Monday, October 17, 2011

Shifting Sands

I know there's been a drop-off here of articles lately. Plenty of collection reports sure, but fewer stories. It's actually been a very busy time. But in case you've missed it on Facebook and/or Twitter, I wanted to take a little time to let you know what I've been up to.

First off, I've been learning some pretty fascinating -- and useful -- science. Did you know that with just water and 4 common household chemicals you can ID the vast majority of any consumer plastics you find? It's all about density. Liquids have different density. Going from least dense to most dense:
  1. Rubbing alcohol (70%)
  2. Castor oil
  3. Water
  4. Glycerin
  5. Corn syrup
Different plastics also have different density -- some like #2, #4, and #5 plastics float in water, others like #1, #3, and #6 sink.
Enter mad scientist
Take that a step further, and you can sort them all out. #2 floats in water but sinks in castor oil. #4 floats in castor oil but sinks in rubbing alcohol (70%). #5, the least dense plastic, floats even in rubbing alcohol. Going the other way, #6 sinks in water but floats in glycerin. #1 sinks in glycerin but floats in corn syrup. And #3 (most vinyls actually) sinks even in corn syrup. It's simple, cheap, and it really works!. This link will tell you more.

Science experiments aside, I've been able to get Flotsam Diaries into the wider world, thanks to two guest-blog posts at the well-regarded "Scientific American" online! The first, on September 5, recapped my Year 1 of collection at Bay View beach here in Saco, Maine. The second, published on October 13, chased a too-perfect statistic often repeated in plastic-pollution circles, following the trail back 27 years into a now-meaningless void. As the recent lawsuit by plastic bag makers against ChicoBag shows, the plastic industry will attack wherever it feels it has a shot. Environmental orgs would do well to fact-check the numbers they use before picking that fight.

Last but not least, there's big news from Bay View beach, Saco, ME. At long last, working with the city council and the head of Saco's Parks and Recreation department, I've gotten a "Bait Tank" cigarette butt bin installed in the beach parking lot!
A beautiful addition
It really is a work of art, right down to the reused surfboard "shark fin" on top. A great way to educate as well as give smokers a resource they've needed. It's early days, but it's already getting used. It was a thrill visiting Bay View yesterday and seeing 3-4 times as many cigarette butts in the bin as on the asphalt!

I'm also working a few more projects that will hopefully start bearing fruit as fall turns to winter. It's a pretty exciting time. A year and a half ago, a trip to the beach woke me up to a real problem in today's world. Since then, I've hoped most of all to learn about it, share what I've learned, and try to make a difference. And that's still the North Star that guides the what, how, & why of it all.


  1. Point taken on quoted statistics. Any advice on where to obtain credible numbers relating to littered trash, littered trash affects on wildlife, how long it takes for unburied littered trash to decompose?

  2. Hey Bernie, thanks for the note! The best start for hard, recent research is Algalita Marine Research Foundation. They have a number of reports available online: This is the group that was started by Capt. Charles Moore, who first really explored the Pacific Garbage Patch in the 90s.

    Sadly, I don't think anyone (that I've seen anyway) has a credible number on just how many animals are dying from manmade garbage. I do wonder if part of the problem is that the "100k" figure looms so large that it's hard for anyone even to get funded to try getting something newer.

    As for how long it takes unburied plastics to decompose, the numbers vary so wildly because no one knows. The only thing known for sure is that there's nothing in nature that is known to digest & break apart plastic polymers. So the number could be 500 years, or 1000, or 10,000. Or longer. (A recent experiment suggests that polystyrene -- #6 plastics and styrofoam -- will break down slowly in equatorially warm ocean water; I don't think that's been followed up or confirmed.)

  3. Thank You. I have added your recommendation (AMRF) to my Wiki under the Harm to Wildlife tab.

  4. Your article about the "too-perfect statistic" was fascinating. I shouldn't be surprised, but am anyway, that journalists don't make a practice of checking facts like these. It could lead to trouble for them, and it doesn't serve marine animals, either, to not have accurate information about how plastic is affecting them. Thanks for your research!

  5. I think whatever number plastic the lids for take-out sodas are breaks down quickly. I have a hard time picking them up sometimes because they fall apart. I'm assuming, because they break into pieces, they'll continue to break down further. Surely each type of plasic has a separate "life span."
    And congratulations on getting published in Scientific American Online!

  6. Hey Susan. Thanks! It was pretty exciting. :) And really exciting to see a new Any Doorway post -- beautiful old treasures you've been finding!

    I think most of those lids are #6 -- polystyrene. That stuff's brittle even when fresh, and definitely cracks up when it's been out in the sun. I've had the same problem as you with them. Hate em!