind of thing that can easily go *poof* back out of existence if not nurtured.

But if you're persistent -- and lucky -- you just may wend your way to an answer. Or, more excitingly, more questions. More avenues of thought. And if you're really lucky, those new questions will lead you to other people who have asked the same kinds of questions, and have knowledge to share. People making a difference. People who can help you learn how to make a difference.

From time to time the Diaries will take a moment to give a shout to a person or organization that's making a real difference. Today I want to introduce you to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association's Marine Debris Program.
NOAA describes its mission as "to understand and predict changes in Earth's environment and conserve and manage coastal and marine resources to meet our Nation's economic, social, and environmental needs." Its Marine Debris program came into effect in December, 2006. The program coordinates and leads a number of national projects including dealing with abandoned vessels, derelict traps & pots, coastal cleanups, as well as just gleaning basic information. (It's remarkable -- and scary -- how little science yet knows about just how much trash is out there, how fast it's collecting, and what its long-term effects are.)

For a Flotsam Diarist like me, the program's Web site provides a wealth of information and resources for learning just what marine debris is, including handouts, posters, brochures, classroom activity books, etc. They also maintain a blog and publish a weekly report with news & links. Beyond that, their outreach program is remarkable for the encouragement it offers, and the material that it will send to a regular guy with a passion to get the word out:
So a big thank you to NOAA and the Marine Debris program! A top site for anyone who's ever seen trash washed up on the beach and wanted to do something about it.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Soda Can Experiment Update - July 7, 2010

So you may recall that I've found lots of corroded and rotted aluminum cans at the beach. And that I started an experiment to see if I could recreate the conditions that cause a can to rot. My last update was more than 3 weeks ago, so I wanted to drop another quick post.

A really quick post. What's changed in 3 weeks?
Not a lot.

New corrosion may be happening, but it's going so slowly that there's nothing really to show.
My hunch is that the exposed metal has oxidized, leaving very little surface area of fresh aluminum to react with the salt and corrode.

Thus, another rethink (or perhaps "threethink" at this point). I was so busy narrowing things down that I think I lost sight of the forest. The beach isn't one event, it's a system. It's sand, wind, salty air, wet times when the tide comes in, starkly dry times when it goes out. People kicking things around, burying them. It's dynamic, unpredictable. It's not a can sitting in a bucket of water on a countertop for a month.

So, my rethink: Make a soda can experience real beach conditions. A can should be drunk, crushed, shaken around in wet sand, shaken around in dry sand, tumbled, rolled, exposed to bright light, buried. Only by doing that will I be able to say whether it was a beach environment that causes a can to rot like those that I've collected.

More to follow!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Collection Report June 29, 2010

Tuesday 6/29 brought morning fog, and a couple new sights, to Bay View:
Lifeguard not on duty

Fresh kelp washed up after summer storm

Just more proof that even a quiet beach is still a dynamic place, especially in the summer. And that our actions during a day don't die with the setting sun. Because it's not just kelp washing back up.

This bottle cap and cigarette butt clearly rode the waves. They both got into the ocean the same way -- a basic failure to get a piece of litter to its final resting place. They both ended up being part of the pollution problem of a nice beach. And they more than likely have company that I didn't see, if this piece is any indicator:

Freeze-pop wrapper half-buried by fresh sand
Wrapper retrieved; 3+ inches were buried

A small summer storm rounded up tons of sand from offshore bars -- and the detritus floating on the waves. It then redeposited it up and down the coast. What else lies several inches below the current surface of the beach? How is it affecting the clams and other organisms living there? When will it reappear? Where? In what condition? I don't know.

On to the specifics. Another big haul. First, the "N" zone:

245 finds in all:

  • Building materials: 2
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 8
  • Fishing misc: 8 (inc. 1 degraded claw band & 4 lobster trap tags ripped from a nearby derelict trap & strewn to the sand)
  • Food-related plastics: 30 (1 bottle, 4 bottlecaps, 1 Sam's Club water label, 4 gum/candy wrappers, 1 yogurt seal, 1 ketchup pack, 1 label from a Red Delicious apple, 7 torn ends from candy/chip bags, 1 beef jerky wrapper, 1 straw, 1 fork/spoon base, 1 freeze-pop wrapper, 4 straw wrappers, 1 SOLO plastic cup wrapper label, 1 pull string)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 17 (inc. 7 bottle caps from 6 different brands: Corona, Parrot Bay, Bud Light, Bud Light Lime, Michelob Light, un-ID'd two-headed eagle)
  • Food non-plastic/metal/glass: 5 (4 lollipop sticks & 1 gum)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 25 (inc. Trojan wrapper, single-dose eye drop, bandaid, lipbalm lid, and a bag stating "plastic bags can be dangerous")
  • Cigarette filters/plastic: 121 (119 butts (!), 2 plastic wrappers)
  • Paper, unidentifiable: 15
  • Misc./unique: 14 (11 fireworks pieces, 2 size 5-6 toddler water shoes, 1 "silly band" spelling LOL)
Take away cigarettes and the plastic bits that society wraps all its foods in, and you've instantly removed 3/5 of the trash. (For fun, here's what "119 cigarette butts" looks like when you sort them all out. The smell is pretty much what you'd expect.)
Zone S, as before, was much less trashed (photo of overall zone S trash got borked, sorry!)

33 finds in all:
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 3
  • Food-related plastics: 8
  • Food-related metal/glass: 3
  • Food non plastic/metal/glass: 8 (1 lollipop stick 2 gums, 1 wooden popsicle stick, 4 wrappers)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 1 (broken bit of blue plastic circle - cap/lid?)
  • Cigarette filters/plastic: 10 (all butts)
Again, the trend is that zone S is very lightly traveled. However, probably all but 6 of the items seem to be local drops, nothing for-sure ocean-borne. Of all the zone S finds, the one that got me was this little guy:
Even a tiny paper pepper packet from a fast food restaurant may have a plasticized lining. Didn't know that. It means that even things that look like they should biodegrade if you lose them may not.

Overall, I got a bunch of things out of this week:
  1. Hundreds of pieces of trash in zone N seems the norm.
  2. Cigarette accounts for 1/2 of the garbage every week.
  3. Even a lovely fresh apple or dash of pepper can be a source of nonbiodegradable plastic trash.
  4. The lifeguard station and old bonfire logs tend to collect people & their garbage, probably in off-hours or at night.
  5. Type, location, & condition might prove if something's ocean-borne.
The biggest thing I got is a sobering reality: It truly has become a plastic world. For proof, all you need to do is walk the beach.