Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Recap

It seemed a good time to put together a little recap of the things I've seen -- and learned -- over the past few months.

If it's happening along the coasts of Maine, it can happen anywhere.

(Music is "Lux Aeterna"/"Requiem for a Tower" by Clint Mansell)

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Plastic Ocean

In 2010, on almost any beach, at almost any time of the year, there is a constant: plastic. From the Jersey Shore to the distant paradise of Midway, plastic pollution has reached nearly all corners of the planet. We've done this all within a few generations. And the big question seems to be "Why is there so much plastic in the ocean?"

So I put together a little chart.

Recycling is wonderful. But it is not endless. Once a piece of plastic comes into the world, the only way it is known to end -- really end -- is in the fires of an incinerator. Until it meets that fate, it will persist. And given half a chance, it will enter a gulley, a roadside ditch, a culvert, a storm drain, a rill, a brook, a stream, a river, a floodplain. And eventually the ocean. Where it will remain plastic, even as it photodegrades to a microscopic soup.

So the question isn't "Why is there so much in the ocean?" It's "How did we not think this was going to happen?"

Friday, October 22, 2010

Collection Report Oct 13, 2010

Walking the shores of Ocean Park way back in March, I realized that our modern world was leaving its footprint in places never meant for it. And since then, I've longed for spotless sand underfoot. Both for myself and for my little girl. It might be too much to say I got that wish on October 13 at Bay View. But I did get a brief glimpse of what it might feel like.
Late morning, not a soul around
The weather-worn path even invited, with its splash of color...
Autumn weaves its way toward the shore
As I started my slow pacing up and down from dune to tide, back and forth, something occurred to me. I wasn't stooping over very much. In fact, as the morning wore on, only a few larger bits & bobs marred the scene.
Whole pack of gum (package found nearby)
Tortured scrap of cup
All told, I brought in the lightest Zone N haul since my first visit to Bay View back in June.
55 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 12
  • Fishing misc.: 0
  • Food-related plastics: 6
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (scrap of aluminum can)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 5
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 24 (14 local + 10 floaters)
  • Paper/wood: 4
  • Misc./unique: 3 (scrap of cloth, gum pack, big of blue string)
Zone S told a very similar tale.
36 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 12
  • Fishing misc.: 2 (rope scrap, bit of plastic coating from lobster trap)
  • Food-related plastics: 2
  • Food-related metal/glass: 3 (including another scrap of aluminum can)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 7
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 6 (1 local, 4 floaters, 1 plastic wrapper)
  • Paper/wood: 2
  • Misc./unique: 2
A grand total of only 91 bits of trash -- 1/4 of what I was finding at peak season! And most of it was quite small.

My enthusiasm is tempered. First, smaller doesn't equal better -- tiny bits of foam make it easily into tiny bellies. From there, they can ride up the food web and wreak their own special havoc. Second, the week saw strong offshore winds; floating garbage would have a tough time making it onto the beach, and dropped garbage would have an easy time making it into the ocean out of sight.

But still, sometimes it's OK just to stop and smile. This was a good day. And a window into a vista that once was, and can be again.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Collection Report Oct 7, 2010

As promised, the collection report from October 7. From my first steps on the beach, I knew the majority of my finds were going to be fence slats. I just didn't know how many:

Zone N
Zone S
But even with roaring waves & brutal winds, there were plenty of other goodies as well. Here's Zone N:
252 finds:
  • Building material: 104 (fence slats)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 50 (!!)
  • Fishing misc.: 9 (6 bits of rope, two trap tags, 1 lobster trap, heavily bashed)
  • Food-related plastics: 6
  • Food-related metal/glass: 5
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 28 (inc. balloon, piece of another balloon, "Tattoo" tag, white bow, happy face, umbrella base, and a bandaid)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 41 (25 local & 16 floaters)
  • Paper/wood: 4
  • Misc./unique: 5 (quarter -- who says this doesn't pay??, firework bit, 2 blobs of candle wax, half of plastic recycling tub washed in from New Brunswick, Canada)
Couldn't quite believe how many scraps of styrofoam I kept finding. Everywhere I looked, more little balls of polystyrene hiding amid the kelp, or down in some tiny hollow where the wind couldn't reach them.
Foam mix-and-match
Plus, of course, all the usual suspects...
Banner day for misc. plastics
On to Zone S:
186 finds:
  • Building material: 133
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 25
  • Fishing misc.: 5 (3 buoys/buoy scraps, 2 bits of rope)
  • Food-related plastics: 3
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (rotted scrap of aluminum can)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 10 (inc. two toggles, balloon scrap, magazine packaging?)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 8 (2 local + 3 "floaters" + 3 cigar ends)
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 1 (half of a Zodiac XDC deepwater inflatable boat -- not brought home!)
The foam frenzy of Zone N carried (unshockingly given the wind) through Zone S. It brought polystyrene bits both small, and not so small.
More foam fiesta -- trending blue in Zone S
Some storm ripped rope straight thru yellow buoy
All told, on October 7 I collected 438 pieces of debris. Even taking out the 237 bits of fencing, the rest of the numbers are still topsy-turvy from the height of summer: almost no food plastics, compared to 75 bits of foam & styrofoam. On the other hand, there were constants too: the ever-present cigarette, the colorful scraps of plastic that were all once intended to make life a little brighter, easier, more interesting.

When I started this so many months ago, I never really expected to find half a boat. But I find that little surprises me anymore. If man has made it, a specimen of it is probably in the sea, right now. Just waiting to surface again when the time is right.

All more proof that a beach without sunbathers is still daily visited by the waste of the modern world.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Winds of Autumn, Oct 7, 2010

October 6 brought the first real taste of the Maine winter to come. Cold winds whipped and gusted and tossed trees around for hours. Sheets of blinding rain blew horizontally well into the night. October 7 was still gray, blustery, and threatening for much of the day. The last spits of drizzle only finally ended right about the moment I pulled into the little parking lot at Bay View in the early afternoon. I had a hunch what this might mean.
Kelp thrown ever higher up the beach
The evidence of Mother Nature's little shindig wasn't hard to find. The kelp was almost up to the dunegrass. Shattered and mangled debris spread up and down the coast -- including score on score of these faded wooden slats, ripped from the dune fencing nearby:
From Zone N... Zone S and beyond
Actually, not scores. Hundreds. 237 individual slats or slat-shards, to be exact. Who knows how many more littered the areas outside my collection zones.

But, as usual, all debris is not local. One piece in particular had traveled a very long way to join the party.
Half of a recycling bin
A well-traveled recycling bin!
St. George, N.B. (New Brunswick) is over 200 miles to the north. I have an e-mail in to Jail Island Salmon to see if, on the off chance, they remember when they lost a bin. One wonders where the rest of it is.

Though possibly the longest-traveled, the bin was hardly the only eyebrow-raiser. In fact, as the tide receded I got a chance to witness the waves offer up another goodie.
Dear "1761 0057 01 Z:G,"
I found your trap
But it was in Zone S that I stumbled upon the piece de resistance...
Half of a Zodiac XDC inflatable
You never really want to find half of a boat washed up on your beach. Its serial # was still intact (CG508, built May 1985), so I gave the info to the police. There were no personal effects, and plenty of non-tragic explanations. But still...

Things I sadly didn't get pictures of in situ included one complete and two fragmentary lobster trap buoys, cast all the way up to the edge of the dune grass. (There will be pics of them in the forthcoming collection report.) As well as a remarkable amount of styrofoam scraps. And the usual cigarette butts, etc.

Not to mention all the things that were lost back to the sea before I even got there, thanks to a brisk offshore breeze.
Blown from the dunes back to the water's edge... and beyond
All told, a very busy day. Full report following soon. But for now, I'll close with a little uplift.
Wind art
I collect, catalog, and blog about the detritus of human life not because I think I can make the world beautiful. But because it is beautiful.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Epiphany

I was at the beach again this morning. For a time I had the entire vista all to myself. And a thought struck me.

Earth is 4.54 billion years old.

The first oceans formed 3.8 billion years ago, as the planet cooled enough for liquid water to exist.

The earliest known life forms date back some 3.5 billion years.

Single-celled organisms floated in the primordial seas. They photosynthesized, pumped oxygen into the atmosphere, rusted the iron from the rocks so they could start breaking down into soil, paved the way for life as we know it. For our blue planet.

I stood, watching the gentle waves lap against the sand bar exposed by the low tide. And it occurred to me how, through all those vast ages, water has been the heart and soul of life. How every living thing that ever is or ever was has felt the nourishing flow of water coursing through it. How probably every molecule of water in that endless sea has -- at one time or another -- found itself coursing through a life form, somewhere.

In 3.8 billion years, one would think that the water of the oceans would have seen it all. Until just a couple generations ago, one would have been right.

Last week the ocean deposited this (among much else) at Bay View beach in Saco, Maine:
Photo Oct. 7, 2010
This recycling tub -- or half of a recycling tub, I should say -- is made of #2 plastic, HDPE (high-density polyethylene). HDPE was invented in 1951 by two scientists from Phillips Petroleum. 30 million tons of it are now made each year. In all the 3.8 billion years that water has flowed on our planet... in all the things it has flowed around, under, through... until the time of our parents/grandparents, it had never had to flow around #2 plastic.

Now it can't get away from the stuff.

When #2 plastic (and its siblings, cousins, and nephews) breaks up amid crashing waves and relentless sunlight, it doesn't go away. Eventually it becomes a soup, or slurry, sloshing around one of the many gyres in the deep ocean. Until a chance storm or rogue current deposits it on your beach. There is no technology to remove it, without also removing countless tons of life-giving plankton and killing the ocean. What's there... is there.

Today the beach was clean. (Clean by usual standards anyway, probably less than 100 pieces of plastic trash.) Listening to the rhythm of the waves, I felt small. Yet very large. For the briefest of moments, it was possible to envision what my endless chain of forebears could experience as they walked the sands and shores of their world.

What will my child's children see?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Collection Report Sept 29, 2010

Wednesday, September 29 at Bay View beach, Saco. A late start, and a sunny but cool mid-morning.
Never tire of this view
The last memories of August and early September storms were eroding away.
Sand cliff, a last ghost of a former storm
Leaving behind, as always, more than first meets the eye. Here is Zone N:
167 finds:
  • Building material: 1
  • Foam/styrofoam: 16
  • Fishing misc.: 3 (2 bits of rope, flare shell)
  • Food-related plastics: 24 (inc. sandwich baggie, ketchup packet, 5 bottle caps, faded bit of "Nik-L-Nip" wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 12
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 31 (inc. shotgun shell plug (?), OTC medicine seal, "remove plastic" scrap, scrap of faded orange sphere, latex glove, balloon tip, bandaid)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 69 (57 local drops + 11 likely floaters + 1 plastic)
  • Paper/wood: 9
  • Misc./unique: 2 (thin rope, Bic lighter)
Not a lot to get excited about, perhaps.
Millinery union label
Always colorful scraps
Really don't want to know
Zone S is still, predictably, bringing in less stuff. Though with fewer beachgoers bringing less food to Zone N, the ratios are starting to look much closer between both zones now.
58 finds:
  • Building material: 2 (fence slats)
  • Foam/styrofoam: 11
  • Fishing misc.: 1 (claw band)
  • Food-related plastics: 7
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (bit of sea glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 8
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 20 (17 locals + 3 floaters)
  • Paper/wood: 6
  • Misc./unique: 2 (bit of string and scrap of antenna wire)
At most, this week is a reminder that the end of tourist season doesn't mean the end of a fouled beach. Even if the numbers are off their peak.

For those not terribly moved by what washed up for this collection, wait til I post October 6th's. You might not going to believe your eyes.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ashes to Ashes?

In early July I sat down to write a post about cigarettes and filter waste. What I had discovered... well, it woke me up. The scale of the pollution, the number of toxins, the proof that cigarettes kill marine life. I decided that I needed to learn more.

This summer I learned:
  • That cigarette butts litter my lovely beach (and every public space I walk through).
  • That the big "Tobacco-Free Area" sign on the lifeguard station did nothing to slow the weekly deluge.
  • That a small, quiet beach in southern Maine can collect almost 2,000 filters in the course of the summer.
  • And that filters really do wash up onto the beach from the ocean. I've seen it.
It's the last point that gets me. All those butts you see in the gutter, they go into the storm drains. Then to a nearby river or stream. Then to the ocean.

Think I'm wrong, and that they break down? Let's try a little experiment. Let's fill a 5-gallon bucket with water (fresh water, representing your local storm drain/river). Let's put some sand, wood, and a rock in it to simulate nature. Then let's drop a freshly-found cigarette butt into it. Every day or so let's swirl the cigarette around 25 times to simulate the churning it goes through in the "wild."
Day 1 - August 28, 2010
Give it a couple days.
Day 3
Give it another day, and something unexpected happens.
Day 4
Look at that! After 3 days it mysteriously sinks. But it's easily picked up by even gentle swirls of water. Like, say, a stream slowly meandering down to the ocean. Let's keep rolling.
Day 9
Still intact.
Day 14
Still intact.
Day 24
Still intact. And then finally to the latest picture from a day ago:
Day 35... and counting
So, it's more than a month in now. The paper's a little scraped. But the filter is still completely intact and unchanged. It does sink in a foot of fresh water, but it also moves very easily when any current is applied. After my experiment reaches two months, I'll switch to a bucket of saltwater to represent it emptying into the ocean. I'll swirl it more frequently to represent tides and waves. And we'll just keep going. How long do you think it'll be before it breaks down?

Here's another fun one. What happens if you subject a cigarette butt to a washing machine on normal cycle and then a dryer for an hour on medium heat? Not much.
Looks like.... a cigarette butt
5.5 trillion cigarettes are manufactured every year. Best studies suggest that only 10% make it properly into an ashtray or receptacle. But let's be generous. Let's say 90% make it. That still leaves 550 billion -- 550,000,000,000 -- littered. Every year. And they don't go away. They don't go away. Because they're plastic -- cellulose acetate. They will last for years. And even when they do finally dissolve to a powder that you can't see, they're still plastic. 

The tobacco industry is in no hurry to tell consumers that filters are plastic. Why? They found that smokers tend to ritualize the act of stubbing out a butt at the end of their cigarette (see p. 6 of the PDF file in the link). Most smokers simply don't think their actions are so far-reaching. What would it do to the industry's bottom line if smokers knew that most or all of the butts they've ever discarded onto the ground still exist?