Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Collection Report Aug 10-12, 2011

(It's already strange looking back to the pre-Irene world. We in Saco, Maine were spared the worst. My heart breaks for VT, upstate NY, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Yet, as I've fallen behind again in collection reports, I must revisit the lazy and carefree days of mid-August. They were interesting.)

I went to beach Wed afternoon, Aug 10 just to log some old debris in the "Debris Tracker" iPhone app (a must-have for all flotsamologists). But when I got there, this is what I saw:
What the hey?
Southern Maine, had gotten a little drizzle, a little gloom the previous week. But no storm or wind. So what on earth happened here?

Turns out, Downeast Maine got hammered by a major hailstorm (YouTube clip here) the week before, on August 2. Millions of chunks of ice pummeled coastal towns, as well as seaweed & kelp exposed at low tide. Normal currents then swirled the broken mass southward over the next week, until arriving in Saco Bay on Aug. 10.

And of course, an army of seaweed collects the ocean's tag-alongs before reaching shore again. A few examples:
Fishing rope on its way in
Lobster trap tag
Antifreeze bottle, repurposed
Another sewage treatment plant disc
from the March Hooksett, NH release!
Sadly, I didn't arrive with either the time or the bags to do a full cleanup. So I grabbed what I could, and made plans for a return. Which didn't happen until two days later, Friday, Aug. 12. By which time the scene had changed:
So much gone already
More than half the seaweed -- and its plastics -- had been dragged back out into the Bay, and then the wider Gulf of Maine. Maybe to beach again near, maybe far. Who knows?

Still, I did what I could, and collected what I could. And made a strinking haul. Here's Zone N:
249 finds:
  • Building materials: 1
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 29
  • Fishing misc.: 43 (20 rope bits, 7 claw bands, 4 trap tags, 7 rope twine, trap hinge, bait plastic baggie, shotgun shell, bait bag, makeshift buoy #9739)
  • Food-related plastics: 36 (bottle, 10 bottle caps, 14 food wrappers, 4 straw wrappers, 2 straws, 4 bits old cup lid, gum)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 15 (2 cans, 2 bottles, 5 bottle caps, metal fork, 5 foil wrappers)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 52 (15 bags/scraps, 3 balloons, jug cap, 3 bandaids, 2 strappings, plug cover, Hooksett disc, 2 bits tape, plastic clamp, fitting, 10 scraps >1", 12 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 56 (53 filters, 3 cigar tips)
  • Paper/wood: 12 (9 paper scraps, 3 wood firecracker sticks)
  • Misc./unique: 5 (tar/rubber chunk, cord, 2 flipflops, piece of fabric)
Much more of a winter "signature" on this debris. Just look at all the fishing debris! But an interesting mix. Because clearly there was plenty of local stuff:
Summer sunbather debris
As well as ocean-borne goods, like this makeshift fisherman's float.
#9739, I've got your antifreeze jug!
And then this:
Not local, not recent
That discolored and extra-brittle cup lid has a story to tell. Wonder where it started its journey. And when.

With that, on to Zone S:
53 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (tile)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 12
  • Fishing misc.: 11 (3 rope, trap part, 3 claw bands, 3 shell waddings, 1 urchin tag)
  • Food-related plastics: 5 (wrapper, 4 bottle caps)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (foil wrapper)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 20 (2 bags/scraps, caulk nozzle, yellow plastic lumber chunk, Liposan tube scrap, rubber sleeve, 2 wet-wipes jug lid bits, 2 firecrackers, 1 scrap >1", 9 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 3
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
Must have been a big event to raise Zone S's finds above 50 for a week! And as proof of some long distance travel, a couple fascinating finds:
Faint "Oct 24" written in. What year?
Still want to find out how long
it takes barnacles to form on plastic
So, a very "wintery" collection on a very summery week. And yet more proof of three things: (1) What happens 150 miles away doesn't stay 150 miles away; (2) The Gulf of Maine is a plastic wasteland, 365 days a year; (3) The ocean is trying hard to rid itself of our debris. It will get clean again, if we stop force-feeding it.

Can we do that?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Collection Report Aug 4, 2011

Thursday, August 4, 7:22 AM. Seagulls crying in the distance. Flipflops left by the lifeguard tower, a ratty beach chair folded up & stowed away. (Forgotten?) Fog slowly burning off. Welcome to Bay View, Saco, Maine:
Still love seeing a beach like this
The week brought a little more energy to Bay View. Recent tides had crept higher up the shore, a few bits tumbled in from the deep ocean. But in general, the word of this day was still "dull." In fact, the above is the only picture I took while out and about. This had basically been another busy beach week, with busy-beach trash. Here's Zone N:
229 finds:
  • Building materials: 4 (asphalt chunks)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 15
  • Fishing misc.: 17 (4 rope, 8 pieces of rope twine unfurled from impromptu "art" on shore, 4 claw bands, 1 trap tag)
  • Food-related plastics: 32 (15 food wrappers, 3 fresh fruit stickers, 7 straw wrappers, 4 bottle caps, straw, chewing gum, spoon scrap)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 10 (burned tin can, 4 bottle caps, 2 foil wrappers, 2 sea glass, pull tab)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 32 (9 bags/scraps, balloon, 2 bandaids, flosser, watergun stopper, sunglasses, rubberband, tie strap, pen cap, twist-tie, 5 ribbon bits, dessicant, 7 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 93 (89 cigarettes, 4 plastics)
  • Paper/wood: 21 (13 paper scraps, 7 firecracker sticks, popsicle stick)
  • Misc./unique: 5 fabric scraps
Going on the record here, I hate these things:
Fresh fruit, now with more plastic!
I know, of all the things to hate. But it's so unnecessary. Even a person trying to be healthy, eating an unpackaged piece of fresh fruit -- instead of corn syrup, salt, and modified food starch -- ends up with plastic at the end of their snack. Why, and how, did we do this in just a couple generations?

The other thing I hate:
I have 2100 more at home
The cigarette numbers have been lower on the beach than last year. I hate that I'm kind of happy to "only" find 89 of these in a week. And the parking lot that I scoured in June is utterly trashed with them again. (But I have exciting news on that front, which I'll only tease with here. Maybe somebody will take the Bait?)

Anyway, food packs, cigarettes, And a quick view of Zone S:
31 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (fence slat)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 4
  • Fishing misc.: 5 (fishing rope twine, from another decayed bit of art)
  • Food-related plastics: 3 (food wrapper scrap, straw wrapper, gum)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 2 (can scrap, sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 7 (firecracker, tape, 1 scrap >1", 4 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 6
  • Paper/wood: 2 (popsicle stick, firework stick)
  • Misc./unique: 1 (tiny scrap of fabric)
Wow. There is just nothing to say about this. Wouldn't it be nice to think that a long stretch of Saco Bay really stayed this relatively clean week after week?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Down the Drain

Ever see this?
This one is in Minnesota,
Many of us have seen stencils like this on our local storm drains. But what exactly does it mean?

Exactly what it says. Gutters and storm drains are simple, basic, ancient technology. A hole in the road, a pipe buried in the ground, an outlet at the nearest water body. With very few exceptions, stormwater systems don't run stormwater through any kind of filter or purifier. It's a straight shot: road --> gutter --> catch basin --> underground pipe --> river/bay/harbor.

Which is why scenes like this...
...lead to scenes like this, in Baltimore Harbor:
Story at
...and ultimately contribute to scenes like this, at Kamilo Beach, Hawaii:
Surf's up
Thinking globally & acting locally, how do storm drains work in my part of the world, Saco, Maine? It so happens, Saco has some amazing resources available. One of these is a public Global Information System that plots out all roads, sidewalks, traffic lights, streams, wooded areas, elevations, sewers, and, yes, storm drains! Here is the route from the stream at the edge of our condo, through storm drains passing under houses, then straight down Spring Street to its end in the Saco River.
Does your city/town make this available too?
More and more do all the time.
So this:
Culvert collecting water from bamboo-hidden stream
...wends its way 8 or 9 blocks until it outflows here:
At the foot of a parking lot behind a
nondescript workshop/office
The grates on that stream culvert are large enough to let a beer can or quart-sized plastic jug in. And once they're in, nothing can or will stop them from reaching the river. Even the smaller catch basins still let them in. Bottles, candy wrappers, plastic bags, tennis balls, tiddly-winks, chew toys, pacifiers, plastic flowers -- whatever you can picture accidentally (or not) ending up in a gutter -- will reach the river. From there, they will reach the ocean. That's how it works. In Saco, and in most other cities & towns all across the world. That's how this washes up on my beach:
Antifreeze jug, lost into a culvert in mid-Coast
or Downeast Maine, finally reaches Saco Bay
The day I visited my local drain outflow, August 3, was warm, sunny, quiet. The water trickled out lazily. I stood and watched for just a minute. And even then, the predictable sights started plopping out, one at a time.
The usual suspects
This in 1 minute, from a stream/drain system that runs through residential neighborhoods with low foot traffic. I'm going to go back during the next rainstorm, to see what comes out then. Do I really want to know?

New plastic is being added to the Saco River, and Saco Bay, every minute. The same is true the world over. Does the phrase "thrown away" have any meaning when there is no "away"?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Collection Report July 31, 2011

Still playing catchup with the backlogged cleanups. So today, welcome back to Bay View, July 31 edition!
6:50 AM on a Sunday, and already hopping
Lots of dawn-peepers & dogwalkers enjoying the early morning quiet. More bright, beautiful sun promising another amazing -- and crowded -- beach day.

The headline for this week's finds would read: "Man Visits Busy Beach, Finds Trash." The summer tides are weak. Little seaweed is washing in, or shells, or other flotsam. So what ends up in my trash bag is just a cross-section of Maine beach life. Maybe interesting enough for that reason alone. But by now, very predictable. Such as:
Every week
So this will be a pretty quick report, without the ooh's and ahh's of long-distance journeys. First, as always, Zone N:
236 finds:
  • Building materials: 2 (asphalt, fence slat)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 16
  • Fishing misc.: 3 (bits of fishing rope twine)
  • Food-related plastics: 41 (27 food wrappers!, 7 bottlecaps, bottle, 2 straws, 2 gum, 2 cup lids)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 21 (5 cans, 6 caps, 8 wrappers, 2 glass scraps)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 29 (9 bags/scraps, cap, 3 toys/scraps, 2 ribbon/tape, 2 beach furniture, 11 scraps >1", 1 scrap <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 81 (79 filters, 2 packaging)
  • Paper/wood: 41 (8 firework sticks, 5 firework casings, 28 scraps)
  • Misc./unique: 5 (sock, 4 fabric pieces)
See? Beachgoers. End of story. But 27 food wrappers... Wow? Or the inevitable result of a culture of single-serve snacks packed in plastic tubs, wrapped in plastic film, handed to us in a plastic bag?

Quickly over to Zone S:
37 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (wood block)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 11
  • Fishing misc.: 6 (2 rope bits, 4 twine)
  • Food-related plastics: 5 (bottle, 3 straw wrappers, straw)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 4 (2 bag scraps, toy scrap, firecracker)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 8 (7 filters, 1 packaging)
  • Paper/wood: 2 (popsicle stick, paper scrap)
  • Misc./unique: 0
Still too little here to feel "natural"; I suspect a weekly local cleanup effort. Which, if true, kind of kills the value of Zone S. Still, until I know for sure, I'll keep at it. If there's anything here worth a glance, it's the batch of blue Nerf-like foam, some of which also ended up (started up?) in Zone N. Also, the fishing rope comes from this totem pole from the prior week. Cute when it was made. Now? Just more litter.

Anyway, that's July for the record books. Summertime, and the picking is easy. On to August!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Collection Report July 24, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 7:15AM, the tail end of a sweltering week. And even now the parking lot was already full. Sunday mornings seem to bring lots of dawn-watchers and dog-walkers. And who could blame them?
There's nothing like the beach under a swift sunrise
It was a busy, messy week. And the evidence lay all around. Another day, another firecracker...
There's nowhere to hide
And maybe another Flotsam Diaries mascot?
Anyone know what this little
magnetized pivot-head guy is?
Here's what the day brought. Zone N:
228 finds:
  • Building materials: 3 (asphalt, brick, slat)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 13
  • Fishing misc.: 6 (5 rope twine, claw band)
  • Food-related plastics: 31 (2 bottles, 5 caps, 3 lids, 3 chewing gum, 12 food/straw wrappers, knife, 5 straws)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 19 (2 cans, 4 bottles, 4 caps, 8 foil wrappers, sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 42 (10 bags/scraps, 2 balloons, bandaid, 7 toys/scraps, 5 firecrackers, 2 twist-ties, 4 nylon ribbon/cord, 3 scraps >1", 8 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 72 (70 cigarettes, 2 packaging)
  • Paper/wood: 34 (12 firecracker sticks, 3 popsicle sticks, 19 paper frags)
  • Misc./unique: 8 (2 flipflops, 2 scraps fabric, battery, dessicant, zipper, cord)
What happens at the end of a day to could compel anyone to walk off and forget a 3-foot-long inflatable happy-face float??

I'm glad they did. It wsa the highlight in a dull day. Summer collections are, in general, dull. Beachgoer stuff left behind by beachgoers. It's the storms of winter that really show just what's out there in the ocean -- that tell of long travels, huge swells, crashing waves. On the other hand, summer beach "stuff" becomes the faded, brittle, bryozoan-encrusted flotsam of winter. So getting 228 pieces of it off the beach this day still feels good.

Now, on to the conundrum that is Zone S:
23 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 2
  • Fishing misc.: 5 (rope pieces)
  • Food-related plastics: 4 (3 wrappers, 1 straw)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 4 (tampon-unused, glowstick, twist tie, 1 scrap <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 6
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 1 (thread of fabric)
If I was suspicious before, I'm now all but certain that this isn't a natural spread. 10 times the amount of trash from Zone N to Zone S? Unheard-of last summer. But without any evidence of what's happening yet, all I can do is keep walking week after week and record it. I do think I've had about enough feminine hygiene products for now, though, thanks.

This week the finds may have been dull. But still, the day wasn't. It started with that gorgeous low sun bursting through the clouds. And it ended with some neat sights down at Zone S. I've talked about the dunes reclaiming the beach there. Here finally is a picture. (Solid yellow line shows last year's fence/dune line; the arrows show all the new growth.)
A dozen+ feet of new dune. Cool.
The trend the world over is dunes receding, eroding, dying. Not here at Bay View. Here they're muscling their way back toward the foreshore. I wonder why?

And to end the week, an impromptu art installation/totem pole. I don't know what it means...
Don't see this every day
...But I like it. You just never know what the next week will bring.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bagging the Rhetoric

On July 31, Lisa Kaas Boyle, co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, wrote a fact-based article for The Huffington Post on the myths of plastic recycling. Today, Mark Daniels, VP of Marketing and Environmental Affairs for Hilex Poly (a major plastic bag maker/recycler), retorted with a less-fact-based article. His industry spin compelled me to reply, both in the article, and here.

1. "We believe in educating the public about... potential dangers of reusable bags."
Suggesting that most reusable bags contain lead & other heavy metals, or contain bacteria that are a dire danger is a cheap scare tactic. If you have independent, peer-reviewed data supporting this, show it. Otherwise, it's hot air.

2. "At the crux of this plastic bag debate is the principle of consumer freedom."
If so, then surely the industry would support a small fee on plastic bags to cover the cost of cleanup for the inevitable pollution. Such a fee would help maintain clean communities and retain consumer choice. But the industry aggressively fights even a 5-cent tax whose proceeds were targeted for river cleanup.

3. "Recycling plastic reduces the use of virgin plastic."
No. You can't economically make a recycled bag from already-reheated & reformed material, it's too weak and degraded. So even if your bags were made of 100% recycled plastic, the only way to get that plastic is to pump in a steady supply of virgin film, which has to get recycled before it can be turned into a recycled bag. It's a never-ending spiral of virgin plastic.

4. "More than 800 million lbs of plastic bags and film are recycled every year."
The U.S. produces 36.6 billion lbs of #2 & #4 resin a year. 800 million lbs is 2.2% of that. Moreover, 57% of that 800 million lbs of recycled film is just exported to developing nations like China (p. 3 of the report). This percentage is climbing every year.

This deserves re-emphasis: Already, more than half of the film that we recycle has no market in the U.S. It gets dumped extremely cheaply on countries without any safety infrastructure in place. How can the argument be "recycle more" when we can't deal with what we already recycle?

5. "Sales of other, heavier gauge plastic bags soared by 400 percent in Ireland after they implemented a ban on plastic bags."
It was a tax, not a ban. And what was the original number of heavy bags used; what's the new number? Ireland cut grocery bag use by ~1 billion a year. Are you suggesting that the Irish now use 1 billion heavy-gauge bags in their place? Overall, how many tons of #2 and #4 resin are staying out of the environment because of the tax? How many individual bags? Please tell us the numbers. Saying "400% increase" by itself is useless. Apples to oranges.

6. "Plastic pollution can be cleaned out of the environment."
Egregiously false. Plastic cannot be effectively and efficiently cleaned out of the environment. The microplastics swirling in the ocean cannot be removed without removing plankton too -- the very base of the entire food web. As for what's killing marine life, was this turtle a one-off? Or these bags, pulled from a dead whale?

7. "The easier it is for consumers to recycle plastic bags, the less likely it is for them to be disposed of improperly."
Plastic can just as easily blow out of a recycling bin as a trash bin. Or a recycling truck as easily as a trash truck. Or a recycling center as easily as a landfill. Or a person's hand in a gust of wind no matter what their best-laid plans were. And even if a bag successfully runs the long gauntlet and is made into another bag, it then has to run the gauntlet all over again. The concept that a plastic bag only enters the environment if the original owner didn't mean to recycle it is ludicrous.

8. "Time for common sense legislation."
Absolutely agreed. Common sense says that small fees on a bag do wonders for the environment. It also says that if you put a tiny fee on a bag and people immediately stop using the bag, they never really loved the bag. They just used it because it was there. You talk about choice? The tiniest of taxes in Washington, DC suddenly make people realize they have a choice.

With the experience, talent, and firepower behind you, you at Hilex Poly and the American Chemistry Council could be truly part of the solution. Instead, you grasp onto an old, failed system while the world moves beyond it. The biggest of missed opportunities.

Collection Report July 15, 2011

Another perfect morning, and a message from the dawn...
No, you're not wigging out, it's upside-down
If you want to be first to the beach in Maine in July, you've got to get there before 7:30AM.

This was going to be an interesting pickup. For one thing, energy in the waves had brought in various sea-going bits and bobs. From organics all alone...
"Mush" bits pock-marking outflow organics tagging along on plastics:
Tagging along on a piece of plastic
Algae/bryozoa on this plastic sleeve
And then, to top of the day, another one of these.
Awesome. Another one.
Again? Really? Anyway, the totals. Zone N:
323 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 35
  • Fishing misc.: 13 (rope, 4 twine, 5 claw bands, trap tag, shotgun shell, bag of bait)
  • Food-related plastics: 38 (including 24 food/straw wrappers/packaging!)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 13 (5 caps, 3 glass scraps, 4 foil wrappers)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 52 (14 plastic bags/scraps, 8 personal care (lids/medicines), 4 toys/scraps, 4 ribbon, wristband, 2 firecrackers, pen cap, umbrella top, bracelet, 5 scraps >1", 11 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 70 (67 filters, 3 packaging)
  • Paper/wood: 94 (57 firecracker sticks, 5 wood scraps, 32 napkins/random paper)
  • Misc./unique: 8 (thong underwear, 2 socks, pair of shoes, flipflop, string, piece of fabric)
Wow. Now that's a lot of junk for one week. Largely explained by firecrackers & smokers. But still, an amazing amount of garbage. And a very colorful day, with a mix of yesterday and yesteryear. A couple of the highlights below. First, more of those Canadian lobster claw bands, all pristine.
Found a dozen, or more, since June 2
Too many of these have come in now to be coincidence. Some kind of incident happened in Canadian waters in early May (can't say whether big or small), and we're still seeing the repercussions of it down here. The ocean's all connected after all.

The other highlight: a gray pen cap that looked a -lot- like the weird little firecrackers that have also been washing up throughout the same time period. (Related??)
Spot the pen cap (OK, it's easy)
Hopefully you see now my confusion when the first of these little busted-up pieces of gray hollow plastic came in!

On to Zone S:
19 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 6
  • Fishing misc.: 1 (fishing rope twine)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 7 (3 bags/scraps, tampon applicator, and tampon (unused), firecracker, 1 scrap <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 5
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
19 finds, against 323 just 150 feet away?? That's not natural. Maybe the condos bordering Zone S have hired cleaning help, or are voluntarily picking up. Dunno. I doubt this stretch is suddenly so clean simply because of encroaching dunes. Anyway, other than that, and yet another tampon applicator (which does seem completely unrelated to the unused tampon and tampon bag also found), Zone S is dull.

So there you go. A wild day, a good day to be a Flotsam Diarist. And more proof that every week may have its share of surprises.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Following the Plastic Triangle

I want to start this post with a graphic I've used before. But it deserves to be seen again.
From the National Assn. for PET Container Resources
We keep hearing, from both the cynical and the well-meaning, that the answer to plastic pollution is to recycle more.

We are recycling more. And more. And more.

In the U.S., from 1999 to 2009 we nearly doubled the tonnage of #1 PET plastic we recycled. Almost none of that extra wonderful, "easy-to-recycle" PET stayed in the U.S. 91% of that extra plastic we dutifully recycled was dumped on developing nations, mostly China. The reason is simple. Recycling plastic into safe, strong, useful materials -- while protecting the health of workers & local communities -- is extremely hard, expensive, and rare.
  1. Plastic needs to be sorted extremely finely. One stray #3 plastic bottle can contaminate a batch of 10,000 #1 bottles if melted with them, leaving a product filled with yellowed or black streaks.
  2. Plastic can't be superheated to kill toxins. Instead, recyclers use acids, caustic soda, and chemical slurries to burn off contaminants. The waste is toxic, persistent, and expensive to mitigate.
  3. Bottlers change designs too quickly for recycling technology to keep up. Coke learned this with the epic flame-out of its $50 million bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in South Carolina. That facility couldn't cope with one design change -- a thinner bottle -- and imploded.
So here we are in the U.S. (and Canada), with warehouses bulging and overflowing with recycled plastic that nobody wants. What's a recycler to do?

Sell it to China.

Why would China buy 553,000 metric tons a month of Western plastic waste that nobody wants? Simple. In the U.S. we have a regulatory system that functions. Not perfectly, but it functions. In China, for all intents and purposes, they don't. Even in areas where regulation exists, the cost of fines is less than the cost of compliance. The result is a no-brainer. Recycling plastic in the U.S. is expensive. In China, it's cheap.

11 provinces in China are recognized as major plastic recycling centers: Hebei, Shanghai, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Beijing, Jiangsu, Shandong, Fujian, Henan, Liaoning, and Anhui. The heart of recycling in these provinces are self-described "recycling villages." Places where plastics aren't just a job, they're a way of life.

Here's a little trip through a few Chinese recycling villages. Getting photographs & stories like this isn't easy, and is getting harder as the world takes a closer look. City managers and mayors work to keep Western cameras out of their villages, sometimes threatening -- and using -- violence.

Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province (the nearest province to Hong Kong, and thus one of the largest and busiest recycling centers):
Original photo by D J Clark, found at:
Fuyang, Anhui Province. A worker stands in toxic rainwater, pulling batteries from plastic trash, separating out the plastic and batteries for recycling.
Original photo by pots455, found at:
Ma'anshan, Anhui Province. Untreated wastewater from plastic processing plants dumps straight into the Yangtze River.
This and other photos at:
Wenan County, Hebei Province. A huge importer of Western plastic. This picture is one of countless open-air recycling centers in the county.
Photo and story can be found at:
In Wenan, groundwater down to 100 meters is now polluted and undrinkable. Young people no longer pass the army's physical, as they have enlarged livers. The county's sewage treatment plant doesn't operate. That's right: The one sewage treatment plant for 10,000 plastic recycling workshops is only turned on when government officials come by.

The plastic that can't find any reuse often gets a simpler end: an open pit bonfire, spewing black toxic clouds into the air. Such as here, at Guiyu, Guangdong Province, center for plastic and especially e-waste recycling:
This and other brilliant photos at:
Here's a river in Guiyu, Guangdong Province:
Story & photo by Greenpeace:
And it's not just China. Here's a snapshot of another place that collects & processes Western plastics, Khoai, Vietnam:
story & photo at
As of now, more than 50% of the plastic we in the U.S. recycle goes to these nations. Where so much of the sorting, remelting, and processing happens under these conditions. This is what plastic recycling really is. This is why plastic recycling is cheap, why we can buy so much cheap plastic garbage in the $1 aisle of big-box stores.

It's sobering to think that one out of every two soda / juice / water bottles each of us puts in our neat, tidy bin is directly responsible for the scenes above. Plastic recycling, 2011 style: Not green. The farthest thing from green.
The Triangle Is a Lie