Sunday, January 29, 2012

Transatlantic Connections - Part I: Lobster Trap Tags

After nearly two years, there's plenty I'm still learning. But one thing is sure. The same oceans that divide us, connect us. In the Pacific, the currents tie East to West and West to East. The Atlantic, thanks to the Gulf Stream, is more of a one-way street, North America ---> Europe.

Plastics from my part of the world can make the 3,000-mile crossing unscathed, washing up on Irish & British shores. Many bear marks that identify what they were, where they came from, and even when. Each is a time capsule and a fabulous source of information, and stories. If one knows what to look for!

So here's the first in a series of pages dedicated to long-distance plastic debris. Stuff that could start in the Gulf of Maine, wash up on an Irish or British beach, and be found.

Lobster Trap Tags

Gulf of Maine lobster trap tags are a common find on beaches in Maine. And, it turns out, far from Maine. Lobstering is an enormous & highly regulated local industry. By law, all lobster traps must have one of these colorful little strips attached to it.
Trap tags are color-coded by year. The tags above are the colors used in Maine from 1997 (top) through 2010 (bottom).

Each tag is stamped with owner's license, federal fishing zone, trap #, state/province, year, and region. So, for example, the green one is 6841 A1 0789 ME 09 Z:G EEZ. 6841 is the owner's license; A1 is the national region (basically coastal Maine); 0789 is the trap number; ME 09 is Maine 2009 season; Z:G is Maine's "G" zone (the most southwesterly; with A being the most northeasterly); and EEZ meaning the trap can be set out in deeper water several miles offshore.

(Tags from other states & Canada use varied color schemes. Also, Maine has some anomalies. The bottom tag says "NC," which means non-commercial -- this is a recreational fisherman who's allowed to have only 5 pots in the water at one time.)

In season, there can be several million lobster traps in the water. Tags break free from traps all the time. They're buoyant, and many find & ride the Gulf Stream to Ireland and the UK. Rik Bennett was combing his beach in Wales in 2010 when he stumbled upon this one:
Not bad for 3 years at sea
More recently, Andy Goodall from Newquay, Cornwall, UK discovered this Newfoundland, Canada specimen in December 2011:
Stunning shape for maybe 12 years at sea!
And last but not least, an amazing story of connections across 3,000 miles and 20 years. Rosemary Hill lives Waterville, County Kerry, Ireland. Walking the beach last year, she stumbled upon a tag. Not the colorful annual band, but a separate permanent tag that IDs the owner more thoroughly.
On a hunch, she decided to see if she could find the owner. And she did, through his son's FaceBook page. This tag, belonging to a Massachusetts fisherman, was on a trap lost in the "Perfect Storm" of 1991! After an incredible journey, it washed up on Irish shores. And a transatlantic connection was formed, reported in both European and American newspapers.

Plastic is forever. And that's bad news. But if it's out there in the ocean already, and it has stories to tell, isn't it nice to be able to tell them? Keep your eyes open; you never know what you may find!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Collection Report Jan 9, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2:30PM. Bright sun. Mild offshore breeze, chill in the air. 3 hrs after high-tide.
If you can call it a high-tide. This was the weakest tide I've ever seen at Bay View in 1 1/2 years of wandering it. Unsurprisingly, with no energy, no tides, and offshore winds, little washed up again. Actually, less than little.

Zone N:
12 finds:
  • Building materials: 5 (4 brick, 1 asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 1
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 4 (baggie - not shown, black tape, 2 scraps >1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 1
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
Zone S:
6 finds:
  • Building materials: 5 (2 asphalt, 3 brick)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 0
  • Fishing misc.: 0
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (glass bottle scrap)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 0
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 0
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
Take away the asphalt & brick, and there's nothing. On a hunch, I took a walk about 1/5 mile farther south than the southern edge of Zone S. This is an area that I've never collected, but have always anecdotally noted junk lying amid its wrack. This day? Nothing. Not one speck of seaweed or manmade debris. Not even a cigarette butt. Current conditions have pushed & blown everything that was on the sand back into the blue and kept more from washing up.

The perfect culmination of six weeks of truly "bizarre weather," as a NOAA oceanographer I'm in touch with has called it. By the end of the first week in January 2012, over 1000 all-time January heat records had broken. The jet stream, which usually dips deeply into the US from Canada, spent week after week riding high up in Canada. Could I be seeing a small part of the bigger story here on my little stretch of beach?

Anyway. Weirdness. But fun to be seeing it & adding it to the record.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Collection Report Jan 2, 2012

Happy January. January 2, 11:30AM.
The new year picked up where December left off. Ridiculously warm, sunny, busy, and not at all winter-like. And the coastal weirdness continued as well --  a weird flux of dead seas, dogwalkers, offshore winds, seafloor rocks/shells, and almost zero surface flotsam of any kind.
One of the few bits of debris this week; the "wrackline" is just
dried reeds blown down from the dunes
Straight into it. Zone N:
35 finds:
  • Building materials: 12 (5 asphalt, 5 brick, 1 tile, 1 roof shingle)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 4
  • Fishing misc.: 3 (rope scrap, trap runner -- put in trash at beach, trap bumper)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (straw wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 4 (3 cap scraps, bottlecap)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 2 (o-ring, baggie scrap)
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 5 (3 cigarettes, 2 packaging)
  • Paper/wood: 1 (wood chunk)
  • Misc./unique: 3 (2 leather shoe soles, rubber scrap)
Zone S:
15 finds:
  • Building materials: 4 (3 asphalt, 1 concrete)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 6
  • Fishing misc.: 1 (rope scrap)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (can scrap)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 0
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 2
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 1 (rubber glove)
The dream continues.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Full text of October 27, 2011 letter received from ecoMaine re plastic recycling:


Thanks for your patience.  ecomaine works very hard to find local markets for its materials.  We prefer to sell to manufactures closest to our facility, when available, in order to minimize environmental impacts.  The majority of our materials are sold in the US or local markets in Canada.  One of our long term plastic buyers is Graham Packaging in York, PA.   We also sell to Envisions Plastics, UltraPET, and RPM of Canada, depending on what type of plastics we have available for sale.  We do sell a very small fraction of our plastics, primarily #3-#7 plastics, to overseas markets.  In years past, on two occasions, I have worked with the American Chemistry Council to find a domestic market for #3-#7’s through their database of plastic manufactures.  After I received your email I reached out to them again.  Ultimately, I got the same result.  The individuals listed as viable users of this material were brokers who confirmed that they would be selling this material into overseas markets.  They, like us, are unaware of a viable domestic market for this material. 

We share you concerns and have worked hard to develop relationships with reputable brokers who have given us every assurance that our materials  is not being landfilled and is truly being responsibly recycled.  We trust this is the case, since the buyers are paying transportation costs to ship this material and would not do so if they intended to dispose of it.  I recognize that we have all heard salacious horror stories about recycling.  I feel confident that ecomaine is doing the right thing by recycling this material and I also feel reassured about how this material is being recycled.  ecomaine will continue to look for markets closer to home in order to minimize impacts on the environment, but until that time I believe we are contributing to the positive aspects of recycling and not the negative.

64 Blueberry Road
Portland ME  04102

From: Harold Johnson
Sent: Friday, August 05, 2011 8:27 AM
Subject: Buyers of recycled bales, U.S. or export?

Dear Sir/Madam:

I've been studying plastic pollution and plastic recycling for some time now. And I've noticed that the trend is for more & more recycled plastic to be sold to export markets, usually developing nations like China, Vietnam, and India. I've seen the pictures of what recycling villages in these nations look like, and the pollution they cause. Sometimes it feels like recycling plastic here causes more damage over there than if the plastic had just been landfilled or incinerated here.

It's all led me to worry what the end result is of most of the plastic I recycle here in Saco. Do you have a public annual report, or other documents/information, that show where your recycled bales end up? I'd feel a lot better about continuing -- and promoting -- plastic recycling in our community if I had facts to show that our recycled goods are not poisoning fields & streams 12,000 miles away.

Many thanks for your time, and for your efforts to reshape "waste" into a valuable resource.


Harold Johnson
"The Flotsam Diaries"
Saco, ME 04072

Thursday, January 12, 2012


In Tolkien's Silmarillion -- the backstory mythology to the Lord of the Rings -- there is the tale of Ungoliant, one of the original "gods" who came to earth, and turned to evil.
"Melkor Calls Forth Ungoliant" by
renowned artist John Howe
Ungoliant took the form of an enormous black spider, and she began spinning & weaving webs to catch light. She hungered for light. She devoured & consumed it. Everywhere on earth that she roamed, she consumed. And yet her hunger grew, and grew. She even entered the Blessed Realm and devoured the very light of the Two Trees of Valinor, and cast darkness across the realm.

But she wasn't satisfied. Grown horrible in size & might, she kept on consuming -- loving light & hating it wherever she found it. Eventually, she holed up in dark mountains of the mortal world. There, she spun webs through the long years, and consumed, and darkness spread out in all directions.

And she bred offspring, huge beasts of terror and evil. When her offspring grew of age, she mated with them, and hungered for them, and consumed them.

Eventually she had no more mates, and no more offspring. There was no more light, no more food. And yet her hunger still grew. Never satisfied, never fulfilled, always growing. Finally, in the end, sitting in absolute darkness and doubled over with hunger, she consumed herself.

The image above, linked from Inhabitat, was created three years ago by artist & filmmaker Chris Jordan of Midway Journey fame. It consists of 2.4 million individual scraps of plastic, all pulled from the Pacific Ocean. 2,400,000 is a significant number: it represented (at the time) how many pounds of plastic were estimated to be entering the oceans of the world every hour.

Do you think that rate has gone down, or up, since then?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Collection Report Dec. 26, 2011

Another Christmas come & gone.
Why was this a good idea again?
Anyway! Presents, smiles, family time. Coffee & sweets. A beautiful day & beautiful time of year. I hope you and yours -- however you celebrate "The Holidays" -- enjoyed them.

Back to reality. Monday, December 26 had me at the beach again. 2:30PM. A couple hours after high-tide on this bright, blue, 40-something degree day.
I say, "back to reality." But the shoreline still lives in its December-long dream. As you can see, aside from the tiniest dusting of snow and maybe a cracked clam shell or two, nothing new seems to have arrived onshore for yet another week. It was another week of offshore winds and weak tides. A warm, dry, strange December.

Here's a closer look. Zone N:
29 finds:
  • Building materials: 8 (5 asphalt, 2 brick, 1 slat)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 4
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (2 rope threads, claw band, tiny vinyl trap coating scrap)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (torn food package end)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 2 (can, foil wrapper)
  • Nonfood-unknown plastics: 4 (empty dog waste bag, bottle cap from liquid soap bottle, 1 scrap >1", 1 scrap < 1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 5
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 1 (rubber stopper)
Not much to say about this. The dog bag probably blew out of someone's jacket pocket when they weren't looking. I do wonder about the soap bottle cap??

Quickly over to Zone S:
7 finds:
  • Building materials: 4 (3 asphalt chunks, 1 roofing scrap)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 1
  • Fishing misc.: 2 (1 rope scrap, 1 piece trap vinyl coating)
  • Food-related plastics: 0
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Nonfood-unknown plastics: 0
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 0
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
That's as close to zero as I'll probably ever get. (And hooray, no personal care products!)

So. Winds, tides, currents -- some or all of these kept almost all flotsam, organic & otherwise, from Bay View throughout the whole of December. Looking back to last year at this time, the beach was an utter nightmare. I'm not complaining about how 2011 bowed out. Besides, it all helps add to the record of how the ocean & shoreline ecosystem works here in my little corner of the world.

But I know that, as with all dreamers & dreams, Bay View will wake up again one day. And remember what's happening in the Gulf of Maine. I'm not looking forward to the stark reminder.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Collection Report Dec 19, 2011

Monday, December 19. 1PM, an hour after high-tide. Sun & thin clouds, a chilly day with a dusting of morning frost at the wrack line.
Well, what passed for a wrack line. Seems like yet another week with no energy bringing anything in from the ocean. (Organic or otherwise.) And the evidence showed more offshore winds -- all the old twigs & leaves high up against the dunes had been blown down to the tide line. Presumably much of whatever washed in was blown & pushed back out too.

So a quick day at the beach. Leaving me to marvel at icy ghosts:
A message from the dawn, blown who-knows-where by the time I arrived.

On to the (very brief) specifics. Zone N:

30 finds:
  • Building materials: 4 (3 asphalt, 1 tile)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 6
  • Fishing misc.: 1 (tiny rope scrap)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (Pringles can seal)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 2 (sea glass)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 3 (tampon, bandaid, scrap <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 13
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 0
Again, so few things. Why did one have to be so gross? As for the cigarettes, as before they were mostly clustered up near the access point by the drift-log that seems to collect & shelter them. A few fresh, most older.

A quick hit over to Zone S, which was equally thrilling:
17 finds:
  • Building materials: 5 (asphalt chunks)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 2
  • Fishing misc.: 3 (rope, 2 claw bands)
  • Food-related plastics: 2 (fork scrap, straw wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 3 (black tape, tennis ball, 1 scrap <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 0
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 1 (yarn)
December's pattern is nice. If deceiving. But what does it mean? Did this part of the Gulf of Maine divest itself heavily back in November? Are December's currents pulling material offshore? Is the offshore wind as big a factor as it seems? I wish I knew.

In the meantime, big news for TFD. Curtis Cove in Biddeford, an untouristed end-of-the-road spot and major collection point for seaborne garbage, is now under the protection of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. I met with them in November, and they've given me a year's access to the Cove to explore & collect washed-in debris there. Much work, that. But probably some great insights into the true nature & extent of what's out there fouling the Gulf of Maine. Look forward to some new collection reports in the new year!