Sunday, March 27, 2011

Collection Report March 9-10, 2011

March 9, 9:20AM. Sunny, not warm. But the bitterness of deep winter was breaking. The ice packs were quickly melting back, revealing the high backshore once again.
Impending spring
And, like in February, the beach was utterly scoured. Nothing washed in -- organic or otherwise. I wondered why. I also paused to enjoy the beautiful scene.
Tiger-eye maple?
No, just low tide artistry
Then, amid this clean-slate beach, I noticed:
9488 0402 ME 01 EEZ
An entire trap washes in, but almost no smaller flotsam? Why?

This one actually isn't too hard. You see, the surface of the ocean -- where plastic things float -- is NOT the whole ocean. On the surface, northerly or westerly winds can push the upper layer of water out to the open sea. (Surrounding seawater then rushes in to fill the void.) Meanwhile, on the sea floor, currents and tides can be dragging heavy objects like lobster traps the exact opposite direction. A few feet at a time, for years & years. Check out the Gulf of Maine Observing System's website. On some buoys, you can see real-time readings of current direction & speed from the surface all the way to 250 meters down! Sometimes they align; sometimes they're vastly different worlds.

Anyway, intrigued, I decided to carve some follow-up time the next day. Welcome back to Bay View, March 10, 9:00AM. Low tide, and winds had been from the east all night, strong & blustery. Was this a flotsam-maker?? Well...
Yes and no
Wow. That's new. A whole slew of cat-tail reeds washed in overnight. I've never seen any wash in before. There are no cat-tails at Bay View, or within sight of it. But two marshes do empty into Saco Bay from the north: Goosefare Brook a mile away; Scarborough Marsh about 4.5 miles. Dead reeds from one (or both) seem to have entered the bay and drifted south overnight. The easterly winds then blew them up onto the beach.

So. What would that mean for other flotsam? Still almost nothing! No kelp, seaweed, or plastic. Really intrigued, I made one more check at the afternoon high-tide. Welcome back, yet again, March 10, 3:00PM:
The wind remained strong from the east all day. The sea was a shaving-cream froth. I spent a half-hour mesmerized, just watching each wave splash in, the foam blowing away. Still no flotsam. The morning's reeds had been kicked up onto the backshore, and a big chunk of driftwood rolled in, but little else.
Seen better days
How little? Here's Zone N, after 3 visits in 2 days:
28 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (asphalt chunk)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 1 (bit of styrofoam)
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (2 rope scraps, claw band, lobster trap coating)
  • Food-related plastics: 3 (corner tag, 2 bottlecap o-rings)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 5 (Twisted Tea bottle, can scrap, 3 bits of sea glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 11 (inc. tub-surround scrap?, o-ring, Wal-Mart bag, half a pair of goggles, tampon applicator & its accompanying package, latex glove scrap?, upholstery scrap)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 2 (tissue, stick from small firework)
  • Misc./unique: 0
A remarkably low count. Some, like the bottle, clearly a recent local drop.

And what about Zone S?
16 finds:
  • Building materials: 2 (asphalt, fence slat)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 1 (styrofoam bit)
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (2 rope scraps, shotgun shell, clawband)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (can scrap)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 7 (including bandaid, thin pipette, wristband)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
Again, next to nothing. See the claw band wrapped around the bit of driftwood? I find them a lot like that. Usually remove the wood, but wanted to show it this time. Mostly because it's about the only thing of interest that washed up this week.

So. Roiled seas, a lot of beachcombing, easterly winds. And almost no flotsam. It's not like Saco Bay has been magically freed from all its debris. Reeds -- and a large, rotten log -- floated in from somewhere to the north. But not kelp, or seaweed, or plastic debris. A week before, 212 bits of junk washed in. This week, a fifth of that, even with a day of helpful winds.

With Weather Underground & NERACOOS's excellent archives, I might be able to make some sense of it. Til then, nothing to do but enjoy the mystery & wonder of the sea. And however many strolls along a clean beach I can get.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What's In a Name?

(Condensed version of this post available here as a FaceBook note.)

This week's 5th International Marine Debris Conference got me thinking.

I used to tell friends that I was concerned about "marine debris." Their eyes would glaze over. They were lost, before the conversation even started. You see, the term doesn't sound like the problem. "Marine debris" sounds like driftwood, kelp. A river choked by fallen trees from a landslide. The term fails at its #1 job: naming. We put names on things to make them real, to make them understandable. To make them fixable. How do you fix "marine debris"?

Another term exists: "plastic pollution." 70-90% of the manmade waste that washes up on beaches is some kind of plastic (see p. 26 of the report). Daily life revolves around plastic; thus, most of what ends up in the ocean is plastic.

More critically, the material that will persist in the ocean is plastic. Cotton, wool, paper, and wood rot. Aluminum & steel oxidize, returning to the building blocks of bedrock. Glass, too, breaks down. Its surface hydrates. The molecules that bond the silica together are replaced by hydrogen, and eventually it breaks back down to silica -- sand.

Plastics don't break down. They break up, into ever smaller shards. Nothing in nature is known to break down plastic. Alkalis don't. Acids don't. Microbes don't. Sunlight doesn't. Oxygen doesn't. Quite simply, plastic persists. For centuries, millennia -- nobody knows. Worse, much plastic is buoyant -- especially #2, #4, #5, and styrofoam (which is simply puffed-out #6 plastic). It looks like food to marine life, and is ingested as food by marine life. Such as the turtle that ingested this:
All of this was found in -one- dead turtle
The "great garbage patches" in the world aren't a swirl of tin cans. Or library books. Or car engines. They're a swirl of plastic. Plastic that kills animals by the hundreds of thousands. Plastic that collects hydrophobic (water-hating) toxins such as persistent organic pollutants in the ocean, concentrating them at up to one million times the concentration of the surrounding seawater.

So, why wasn't this conference called the International Plastic Pollution Conference? For some insight, look at the list of sponsors:
In the highest bracket of sponsorship is none other than the American Chemistry Council -- the plastics industry. The plastics industry has links with websites like Save the Plastic Bag, which misrepresent facts to downplay the environmental impact of single-use plastics. The industry spends millions of dollars fighting laws that would even slightly tax & oversee use of plastic bags. The industry came up with the use of the "chasing arrows" symbol to make plastic recycling look like a closed loop, when it's nothing of the sort. The industry is now suing a maker of sustainable, organic shopping bags (Andy Keller, see "other bag news" section) for daring to lay out the facts.

The ACC does not gain by the term "plastic pollution" becoming forefront in people's minds. It doesn't gain by having to support any of the burden for the safe & responsible end of its products' lives. It doesn't gain when consumers use less single-use plastic. The ACC does gain by shaping the discussion in its favor.*

NOAA and UNEP seem to agree. Thus, the 5th International Marine Debris Conference. A place where, in the words of Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder Daniella Russo, "there is the one who Must Not Be Named... Plastic Pollution."^

A second top-tier sponsor of the conference was Coca-Cola. In 2010, Coca-Cola Amatil, which runs operations in much of the South Pacific, celebrated a large rise in plastic-bottle sales to Indonesia (see p. 11 of report). They also touted a 30% increased capacity to supply Indonesia with more of the plastic bottles. Indonesia has no waste management infrastructure capable of dealing with the increase. It can't handle what it already has. The picture below is the Citarum River in Indonesia, from late 2008.
From the Guardian newspaper photo essay found at:
What is that? Marine debris, or plastic pollution? Who is shaping the very words that we use to understand & describe what is happening to our world?

* For an impressive, and well-researched article on the reach of the plastics industry, it would be hard to beat "Is the Plastic Industry the New Tobacco Industry," by Amy Westervelt, published March 23, 2011.

^ This quote was reported by the Plastic Pollution Coalition's Facebook page on March 24, 2011.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Collection Report March 2, 2011

Bay View beach, Saco, ME, March 2, 2011.
1:30PM, 1 1/2 hrs before low tide, 30-something degrees F
Mostly overcast, the sun shining its spotlight on the shore first here, then there.
Go into the light Carol Ann!
This week brought something to Bay View that had been lacking through much of February:
A combination of strong surf and easterly winds during the previous week finally started bringing the sea's floating bounty back into Saco Bay. And where there's organic mush, there's:
32 pieces of plastic from that one mass of wood & plant matter alone. Because in 2011, the one always seems to go with the other.

So, after a subdued February, accumulation is back. Here's Zone N:
142 finds:
  • Building materials: 7 (3 asphalt chunks, 3 brick bits, concrete)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 97 (74 bits of lobster trap coating, 20 claw bands/scraps, trap fragment, bumper, rope scrap)
  • Food-related plastics: 9 (4 bottle cap seals, 2 chewing gum, 3 silverware)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 3 (can scrap, 2 sea-glass bits)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 22 (inc. chinstrap, hairband, vinyl upholstery scrap, bandaid, car spark plug wire clip)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 0
  • Paper/wood: 1 (cardboard scrap)
  • Misc./unique: 3 (leather rectangle, cord, firework base)
It's definitely been the Winter of Fishing Debris.
Those 74 bits of trap coatings (not to mention the claw bands) are a drop in the bucket. Each year, tens of thousands of lobster traps are lost to the seafloor. As they rust, the coatings burst and slowly trickle up to the surface. Each trap can release 1000+ bits by the time it's done rusting away. So each year, tens of millions of potential floating, colorful bits of plastic are added to the Gulf of Maine by derelict traps. Which is why the work the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation is so crucial. They spearhead efforts to recover hundreds of lost lobster traps at a time - most recently in Casco Bay off Portland's coast.

On to Zone S:
70 finds:
  • Building materials: 5 (2 asphalt chunks, 3 pieces of brick)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 30 (11 bands, 18 trap coatings, bungee rope from lobster trap)
  • Food-related plastics: 3 (2 bottle cap seals, polystyrene cup scrap)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 2 (can scraps)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 27 (inc. dog-chew tennis ball, degraded comb scrap, marker cap scrap, 2 bandaids, vinyl upholstery scraps)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 0
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 3 (cord, firework base, leather sole scrap)
Mostly the same story. But then... there's still always more in Zone N than in Zone S. Even in winter. Even though both zones are the same length. Why? The steeper slope of Zone S? The low-tide rock outcrop near Zone N? And it's starting to seem that Zone S collects more bits of leather than Zone N. Can two sections of the same beach, barely a football field from each other, really have noticeably different signatures?

I don't know.

What I do know is, every time I wander the shore, trying to figure it out a bit more, I find more reasons to keep coming back.
Another ephemeral masterpiece

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Deconstructing a Greenwash

Amid the tragedy unfolding in Japan this week, a press release from PepsiCo caused some buzz.
Full text at:
Sounds wonderful. Plant-based packaging! Great, right? That's about as "green" as it gets?

No. Not even close. Let's deconstruct this.

Claim #1: This "enable[s] the company to manufacture a beverage container with a significantly reduced carbon footprint."

Reality: According to the plastics lobby itself, the natural gases used to make plastic are a byproduct of petroleum drilling/refining. By not capturing these gases as plastic, instead they'll either be flared off or burned as another fossil fuel. Sourcing plastic from plant matter does not appear to lower the amount of fossil fuels currently being drawn from the earth or reduce the carbon footprint of production.

Claim #2: "PepsiCo's 'green' bottle is 100 percent recyclable and far surpasses existing industry technologies."

Reality: The plastic made by this new process is #1 polyethylene terephthalate, the same exact #1 plastic that currently goes into these bottles. As explained in the "Triangle Is a Lie" trilogy, #1 plastic recycling is a downward spiral. Walk down your neighborhood grocery aisle. Look at all the #1 bottles of soda/water/juice. Find -one- that says "Made Using Recycled PET." Recycling a plastic bottle back into a food-worthy mirror of itself is extremely hard, because of contamination and the breakdown that happens to PET when it is crushed, remelted, and remolded. Recycling a "plant-based" PET bottle doesn't change this. For every single bottle of PET bought, 100% new virgin PET usually has to be created to replace it on the shelf. Plastic recycling is not a closed loop. It was never meant to be. It only offers a very cheap feedstock for recyclers (mostly in developing nations) who want to create lower-quality products from the free labor of citizens who recycle.

Claim #3: "By... using its own agricultural scraps as feedstock for new bottles, this advancement should deliver a... win for the environment."

Reality: PepsiCo wishes to take organic plant material and turn it into plastic. Switchgrass, pine bark, corn husks -- and eventually orange peels, potato peels, and oat hulls. All of these are compostable materials -- materials that can break down back into the building blocks needed to renourish depleted soils. But instead of maintaining a healthy and natural soil cycle, Pepsi wants to strip much of these building blocks away from nature and turn them into nondegradable plastic, which will persist in the environment for centuries or millennia. If it's ecologically unfriendly to use fossil fuels as plastic, it is folly to use nature's own perfect fertilizers as plastic.

Pepsi is correct about one thing, however. This is a momentous achievement. Because it now means that, even if some future society has been able to wean itself completely from fossil fuels, companies will still be able to keep churning out all the plastic our oceans can handle.

Business as usual.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


This week I visited Bay View beach at high-tide. The surf crashed loud & angrily against the shore's steep winter slope. Waves converged, criss-crossed, creating a foamy froth on the ocean's crests. It all felt so powerful.

And then I woke up yesterday morning, turned on the TV, and witnessed images of true power.
Original picture found at
Lives lost, possessions lost, foundations of entire communities, lost. Pulverized, and then swept out by a pitiless sea.

For much of the day, I reflected on my time at the ocean this past year. I felt small. I, and my trash bag, and my camera, and my little section of shore. Not threatened by any Ring of Fire -- or any other monumental force likely to utterly reshape my coastline.

I reflected on the scale of what I had witnessed. "My" flotsam comes from single events. Human-scale events. A beachgoer loses a plastic sauce-packet in the sand; it's dragged out to sea, colonized by marine life, and eventually tossed back up. A diner at a pier-side restaurant loses her grip on a menu, dropping it into the bay; it travels 100 miles and finally washes in on my shore.

What just happened to Japan isn't a human-scale event. The ocean has just claimed the better part of several towns and cities, first blasting them to bits, and then sucking much of the mass back out into the wild Pacific. People, memories, priceless cultural artefacts, plastic forks -- it doesn't care. It can't care.

Much of what washed away will melt, and rot, and end. Much will sink to the seafloor, slowly to be covered by sediment, maybe to create curious fossils in some future landscape. But much will persist, and float, and enter a wider world.
Pic from
Bobbing on the waves off Japan's east coast, much of this wreckage will travel a few miles southward or eastward, joining the Kuroshio Current. There it will cross the vast expanse of the Pacific. In about a year and a half, pieces of it will start appearing along the coast of Washington and Oregon.* Bits will break off to the north, following the Alaska Current up toward the Arctic. Most will curve southward, following the California Current, depositing bits and pieces along the coast of California and Baja California. From there it will follow the North Equatorial Current past the southern tip of Hawaii, leaving more of its mass there. Eventually, much of the wreckage will rediscover the Kuroshio Current. In about 6.5 years, Japanese fishermen may find pieces of 2011's destruction caught among their lines and nets.^

And on and on, until every last scrap of this tragedy ends up beached, buried, or utterly disintegrated back into its building blocks... however many centuries (millennia?) that will take.

We hear talk that recycling will end the pollution of the sea. But beyond the industry's questionable arguments, a larger fact looms. We are at the mercy of a merciless planet. As long as we fill our daily lives with material that can't return to the dust it came from, we will keep filling our oceans with its toxic legacy.

My heart and thoughts go out to everybody affected by the tsunami of 2011.

* Ebbesmeyer, C. and Scigliano, E. Flotsametrics and the Floating World. HarperCollins (New York, 2009): p. 143.
^ Ibid. p. 235.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Collection Report Feb 23, 2011

Greetings again from sunny Bay View, Saco, Maine, February 23, 2011:
11:00AM, 30 degrees, ~2 hrs past low tide
The word of this week was "dull."
Only tiny organic powder on the tide lines
This week saw a mid-winter warmup (and then cool-down), and a bunch of very blustery days with winds gusting over 30 MPH (see bottom of links here and here). Yet, again, that energy didn't bring much to the shore. Why? Check out these charts.
Wk of 2/13-2/19, from
Wk of 2/20-2/26, from
Westerly winds. From 2/13 (the time of my last report) to 2/23,* our winds very rarely came from the east (that is, from the ocean). Whatever energy was being delivered to the surface of the ocean was being sent offshore and away from my beach.

Result? There wasn't a lot of debris -- natural or manmade -- this week. Here's Zone N:
52 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 21 (trap scrap, 2 bits of rope, 7 claw bands, 11 trap coating scraps)
  • Food-related plastics: 5 (3 wads of chewing gum, 1 bottlecap seal, 1 gum wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 6 (bottlecap, 2 sea glass, can scrap, 2 wrappers)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 16 (inc. part of Xmas tree branch, pink doll dress, balloon scrap, o-ring, bottle cap, twist-tie)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 2
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 2 (leather sole scraps)
The winter usual, heavily dominated by fishing material and non-food plastics, including this adorable little rubbery-plastic doll's dress.
Size Zero
Otherwise, a typical -- if quiet -- week. As for Zone S?
20 finds:
  • Building materials: 1 (bit of asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 9 (3 rope (2 very big pieces), claw band, 5 trap coating scraps)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (can scrap)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 3 (small scraps)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 1 (wrapper)
  • Misc./unique: 4 (leather scraps)
I won't pretend that this is exciting. I think even those two pieces of rope were just older bits finally unlocked from the ice.

Truth? It's wonderful to stroll a quiet beach and feel like it's actually clean, healthy. It's a reminder of a world we once had, and a world that our children deserve to have again. I'm glad for the respite. But I know it's an illusion. Even in the Arctic now, birds are dying with pieces of plastic lodged in their bellies. There is no safe haven from a throwaway world. Only, if we're lucky, a momentary reprieve. Next week, or the week after, or that gully-washer storm we'll get in April, reality will return home.

* Note that big blast of winds from the east on Friday 2/25? That may play into the next collection report; wait and see.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Collection Report Feb 12, 2011

Bay View, Feb. 12. Even after a mini-thaw, this was a beach still held by winter's clutches.
1:15PM, 33 degrees, ~1 1/2 hrs past low tide
Surprisingly, this winter, for all its snowstorms, has brought little energy to the beach so far. We've had some extremely windy weather & even thundersnow. But ever since the Christmas storm, winds seem to have blown hard offshore as the tides approach. Waves have been low (the tide lines are several feet -- even yards -- below the level of last year's spring tides), and very little is either being tossed in or scoured back out.
December's flotsam: freed now, but undisturbed
No fresh lines of kelp, no other heavy detritus. Just old, dried, withered remnants of December -- and before. So, in a time of low ocean energy, what would a trip to the beach bring? First, Zone N:
64 finds:
  • Building materials: 6 (4 chunks of asphalt, brick, part of asphalt roof shingle)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 36 (5 claw bands/scraps, 2 rope scraps, 29 trap coating scraps)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (gum)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 16 (inc. tire-tread scrap, 2 bottle caps, umbrella base, caulk, hairband, tieback, 2 o-rings, bandaid)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 3
  • Paper/wood: 2 (wooden handle, fence slat)
  • Misc./unique: 0
Pretty much the normal spread. Dominated as usual by fishing debris, mostly scraps of the vinyl coating of lobster traps, ripped apart as the metal underneath rusts. (See "Ex Uno, Plures.") The piece of tread seemed odd. My hunch is that it's from an old waste tire used as a boat bumper, but that's just a guess.

Oh, and why list chewing gum as a food plastic? Because that's what chewing gum is. It's plastic: polyvinyl acetate and/or polyethylene, to name just a couple potential ingredients. All part of our plastic world.

On to Zone S:
47 finds:
  • Building materials: 10 (asphalt chunks)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 22 (3 rope scraps, 2 claw bands, 17 trap coatings)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (fork tine)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 13 (inc. bottle cap, duct tape, silly band, tiedown, o-ring)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 0
  • Paper/wood: 1 (fence slat)
  • Misc./unique: 0
More of the usual. Except for a bunch of small asphalt chunks this time. Maybe freeze/thaw shattered one big one? Don't know. As with Zone N, nothing really worthy of a close-up.

So that's about it for this week. This report sheds little light by itself. But it builds on what's come before. And it's a reminder that even a sleeping shoreline is still invaded every week by things that don't belong.
The ocean doesn't forget