Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reply from Tom's of Maine

Last week I received a response from Tom's of Maine to my letter of June 9 about their switch to plastic toothpaste tubes. Reprinted here in full (scroll to read):

June 16, 2011

Dear Harold,

Thank you for your letter -- not only for your commitment to the environment and sustainability, but also for your willingness to share your concerns. Although we are unhappy to hear you are disappointed with our new toothpaste tube material, we do track consumer comments closely, and are especially interested to hear how our valued users feel about this new packaging.

As you can probably imagine, switching to our new laminate tube was a very big decision for us. The aluminum tubes had been a part of our company for over 40 years, and we only made the decision to switch after giving the subject lengthy, holistic consideration. This included commissioning an environmental study from the University of Michigan which compared the environmental impact of the old aluminum tube vs. the new laminate material. The results were presented in terms of life-cycle energy, greenhouse gas emissions, acidification potential, carcinogen production, eutrophication, solid waste, and air and water emissions and indicated that in general, the old aluminum tubes had two to three times greater environmental impact than the laminate tube.

That being said, we recognize that these laminate tubes are not a perfect option. Although the tubes are recyclable as #7 plastic, we share your concern about them ending up in the trash. We've identified a partner who will recycle and reuse the material as packaging products and are currently inviting consumers with limited recycling options to save up their tubes and return them back to us. We are happy to reimburse any postage paid with new Tom's product. We are also investigating additional ways to make it easier for consumers to return these tubes back to us here in Maine.

The sustainability of our packaging is a critical component of our Stewardship Model. We originally chose aluminum because of this commitment, and kept it as a primary consideration in making the change to laminate. But we are actively interested in opportunities to improve this sustainability, and believe that consumers such as you may be our greatest resource. We appreciate your feedback, and if you uncover additional relevant research or potential packaging options, we hope you will pass them our way!

In fact, seeing as that you live just up the coast, we'd be more than happy to meet with you in person to discuss this further -- either now or in the future.

Thank you again for your feedback. We wish you the best of health!

Bridget M. Burns
Citizen's Advocacy Representative

My open response.

Dear Ms. Burns,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. But you've missed the thrust. My concern isn't plastic ending up in trash; it's plastic ending up in the ocean. Ever more of it. Which is happening now. Today. You asked for research. I've just completed a year-long survey of the pollution reaching my Bay View beach in Saco. Of the 8,456 pieces of litter & garbage left behind or washed in, 78-80% were plastic. Persistent plastic that doesn't go away. Ever.

Your old material, aluminum, is a closable loop. Even food-fouled aluminum can be melted, the dross skimmed off, and the aluminum placed back on shelves in weeks. Better still, it can even be recovered from landfills, often at percentages higher than from freshly mined bauxite ore.

The plastic in your new laminate isn't a closable loop. It's a downward spiral, requiring virgin plastic to replace what is bought from store shelves. Depending on whether Tom's is willing to pay a premium for partially-recycled product, you are using anywhere from 60 to 100% virgin plastic in each tube. (Information gathered from this article on plastic barrier laminate.) Your switch adds to our modern addiction to more, ever more, virgin plastic.

And much of it will get littered, one way or another, despite anyone's good intentions.

Littered aluminum degrades back to the stuff of soil & bedrock. Plastic doesn't. It persists. For centuries. Plastics also accumulate -- and leach -- toxins. Plastics foul pristine beaches and fill the bellies of animals that have never seen a human being, killing them through poison or starvation.
This plastic all came from the gut of ONE dead sea turtle
(from http://www.seaturtle.org)
Does your environmental report consider end-of-life factors like this? If not, it's incomplete. There's also the light-weighting argument for plastic over aluminum. Let's assume that a filled aluminum tube really is significantly heavier than a filled plastic tube. Does the report consider the entire supply stream (and carbon footprint) of virgin plastic, from synthesis to pellets to formulation to shipping? Or the excellent closed-loop recyclability of aluminum? Or the supply stream & footprint of that recycled aluminum? After all, there are many aluminum foundries in New England alone, practically in Tom's back yard.

If, after all that, plastic still seems cheaper on the front end, please look again at that photograph above. That's what the end of the plastic life cycle looks like. That is not science fiction, or melodrama. That is today.

So, again, Tom's of Maine, I believe you care. And that you want to do good while doing well. But this change to plastic toothpaste tubes is the wrong choice. It will leave its legacy swirling around our oceans, and washing up on our shores, for lifetimes to come.

Please be a true leader, and buck the plastic trend.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Comprehensive Breakdown of Bay View's Debris, Year 1

My last collection report from Year 1, the June 7 report, is pending. But the numbers are tabulated and I wanted to get this published.

I can't quite believe that it's been a full year already at Bay View. I'm stunned both by what I've learned and how much there still is to learn. But I'm also very encouraged by the numbers that have been coming back. Some assumptions have been validated, others have been definitively blown apart. Most important, there are clear trends & compelling leads to follow, now that Year 2 has begun. And real points of discussion to bring to the wider flotsam-fighting world. I'm pretty chuffed.

So, details: From June 15, 2010 through June 7, 2011, I managed to collect at the beach 43 out of 52 weeks. (4 off-weeks were due to persistent foul weather, 2 due to being out of town, 3 due to overcommitments during the week.) All told, I picked up 8,456 individual pieces of manmade litter. It was quite a year.

Now, without further ado, the charts.
78-80% of the grand total consisted of some form of plastic
The number one culprit in terms of quantity over the full year was cigarette butts. The toxins in and persistence of these packets of plastic fiber are a subject of many Flotsam Diaries posts, as well as a three-part experiment. They will surely be the subject of future posts too.

After cigarette butts, the next largest litter source is nonfood/un-ID'd plastics. This is a catch-all category, as it includes things like beach umbrella bases, as well as tiny fragments & bag scraps that could have come from anything. Surprisingly, fishing gear beat out food-related plastics for third place. It's clear that the Gulf of Maine's fishing industry significantly contributes to the plastic pollution of the ocean & its coasts. What's less clear is what, if anything, can or should be done to mitigate. The industry is already one of the most regulated in the state & nation. A discussion for a later date.

Next in the list is food plastic & foam/styrofoam -- things most likely identifiable as local drops by beachgoers or, less often, from local garbage bins. Non-plastic items are a clear minority. Which only makes sense. Paper melts back to nothing; wood rots back to nothing; glass and steel settle to the seafloor and either erode or rust back to nothing. But plastic lives on and on.

Overall, these trends are fairly consistent with data found at such places as the Ocean Conservancy. But rather than one annual clean-up, The Flotsam Diaries is all about weekly cleanups. So I can take my data a step further, breaking down by season. And doing so shows some startling, and eye-opening, trends.
Summer's trend is cigarette-heavy
Over the summer, cigarette butts accounted for a full 2/5 of all the litter generated at Bay View! Saco has a no-smoking policy in its public parks, and the lifeguard station announced the beach as a "Tobacco-Free Area." But clearly the patrons weren't obeying.

Tied for distant second are food plastics and nonfood/unidentifiable plastics. The numbers of both are formidable each week at Bay View, but don't vie with cigarette waste. Fishing debris, near the bottom at 3%, may be misleading. Colorful pieces of rope, lobster trap tags, and buoy pieces can make unique souvenirs; much of that debris may have ended up going home with beachgoers.
Cooler weather brings a drop in cigarettes & food plastics
Good or fair weather remains for many weeks after Labor Day, and local beach debris still accumulates in the autumn. But cigarette & food plastic percentages show a significant drop. A late hurricane and later autumn storms cast a good deal of unidentifiable plastic upon the beach, as well as scattering asphalt chunks and wooden fence slats among the sands. (It remains to be seen if I'll keep including asphalt chunks in weekly totals. The material is so old & inert, it's become basically part of the rocky substrate to the beach. It's not clear if it aids or skews the record of what should be considered manmade debris.)
Winter turns debris counts on their heads
The winter record is what really surprised me. First, I had originally assumed that many of the cigarette butts were washing in. However, the winter signature shows that when beachgoers disappear at Bay View, cigarettes disappear. There is almost no recognizable cigarette waste washing into Zone N & Zone S at Bay View. It's local drops. The same is true of sytrofoam. Whatever happens to foam when it gets out on the ocean, it doesn't wash up in recognizable form at Bay View. What's there is local.

On the other hand, the % of fishing gear skyrocketed. Degraded rope, claw bands and trap tags, shredded bits of vinyl trap coating -- all washed up by the hundreds over the winter months. Do winter storms bring it in? Or does a lack of visitors mean that the colorful bits stay on the beach longer?

Also, un-ID'd/nonfood plastics washed up in amazing amounts. Many had been pulverized by wave action; many had marine organisms like bryozoans growing on them. Some may originally have been food-related, say tableware, but not identifiable anymore.

At any rate, the winter record shows the extent of plastics that now float in the Gulf of Maine. Some seemed to have been in the water for a very long time. Also, winter seems to be the time when the sea disgorges much of its battered debris back onto Bay View.
Spring brings its own mysteries
Springtime brought the least debris. Even after heavy storms & high winds, little washed in. This was true even of organics. Where there's seaweed, there's plastic; yet the big storms of early spring brought in little of either. Is there something about the coastal currents of early spring as fresh meltwater rushes out of rivers & mixes with the ocean? Worth a look.

Late in spring, the organics, with their plastic cargo, started returning. Also, foam & styrofoam started arriving in big #s. Probably the result of being blown out of local garbage bins, or careless early beachgoers; none of the foam showed signs of long-distance sea travel. A big % of the whole spring haul came from the last couple of weeks, the post-Memorial Day binge of beachgoing, with its attendant debris.

Overall, the ebb & flow of litter over the course of the year was quite remarkable. The amount of long-floating debris washed up from winter storms was shocking. The relative cleanliness of the beach/ocean for a few months afterward was also a surprise. And it provides an opportunity. A program of winter cleanups, when weather permits, may help do two major things: (1) Educate the public on the problem, as they will see that seaside pollution isn't all just local beachgoers & recent drops; (2) Possibly make a significant difference in the overall cleanliness of our coast & coastal waters, at least in the short term. Obviously the only true, sustainable answer is to stop polluting the ocean in the first place. But the more that organizations can bring the problem to light, the more willpower there should be to do something at the source.

This has been a remarkable year. I'm excited to have made these discoveries, and had a chance to bring them to the public. On June 20 I started my second year collecting & reporting on the litter that arrives at this small, quiet local beach. I'm already excited for June 2012, when I can compare Year 1 to Year 2.

Thanks to all for the support, advice, and ideas. It's been a lot of fun making new friends, learning new things, and trying to make a difference. Looking forward to keeping it up!

For those interested, below is the data, week-by-week, of what I collected from June 15, 2010 - June 7, 2011. Would love any & all thoughts.
Part 1 of 3
Part 2 of 3
Part 3 of 3

Friday, June 24, 2011

Collection Report June 2, 2011

After far too long, the last couple collection reports of my first full year at Bay View beach, Saco, Maine are on their way.

June 2, 10:30AM. Moody skies on this first collection post-Memorial Day. Even if I didn't know the date, two big clues that unofficial summer had started:
The trash bins are crowning
The half-burned bonfires are back
This was an odd day. A mix of local debris, such as a little nest of cigarette butts all clustered together, buried in the sand by a lingering chainsmoker; and washed-in debris, such as the plethora of fresh & far-traveled lobster claw bands that I mentioned in this post.
Fancy meeting you here
And then there's this:
Surely a good story here
So, on to the details of what was a busy day. Zone N:
174 finds:
  • Building materials: 2 (asphalt chunk, slat)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 65 (27 from one cooler, 11 colored bits, 2 big clamshells, 25 plate/clamshell pieces)
  • Fishing misc.: 18 (8 claw bands, 5 rope, 3 twine from rope, monofilament in seaweed, shell wadding)
  • Food-related plastics: 4 (bottle cap, straw wrapper, Hershey's wrapper, sour candy wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 12 (3 cans, 2 burned cans, scrap, 2 bottle caps, gum wrapper, 3 sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 21 (6 bag/film, prescription bottle, 2 rubber bands, "hoodie" tag, water gun cap, another cap (?), 4 scraps >1", 5 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 40 (38 filters, plastic filter, cigar pack)
  • Paper/wood: 9 (wooden duck (?), 6 food labels, weight warning, cardboard disk)
  • Misc./unique: 3 (nonfishing woven rope, 2 metal necklaces)
65 pieces of styrofoam and a wooden duck cutout. You can't make this stuff up.

On to Zone S:
81 finds:
  • Building materials: 3 (2 asphalt scraps, plywood scrap)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 40 (10 cooler bits (?), 11 colored bits, 19 misc)
  • Fishing misc.: 6 (Canada band, rope, 4 twines from rope)
  • Food-related plastics: 5 (Heinz label, 2 mini straws, 2 milk cap seals)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 20 (5 odd shredded tubes, golf ball, pen, 2 strappings, twine, 3 bag/film, 7 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 4
  • Paper/wood: 3 (2 firework sticks, paper wipe)
  • Misc./unique: 0
40 more pieces of styrofoam, most probably from the same cooler, etc. that started crumbling apart up in Zone N. Wonder how much plastic pollution one styrofoam cooler can create? This much.

I also started finding something that stumped me. (Which is getting harder to do.) Check it out:
What the heck?
Each looks about the size & weight of the cap to a ball-point pen. But they're not. 2" long, hollow, gray, hard plastic. Fairly intact on one end, but each one is exploded on the other end. Rusty inside, as though a piece of thick steel wire/cable was inside; unless it's powder residue? Any thoughts?

Anyway, this one week I collected 255 new pieces of trash. From a lazy, fairly quiet beach in southern Maine. On a day when winds prevailed from the west, and probably had already blown quite a bit back out into the bay.

Summer, she is back.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Professor and the Ocean

Long-time readers of The Flotsam Diaries are well-acquainted with my love of Tolkien's work. This passage might help explain the attraction:

"At last, at unawares... he came suddenly to the black brink of Middle-earth, and saw the Great Sea, Belegaer the Shoreless. And at that hour the sun went down beyond the rim of the world, as a mighty fire; and Tuor stood alone upon the cliff with outspread arms, and a great yearning filled his heart. It is said that he was the first of Men to reach the Great Sea, and that none, save the Eldar, have ever felt more deeply the longing that it brings."
J.R.R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, pp. 24-25

I've not read elsewhere that Professor Tolkien was, himself, particularly drawn to the seashore. But these are the words of a man with ocean on the brain.
Artwork by Ted Nasmith, illustrator
of The Silmarillion

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Persistence of Discovery

Yesterday our family discovered a real gem practically in our backyard. Wood Island, an uninhabited 32-acre nature preserve, sits at the southern entrance to Saco Bay, Maine. It's only 1/3 mile off the finger of mainland known as Biddeford Pool, but really does feel like a different world. It houses a boat ramp...
Approaching the sheltered western end of the island
...a boardwalk that runs across the island from west to east...
It runs through seagull nesting grounds;
angry seagull dads aren't to be trifled with
...and a lighthouse dating from 1838. Attached is the old lighthouse-keeper's home, which was inhabited until the light was fully automated in 1978 1986, and is now a free* museum.
About as "Maine" as you can get
Spectacular Maine beauty lay in all directions. Knobbly islands, rocky cliffs, crying gulls, pounding surf. Lobster buoys are thick in the water (some are visible in the next picture, my other pictures of thicker clusters didn't come out well). Watching the lobster boats setting & hauling is good fun on a beautiful day.
In some places you could hop from buoy to buoy
This is a place where the timelessness of Maine persists. Its architecture, landscape, traditions. There are even deer on the island, whose forefathers swam over at some point in the forgotten past. But Wood Island is also a repository for what happens when other things persist. For example, how many mangled lobster traps do you see in this picture? (Mouse-over to see what's really there.)
Do you really want to know?
All of that, in 40 or so feet of shore. Not to mention the rope, claw bands, and plenty of non-fishing garbage among the branches & rocks. Other side of the ramp, more of the same.
Wreckage everywhere
I'll swear to seeing 100 traps. It was probably 200. Plus, of course, water bottles, styrofoam, flipflops, tires, a wrecked sailboat (!), and other plastic debris of the modern world. All on one island out of many; in one small bay out of many; in a coastline that stretches for 200+ miles; which is itself only one out of countless such coastlines in the world.

The Wood Island "Friends" mow the lawns, maintain the buildings, offer tours, keep the museum. They're a dedicated group who have spent years stabilizing & restoring the buildings, and making the island available to anybody who would like to visit. But they're not equipped to deal with the influx of manmade trash the sea keeps feeding this refuge's shores. Really, until we stop dumping so much persistent waste into the ocean, nobody would be equipped to deal with that.

And it's a shame. Because this is a really special spot & a great place. And it should stay that way!
My daughter leading her friend through the wilds
To learn more of the island's history and the efforts of the Friends, please check out http://www.woodislandlighthouse.org/.

* There's a suggested donation of $10 for visiting the island & museum; more than fair given the beauty of the place & the amount of upkeep needed to maintain it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Collection Report May 26, 2011

A gorgeous, sunny morning at Bay View beach, Saco, Maine:
9:15AM, ~2 hrs past high tide, 60 degrees F
After weeks of cold drizzle, the sun & heat finally arrived. Two days in a row of bright sun & fairly sweltering weather had brought the first real flurry of beachgoers. And they left their mark.
And we wonder...
This is a bad scene. But I hesitate to fault those who stuffed their trash into this overflowing bin. They were trying to do the right thing. Still, a gust of wind is all it takes to undo a lot of good intentions.

So what did the day bring? The latest high tide had been a weak one, and it was hard to see any fresh seaweed. Still, I doubt I missed this on the 20th:
Would've seen that, right?
Clearly something was still washing in. And those huge logs that had floated up before May 20? They were now handy lunch spots:
Mmm, oranges!
Note to any budding Flotsam Diarists: Every log is a perfect human roost. If you check around one for food-related plastics, you'll find them.

On to the collection details. Zone N:
119 finds:
  • Building materials: 8 (4 wooden slats, painted wood block, cement chunk, tile, asphalt chunk)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 13 (small bits)
  • Fishing misc.: 10 (2 rope bits, 3 string, shotgun shell wadding, shell, 2 lobster trap coatings, trap tag)
  • Food-related plastics: 10 (bottle, 2 strays, 2 bottle caps, bottle cap seal, coffee cup lid scrap, juice cap, 2 faded candy wrappers)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 59 (20 bits of bag/film, 4 scraps >1", 24 scraps <1", 2 black tape bits, duct tape, toy tractor bucket, battery case, bead, 2 odd circles, bandaid, stretch-band, sifter)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 9
  • Paper/wood: 5 (Dunkin Donuts napkin, Poland Spring bottle label, newspaper scrap, wood disk, sparkler base)
  • Misc./unique: 4 (balled-up pair of socks, cloth scrap, 2 bits of string)
The week's eye-opener is the non-food plastics, with all the small scraps and the bits of bag/film washed in. I find bag bits most weeks, but rarely 20 at a time. Here's a close-up:
1/4 of these might be local drops
The sand sifter is at least a nice addition to our growing beachgoing collection. I always wonder what the story is when something like that is left behind. Quick rainshower? Buried by a toddler? Tantrum forcing a hasty retreat? Or just plain forgotten? At least it's got a new home.

Then over to Zone S:
50 finds:
  • Building materials: 9 (2 asphalt chunks, 2 brick bits, 1 fence slat, 1 post base, 3 bits of green-dyed wood)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 8 (big chunk, 2 pieces of plate, printed cup bit, 4 misc.)
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (3 shell waddings, 1 rope)
  • Food-related plastics: 2 (bottle, milk cap ring seal)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 18 (scrub brush, bleach bottle cap, clamp bit, strapping, 4 bits of bag/film, ribbon stuck in seaweed, small round cap, 1 scrap >1", 7 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 6
  • Paper/wood: 1 (small "Sell By" tag -- sell-by date of May 6, 2011)
  • Misc./unique: 1 (fiberglass scrap)
A scrub brush, a wavy piece of fiberglass, and a seaweed-entangled ribbon. You just never know.

169 more pieces total, some from locals, still more from the sea. With Memorial Day and unofficial summer impending, the ratio of the one to the other isn't likely to hold for much longer.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

An Open Letter to Tom's of Maine

A couple months ago, a strange confluence occurred. First, I noticed that Tom's of Maine had changed their toothpaste tubes from aluminum to plastic. Shortly afterward, I found an aluminum tube washed up on my beach. It was already rotting back to nothing, which a plastic tube will never do.

So, an open letter to Tom's of Maine (a copy also sent directly to the Consumer Dialogue Dept.):

June 9, 2011

Tom’s of Maine Consumer Dialogue Department
302 Lafayette Center
Kennebunk, ME 04043

I wanted to show you something that washed up on my beach in Saco, Maine April 25 this year.
This is an aluminum toothpaste tube. It wasn’t littered by a beachgoer, or tossed out a car window. That’s not what happens to toothpaste tubes. It was thrown in the trash, and somehow managed to get into the ocean. That’s what litter does. Always has, always will. But notice: This aluminum tube is already disintegrating back to nature. It is becoming aluminum oxide, the stuff of soil that the world has evolved with over billions of years. In months it will disintegrate and be gone.

Your new plastic toothpaste tubes never do this. When littered into the environment -- as they will be -- they’ll persist. Nothing in nature knows how to return plastic to its building blocks. Your new tubes will run down gulleys, then rivers, eventually the ocean. There they will remain plastic. Even as they photodegrade into small bits, they’re still plastic. They will float, collecting in one of the massive gyres of plastic soup now swirling far from land. There, they will either get ingested by a sea animal, get stuck, and starve it to death... Or accumulate toxins to ~100,000 times background levels, killing more quickly... Or be spit back onto someone’s shore, perhaps distant, perhaps somewhere on the Maine coast, fouling it.

This is the result of our plastic world:
One of 1000s of albatross on Midway who died eating plastic
This has happened in just a couple generations. Under our nose and on our watch. Environmental studies claiming plastic as a better alternative are fundamentally flawed. They don’t account for pollution or persistence. Or the poor recyclability. Aluminum is melted down; impurities are easily skimmed off, and the aluminum can be back on the shelf in weeks. A truly closed loop. Plastic cannot be superheated to sterilize. It must be clean to be processed, which is why major recyclers don’t accept plastic toothpaste tubes. Your take-back scheme, though laudable, only downcycles the waste. And as few consumers will spend money to return your tubes to you, most tubes you sell have a one-way trip to the landfill... or the ocean.

I believe that Tom’s of Maine is genuinely forward-thinking, ecologically responsible. I believe that you have switched to plastic thinking that you are doing a good thing. You are not. You have been misled, and the pollution that your new products will cause will just add to the persistent ecological disaster of our times. Please be a true leader and buck the plastic tide.

Thanks for your time.

Harold Johnson
The Flotsam Diaries

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Look What the Current Dragged In, Part III

Last year I spent a couple posts (first and second) looking at how ocean currents move in my little corner of the world. I learned that Saco Bay is fed by the Labrador Current from the northeast. Which explained why Canadian lobster trap tags and claw bands sometimes wash up on my shore.
Recovered today, after a 150+ mile trip
Those studies taught me that the complex Gulf of Maine is really, in an elegant term I just saw, a "Sea Within a Sea." A system of mini-gyres, upwellings, deep basins, river outflows that comes together to make a rich & vibrant ecosystem all its own. I also learned about the wealth of resources available to a budding Flotsam Diarist in trying to make sense of it all. So when today's walk along the beach revealed a minor mystery, I knew where to turn.

What was the mystery? A batch of lobster claw bands, all but one of them absolutely pristine. Soft, supple, full, unscuffed, unbitten. Including the far-traveling "Wild Canada" band.
Only 1 of the 8 was old & battered (back right)
In my year at Bay View, I've never seen so many fresh bands come in at once -- they usually are a mix of new & old, pliable & brittle.

The Canadian band has a cargo of young marine life stuck to its inside, proof that it had actually made the journey by sea. But it, with its friends, was so fresh. How'd it get here so fast?

Enter NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center and its Drifter Program. For nearly a decade, students at Maine universities have been working with NEFSC to release drifters into the Gulf of Maine (and elsewhere -- sometimes far afield), then tracking their motion. The data is delivered real-time, and is accessible to anyone with the Internet. As it turns out, just two weeks ago, a batch of drifters was released from Downeast Maine -- very near to where a Canadian lobster boat could have been fishing, actually. And those drifters are still afloat, and sending their data back. The image below came from the tracking page literally 15 minutes ago!
("Saco Bay" and "Jonesport" notations are my own)
They show the drifters just zipping along SW down the coast. Within a week, the dark blue one had almost entered Casco Bay (just north of Saco Bay). The dark red one hovered at the entrance to Saco Bay briefly just a day or two ago before heading back eastward. Clearly, things like lost claw bands could have made the journey just as fast; and the currents/winds were perfect for getting them into Saco Bay and onto the beach at Bay View. The proof is in the picture.

I may never know precisely where this Canadian lobster band (and its freshly dropped friends) originated. But thanks to the awesome work of a lot of dedicated folks, I can tell you this: When the conditions are right, something dropped 150 or more miles away could wash up to your feet within just a couple weeks. And that's pretty cool to know.

It's a shame that there's litter in the ocean. But if it's there, it would be a worse shame not to try to learn something from it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Collection Report May 20, 2011

After a week away in England, I hit the beach again on a gray, cold, drizzly Friday at the end of a gray, cold, drizzly week.
1:30PM, 50 degrees, about an hr before high tide
Wild times had happened while I had been away:
Which thing doesn't belong? Right, both things!
This log was one of 4 or 5 tree-sized pieces of flotsam that had rolled in. It lay just north of my Zone N, but was too alluring to leave be. So I wandered up and checked it out. En route, I saw a mass of plastic things washed up outside my usual zones. A couple examples:
1 of 3 bucket parts strewn over 250 yds
Bait bag, bottle, shotgun shell, etc.
Motor oil, w/cap brittle & sun-bleached
The more I walked, the more seaweed, plastic garbage, etc. Since I didn't have manpower or energy to collect the whole shore, I went back to my zones and got to work. Wet sand stuck to everything; it was tricky separating out flotsam. But I did my best. And in the end, I made a big haul. Zone N:
116 finds:
  • Building materials: 2 (asphalt chunks)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 36
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (shotgun shell, claw band, 2 craps of buoy)
  • Food-related plastics: 18 (Powerbar, Pepsi, Lifesaver, and Life Water wrappers, 2 un-ID'd wrappers, Pringle's lid, straw, 3 bottle caps, coffee cup lid, degrading blue PS cup scrap, sandwich sauce/oil cup, 3 scraps, base of old-school 2-liter bottle)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 6 (bottle, can, can scrap, 3 sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 37 (13 bits of bag/film, bucket rim, 2 shovels, screw cap, sunspray nozzle cap, "Ames True Temper" label, wristband, umbrella base, pen cap, ribbon, 4 scraps > 1", 10 scraps < 1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 11 (10 filters, 1 plastic wrap)
  • Paper/wood: 2 (wood offcuts)
  • Misc./unique: 0
Some local food-related drops from the week of May 7-14, which was supposedly warm & sunny. Shovels, sunspray, umbrella base probably from the same time. But some pretty interesting trends. No fishing rope, when that was the bulk of what was washing up in winter. 36 more pieces of foam, which seems to follow the spring styrofoam trend.

And then this.
Jagged chunk taken out of 2-liter bottle base
After conferring with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, and Paul Sharp at Two Hands Project who have all seen their fair share of it, the consensus is that these are animal bites. Probably a bunch of bites over time, rather than one huge chomp. Whatever toxins are in this material -- or collected on its surface while it floated -- are now inside the food web. We might be eating some of this very bottle the next time we have a nice cod or haddock dinner. (Assuming of course that the plastic didn't rip apart and kill the animal(s) from the inside.)

It's not just a question of aesthetics when plastic floats in the water. It goes way, way beyond that.

On from there to Zone S:
47 finds:
  • Building materials: 3 (asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 18
  • Fishing misc.: 3 (rope, gnarled trap scrap, lure)
  • Food-related plastics: 5 (bottle cap, baggie, Nestle Pure Life label, degraded sauce/oil cup scrap, water bottle tear-off safety tag)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 13 (5 bits of bag/film, spray bottle filler tube, Victorinox Swiss army knife package, linoleum scrap, 1 scrap > 1", 4 scraps < 1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 2 (plastic wrappers)
  • Paper/wood: 1 (offcut)
  • Misc./unique: 1 (small cloth scrap)
Again, much less in Zone S than Zone N, despite the wild weather and the huge amount that washed in farther north. Something about the beach here is vastly different from just 100 feet to the north. Other than that, not a lot of surprises here. It did feel good getting this particular emergency-room visit off the beach at least:
And there we go. 163 more usual suspects, unusual suspects, and just plain head-shakers added to the ever-growing list.