Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Collection Report July 7-9, 2011

7:30AM, and another bright, sunny morning in Maine:
Plus, another fabled 4th of July weekend come and gone. What would the aftermath bring?

This day was a treat: I had with me the Portland Press Herald! Reporter Colleen Stewart and photographer Carl Walsh walked & talked with me for an hour and a half about what I do. They got to see some of the trash on the beach, as well as a big collection of the more "interesting" bits from my past year.

It was a good day to show them around, because most every step held evidence of what our modern world now leaves behind. Here's Zone N:
229 finds:
  • Building materials: 3 (2 asphalt, 1 brick)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 27
  • Fishing misc.: 18 (6 rope, 4 twine, 2 trap tags, 1 shotgun shell wadding, 5 claw bands)
  • Food-related plastics: 32 (bottle, 7 bottle caps, 12 food wrappers, 6 straw wrappers, spoon, 3 straws, gum, "Royal Gala Organic" apple sticker)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 10 (can, 2 bottle caps, 3 glass scraps, 4 foil wrappers)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 34 (7 bag bits, lip balm, aspirin blister pack, 6 firecrackers, 4 beach furniture scraps, glowstick, strapping, sunglasses earpiece, 5 scraps >1", 7 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 55 (53 filters, 2 bits of packaging)
  • Paper/wood: 47 (8 napkins, 23 misc scraps, 16 firework sticks)
  • Misc./unique: 3 (scrap of fabric, two flip-flops)
A big day. Nothing terribly unusual -- in fact, an impressively "normal" spread of what the beach on the 4th of July looks like in a small New England community. The only striking thing maybe being:
A bruised, sunburned Canadian lobster
trap tag, at the end of a many-year trek
Talking with Colleen & Carl was fantastic, and went on longer than I'd expected. I had to come back a couple days later to hit Zone S. I brought my daughter with me, and she played happily as she always does at the beach.
And here's what I (and Ruby -- she brought one of the asphalt chunks over with a huge grin) found:
61 finds:
  • Building materials: 6 (4 asphalt chunks, 2 fence slats)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 13
  • Fishing misc.: 7 (2 rope, 2 twine, 2 claw bands, buoy scrap)
  • Food-related plastics: 5 (bottle, snack package, bottle cap, straw, wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (seaglass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 11 (bag scrap, big melted glob, firecracker, 5 scraps >1", 3 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 11
  • Paper/wood: 6
  • Misc./unique: 1 (fabric scrap)
A small haul, and again, little out of the ordinary. Easily the coolest & most bizarre find was the barnacle-encrusted plastic chunk:
What stories would this thing tell?
Another week down, 290 more pieces of debris added to the collection. Nothing game-changing, but a solid week full of bits & bobs washed up, blown in, and left behind.

Oh, and the Press Herald? They put The Flotsam Diaries on the front page July 11! I love what I do.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Collection Report July 1, 2011, Part II

Following on from Part I's photoblog, here's what I pulled up from the sands of Bay View beach on July 1. First, Zone N:
243 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (window frame)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 57 (56 scraps, 1 cup)
  • Fishing misc.: 22 (7 rope, 9 rope twine, 2 scraps of gear, 4 claw bands)
  • Food-related plastics: 23 (4 bottle caps, spoon, gum, 3 straws, 14 food wrappers)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 12 (3 bottle caps, 3 sea glass/scraps, 3 foil wrappers, 2 cans, s'more stick)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 46 (20 bags/scraps, balloon, toy shovel, 6 string/twine, 2 strappings, guitar pick, sewage treatment plant disc, degraded squirt bottle nozzle, 4 scraps <1", 9 scraps >1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 60 (51 filters, 9 packaging)
  • Paper/wood: 18 (cups, napkins, scraps)
  • Misc./unique: 4 (shreds of fabric)
A couple of the standouts:
Hundreds of thousands of these little
2" discs remain on the loose
Years' worth of sunshine & waves
to make plastic look like this
More washups from an apparent
May incident in Canadian waters
243 is an awful lot of pieces of garbage. Especially as 85% of it is plastic. And while clearly there's a lot of local garbage now being left, plenty is still washing in with the tides. Bits that have been floating for years, bits that have been floating for maybe just a few weeks. Every day, more joins it. I often wonder how much of Bay View's beachgoer trash washes out with each tide, to mix with the rest of the soup.

So, from Zone N on to Zone S, the quiet zone south of the semi-private area of beach:
60 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (chunk of asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 12 (scraps)
  • Fishing misc.: 15 (3 rope scraps, 7 rope twine, 1 scrap of gear, 2 claw bands, 2 shotgun shells)
  • Food-related plastics: 4 (bottle cap, straw, 2 wrapper scraps)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 2 (bottle cap, glass scrap)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 13 (bag scrap, balloon, glove, 3 bits of string, 1 strapping, 2 scraps >1", 4 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 13 (10 filters, 2 packaging, 1 lighter)
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
A completely different scene in Zone S. Only 1/4 the debris of the northern zone, and a quarter of that was washed-in fishing gear. Clearly either nobody's visiting Zone S now, or the advancing dunes & compressed shore mean that high tides fully scour & wash away a lot of debris. I'm going to have to spend time at Zone S during high tide to see just what's up.

So. One week, 303 new pieces of garbage added to the list. On a quiet shore in Maine.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Collection Report July 1, 2011, Part I

Looking through my pictures for my July 1 cleanup, this one lends itself to more of a photoblog. So, without more ado, let's give it a whirl.

If this morning looks about perfect, it was:
The calm before the swarm
And just in time for the 4th of July weekend, an upgrade out in the parking lot:
Semi-private bliss
Yet even with two huge no-smoking signs, some people simply will not get it:
Oh, maybe it was just a suggestion?
But looking beyond the manmade marring, something interesting is happening in Bay View beach.
Sea levels creep slowly up. Development & erosion take their toll. Yet Bay View's dunes are bucking the trend. They're actually moving back onto the sand! In busier Zone N, it's just occasional tufts. But in Zone S, the new dune layout has been formalized with a fresh fence, 12-15 feet closer to the ocean than last year! So Zone S's usable beachfront is compressed. In fact, high tides now mostly eliminate the beach there. It'll be interesting to see if Zone S trash plummets.

Neat ecology aside, this was a day filled with other surprises. Not least being this:
You're a long way from home
This plastic disc is one of 4.3 million released into the Merrimack River on March 11 from the Hooksett, New Hampshire wastewater treatment plant in a big screw-up. Since then, they've been found from Maine to Rhode Island. This one is the first found as far north as Saco. It probably found a mini-gyre off Cape Cod, spun counter-clockwise, & got shot out toward Saco Bay. Many others have likely picked up the Gulf Stream southeast of Cape Cod, and will start washing up on European shores by late summer.

Note: This disk was in the ocean for nearly four months and is pristine. Another piece of plastic washed up nearby, not nearly as pristine.
Rotten to the core
This squirt bottle nozzle is crusted, faded, brittle, cloudy, and ancient. However long ago it was lost, it wasn't a few weeks, or even four months. When plastics get in the ocean, they will survive a long, -long- time.

Moving along, I (1) added yet another perfect beach toy to Ruby's growing collection:
Will probably open a re-sale shop this fall
(2) wondered if the rest of this is now in an endangered marine mammal's gut:
What goes up, comes down
(3) pondered just how many tons of this material have been lost to the Gulf of Maine:
Fishing rope is polypropylene, and persists for centuries
and (4) reflected on today's big battles between powerful industry lobbyists and grass-roots common sense:
Hard as it is to believe, I'm still betting
on common sense in the end
Photoblog: off. Amazing what we can find & learn strolling the beach, when we really start to look.

Speaking of which, I'll follow this up shortly with the actual numbers for the week. They're pretty astounding. And not in a good way.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Collection Report June 20-23, 2011

My first collection report of Year 2!

Bay View beach. Saco, Maine. Monday, June 20. 8:10AM
Low 60s and bright sun
A day of the beautiful:
A world in bloom
And ugly:
Balloons that go up come down, like
this one, floated in on rockweed
And typical:
A very common brand at Bay View
As Al the Trashpaddler in Massachusetts says to this company that packs almost everything in plastic and styrofoam (or indeed both at the same time), "What Are You Thinkin'?"

So what would grace the shores on this first week of a new collection year? Zone N:
194 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 49
  • Fishing misc.: 21 (5 rope, 5 rope twine, 7 claw bands, trap tag, trap clamp, 2 shotgun shell waddings)
  • Food-related plastics: 20 (bottle cap, 2 cups, 12 wrappers, 3 straws, 2 chewing gum)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 4 (2 bottle caps, 2 foil wrappers)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 21 (5 bag scraps, 4 balloons, 3 strappings, silly band, backpack cinch, 7 scraps <1", 2 scraps >1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 63 (57 filters, 2 plastic tips, 3 cigar protectors, cig pack)
  • Paper/wood: 13 (7 wrappers, 6 scraps/napkins)
  • Misc./unique: 1 (rubber offcut)
A pretty big, very summer-y haul. The cigarettes, food plastics, and styrofoam are all mostly local, recent drops. But plenty is still washing in. Not likely that a beachgoer brought these:
The fishing gear
or these:
Shredded & tortured
On June 23, I returned to finish up the week, visiting Zone S. Here's what I uncovered there:
113 finds:
  • Building materials: 2 (wooden slats/blocks)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 44
  • Fishing misc.: 18 (9 rope bits, 3 rope twine, 2 trap tags, 3 claw bands, 1 tiny buoy fragment)
  • Food-related plastics: 8 (bottle cap, 5 wrappers, brittle milk jug handle, six-pack ring)
  • Food related metal/glass: 4 (sea glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 13 (2 bags/scraps, balloon, tampon applicator, toy google eye, 2 scraps >1", 6 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 21 (20 filters, 1 bit of packaging)
  • Paper/wood: 3
  • Misc./unique: 0
Another good bit of fishing gear, including my first 2011 trap tag. (Dark gray this year.) A whole mess of styrofoam bits (most likely blown down from Zone N and points north). And oh joy:
Another tampon applicator
That brings my total of those this year to "officially too many." As with all the others, it probably entered the Bay from a river after being flushed down a toilet.

What happens in a drain, or a gutter, doesn't stay there. It's all heading to the ocean. One way or another.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Difference a Few Feet Makes

A couple weeks ago, I finished my main review of my first full year at Bay View. It was eye-opening.

Now, I've taken the time to compare the two zones I work. This has been even more eye-opening.

As a quick refresher, every week I walk two distinct zones at Bay View, I call them "Zone N"(orth) and "Zone S"(outh).
My two zones at Bay View
Each zone is 250 feet long, each starts at the dune line and goes down to the terrace, halfway between low & high tide lines. The big difference? Zone N is right near the parking lot & beach access. It's the popular spot, where all the beachgoers congregate. Zone S, on the other hand, sits beyond a private patio area that encroaches onto the beach. The patio acts like a line of demarcation. A few folks wander down past it to spend time in Zone S, but not many.

In Maine, beach season is pretty much only the summer, maybe a little in the spring. In autumn and especially winter, only the hardiest of solace-seekers hits a Maine beach. So my question when I started was, will there be a noticeable difference in debris between the zones, and will it even out over the winter when the beachgoers have gone?

Well, here's my charts for the four seasons:
Summer 2010
Autumn 2010
Winter 2010-11
Spring 2011
In the summer, the tourist season, Zone N blew Zone S away. This isn't surprising. And in fact, much of the difference between the two could easily be accounted for by beachgoer trash -- cigarettes, food packets, umbrella bits, toys, flipflops.

But look at autumn, winter, and spring. All of them still show a big difference between Zones N & S. In fact, 2 to 2 1/2 times more in Zone N for each season. What does this mean?
Breakdown of finds by zone & category
Well, maybe debris got buried in the summer, and re-exposed by winter storms? A dirtier Zone N in summer may mean more junk uncovered there in winter. But much of what showed up in winter had obviously washed in from far away. Tons of fishing debris, sun-bleached plastic, plastic fouled by marine life. And of course, no cigarette butts. If they'd been buried in summer, they surely would have shown up in winter.

No, what's happening here is weird. Two zones, same beach, same climate & weather, separated by barely 150 feet (if that). And yet during the winter, Zone N consistently doubles the amount of debris washed up.


There's a rock outcrop just north of Zone N that's exposed at low tide. Maybe it changes the current? The beach at Zone S seems slightly narrower, slightly steeper. Not drastically, but maybe enough? What about the trees? You can see from the satellite image that Zone N backs onto open ground, while Zone S is tree-studded. Does that blunt the seabreeze and change the flotsam?

Whatever the reason, I know this: If you think you know how your beach works, take the briefest of strolls up or down it. And then check again.

I love this stuff.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


I was recently asked by somebody, "Why do you do this? Go to the beach, pick up trash, week after week?"

That somebody was the mirror. A face that I've long known mouthed the words. Why pick up another trash bag, and visit the beach another time? What exactly did I hope to accomplish?

In the deep Pacific, some one out of every 10 fish now has plastic in its gut. In the far wild north, 85% of Arctic fulmars fly with plastic inside them. Fish in just one of the world's five ocean gyres eat 12-24,000 tons of plastic a year. A year.

The world smokes 5.5 trillion cigarettes each year. If even 90% make it to the landfill, that still means 55 billion filters littered to the ground/ocean. Each year. 1744 toxic, persistent, plastic cigarette butts littered to the ground every second of every day.

Here in Maine, our lobster industry loses tens of thousands of vinyl-coated steel lobster traps to the deep sea every year. 70,000 in 2010 alone! Each trap, as the steel slowly rusts, sheds its vinyl in a thousand+ fish-bite sized bits. Storms belch the vinyl -- and the sharp, rusted steel -- up all over our beautiful coastline; ruined hulks of trap litter islands up and down the Maine Island Trail.

I've picked up nearly 9,000 pieces of garbage from 1/10th of a mile of coastline, 80% plastic. Maine has 3,500 miles of coastline. And the world still makes ever more, more, & more plastic. Plastic recycling just downcycles the waste, forcing still more virgin plastic to replace the recycled products. Plastic bag lobbyists fight common-sense taxes & fees; bottling companies fight common-sense bottle-return bills. Convenience & profit of the moment rule the day. And the ocean continues to fill with plastic.

So back to my question. What can a guy, a trash bag, and a camera do to change any of this? I don't know.

But I took my daughter to Bay View today.
The inheritor (with growing collection of found beach toys!) 
This is Ruby. She is four years old. There is no place in this world where she feels happier or freer than at the beach. Her birthright -- like all of ours -- was a chance to feel the timelessness of the sand & surf. Not to have the modern world swirl around her with every high tide. That birthright hangs in the balance, because of the choices of my & my parents' generation.

Ruby will inherit the world that I leave to her. I have to leave it better than I found it. That's my job.

So today, while she was making sand castles, I picked up my garbage bag and camera, and I walked the beach.

And you know what? On our way to this spot, there had been a plastic cup littered at the tide line. When our beach time was over, and we were walking back to the car, that cup was gone, thrown in the trash by a kindred spirit. Whatever it is you care about in this world, you're not alone.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Collection Report June 7, 2011

Catching up again. The meat of this report already went into my final tally for the year, but I still want to get it written up, if briefly. So. June 7, 9:15AM. And it seems that Parks & Rec got a little creative with the log forest that rolled in during late May.
A totem pole?
Weather was slightly cooler for this week. But there was still plenty of evidence of beachgoers. What evidence?
The burn-it-all ritual
(See the aluminum? It does burn away)
A poor showing
That last shot isn't just ugly. It's dangerous:
How much plastic/foil is
now shredding a seabird's belly?
So there we go. Beach weather, for the most part, is back. With all its fun, sun, and sundries. What does that mean for this, the very last week of Year 1 in my Bay View tally? First, Zone N:
146 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 59!
  • Fishing misc.: 3 (claw band, lobster trap coating, twine from rope)
  • Food-related plastics: 8 (straw, burnt bit, 2 bottle caps, oil/sauce cup, straw wrapper, pretzel bag, Hillshire Farm cheese wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 14 (5 bottles, 1 bottle neck, 5 cans, 3 bottle caps)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 13 (game target, bag, film, dessicant, pen cap, faded toy crab, price-tag tie, 6 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 32 (26 filters, 1 plastic tip, chewing tobacco box, 4 cigar ends)
  • Paper/wood: 14 (Bud Lime box, 11 tissues/napkins, 2 toy price/name tags)
  • Misc./unique: 3 (2 smore handles, string)
Where could 59 pieces of styrofoam come from?? Well, 52 seem to have come from this one thing:
Crushed cooler
Out of one, many.

The styrofoam scraps and clamshells; beer bottles, beer cans, cigarettes stuffed neatly into the sand; straws, wrappers, and price tags -- This is a full-on summer signature.

Which, I suppose, is little surprise. So what happened down the shore at Zone S?
57 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 26
  • Fishing misc.: 1 (claw band)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (coffee cup lid)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 16 (4 firecracker/flare caps, 2 strings, 2 bits of fuzz, 2 bag/film scraps, tiny ball/bead, 5 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 9
  • Paper/wood: 4 (cup, 3 napkin scraps)
  • Misc./unique: 0
A wild difference between Zones N and S. Pretty good proof of where the people spent their time the past week. Yet all the blown-in styrofoam suggests just how far lightweight plastic will travel given half a chance.

All told, this last week of my Year 1 at Bay View ties things up and brings them nicely full circle. Summer is back. And I find myself missing the magical solitude of winter on a Maine beach.

Year 2, here we come!