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


  1. Collecting trash is a post event stopgap measure, albeit worthy of praise in my view. Collecting and analyzing the littered trash data is a step towards constructing prevention or at least mitigation processes. And data helps bring attention to the litter problem in bite size morsels making it easier to see the diverse contributors.
    Thank you for going the scientific route and for sharing the data.

  2. Thanks for the note Bernie! I agree, picking it up after it's already hit the beach/ocean is never going to be enough. At least this is hopefully a good start for seeing how much is coming, when, from where, etc.

    I'm really liking the angle that winter brings in so much. A group of reporters, scientists, students, etc. that visits a beach in late December/early January here in Maine may get the necessary wake-up to see how far down the rabbit hole we've really gone. In summer it's too easy to dismiss as local litterbugs. It's when you start pulling 1,000 pieces of garbage off the beach when it's 25 degrees out that it may fall into place.

  3. When I had to come up with a senior capstone at UMaine, my original idea was to do something exactly like this - analyzing beach debris data trends. It's a great idea and really helps to get the message of marine debris out to the masses - people like to see hard evidence before they believe and invest time/effort/money into something.

    So glad you're doing this project and keeping it going!