Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ex Uno, Plures

When I stroll the sands at Bay View, I pick up bits of trash one at a time. When I'm home in the evening, cleaning & sorting & counting my finds, I tally them one at a time. And then I create my collection reports and my list, touting all the individual pieces of garbage I've found.

But all flotsam is not alike. Compare this...
1 piece of flotsam this:
1 piece of flotsam
Of course that tiny piece of plastic didn't start off so tiny. Whatever it was, it was once much bigger. Maybe as big as the balloon above. And if I had found it intact, on the beach, I would have registered it as "1 piece of flotsam." The question is: How many pieces has it broken down into? Where did they go? The answer is: Who knows?

An analogy. Here's your basic styrofoam packing peanut.
1 piece of simulated flotsam
Here's what it looks like after being rolled around in my hand for a few seconds, to simulate being ground up by the surf.
Far more than 1 piece of simulated flotsam
Suddenly, it's gone from one piece of garbage to hundreds of little floatable flecks, like these I found at the beach one week. Ex uno, plures.

Here's another analogy. This is a lobster trap.
img "Catching lobster.jpg"
from Wikimedia Commons
These are bits of vinyl trap coatings washed ashore last week:
Lots of bits
Traps get scraped & dinged, the steel exposed. Many traps (maybe hundreds of thousands) are lost at sea. The exposed steel rusts slowly on the sea floor. Rust expands, bursting the vinyl coatings. In time, the steel will all rust away to dust. But the vinyl bits will live on. One lobster trap can generate thousands of them as it slowly disintegrates under the waves. Ex uno, plures.

So what? What's the point of this ramble? It's to make a distiction that's often missed, between big flotsam that disturbs our eyes, and tiny flotsam that disturbs entire ecosystems. And to connect the former to the latter.

An intact trap, or balloon -- we can see that, it's obvious. We can clean it up. 1 piece of flotsam.

The small stuff is far more insidious. Tiny flecks elude us. They get into the guts of small-bodied (read: small-brained) fish & filter feeders. Bigger creatures eat them -- and their plastic-laden friends. Now the bigger creatures have a bigger dose of plastic chemicals in them. And on and on, polluting every stage of the food web, eventually ending up on our plates. (Similar to how mercury from coal-burning now poisons so much of the tuna in our oceans.)

All large pieces of plastic are trying to break up into countless small pieces of plastic. Given time, they'll succeed. Every balloon, bottle, measuring cup, shovel, glove, recycling bin, buoy, chunk of foam, or broken boat hull (!) that ends up in the ocean... it isn't really just one piece of flotsam. It's 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 pieces of flotsam, just biding their time.
What were you?
Ex uno, plures. Out of one, many.


  1. This is another great post! These bigger pieces of "flotsom" break down into smaller and smaller pieces, creating a plastic soup rather than a "floating island of trash." It sounds strange to say that I WISH it were a floating island of trash. We could search for it, find it, take it apart, and wipe our hands. The truth is far more insidious, and frightening. Thanks for keeping the torch burning here. Always appreciate your articulate posts.


  2. This is a wonderful post! When I visited the pacific garbage patch I was dismayed to see so many tiny pieces of debris. Toothbrushes and shampoo bottles were less common but little flecks of plastic were everywhere.

  3. Thanks Sara & Lindsey! It really is frustrating, that every plastic thing that escapes into the ocean is destined to pretty much the same disastrous fate. Whether it's ground up by surf, or bulged apart by rusting metal, or photodegraded to bits by the sun. (A big miss on my part, not linking back to my old post on photodegrading. I'll try to fix that with a follow-up I'm planning.)