Most people now know of the Great Garbage Patch, the plastic soup swirling in the deep Pacific. "Plastic sand" on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. Dead albatross on Midway Atoll, their bellies filled with plastic waste. Horrible problems, "over there."
Except it’s not just "over there." I first woke up to this in March, 2010, on a visit to a local beach in quiet southern Maine.
The Gulf of Maine, my back yard, is also fouled by countless millions of scraps of modern life. Thousands of which, in this case, had been vomited back onshore by a February storm. Abraded bottles, spoons and forks, rope, half of a pair of sunglasses, a shotgun shell, colorful rubber bands, a "No Trespassing" sign, an oil filter. Plastic confetti, everywhere.
That moment of awakening spawned "The Flotsam Diaries," an ongoing research project to document, study, and analyze marine plastic pollution.
I realized early that to study the problem, I had to quantify it. So I decided to visit a beach weekly, all year, collecting every piece of manmade debris there. Only by scouring the sand clean each trip could I say anything useful about what was coming in, how much, its source, its condition.
I chose rustic Bay View beach in my hometown of Saco, Maine. A place unvisited by raking tractors, dredgers, or organized clean-up efforts.
I picked two 250-ft long collection zones: the touristed northern Zone N, and the quieter southern Zone S, separated by a 150-ft buffer. And I collected. Week after week. Through August heat, autumn winds, December nor’easters, April showers. I sorted & photographed all the finds, and posted each Collection Report on my blog.
Some weeks brought the mundane, some weeks shocked.
Over the months, I found that many of the washed-in pieces spoke to the dangers of this plastic scourge, and the distances it can travel.
Finally, at year’s end, I sat down and analyzed everything I had collected. All told, I collected 8,456 pieces of manmade debris. 80% was plastic. 2,046 cigarette butts (cellulose acetate), 1,034 bits of fishing debris (polypropylene rope, vinyl-coated trap scraps, vulcanized polymer claw bands). Thousands of pieces of beach furniture, toys, food packaging, scraps.
All of which is similar to finds by the Ocean Conservancy. But my research has gone far beyond typical annual cleanups. By visiting the same beach week after week, I could break down the finds by season. And say actionable things about the problem.
I learned much:
- Cigarette butts aren’t floating in. They’re a summer event, local beachgoer drops. Helpful for governments studying point sources.
- Winter storms cast up huge amounts of old, fouled plastic waste. The best time of year to bring skeptics to the shore to open some eyes.
- After the winter beachings, the sea remained cleaner into the spring. The ocean wants to rid itself of its pollution, if we’d let it.
- Local flotsam can identify distant events & incidents. Poignant but valuable sources for learning about ocean currents, if we learn how to study them.
- Debris in Zone N dwarfed that in Zone S even during winter. Evidence that micro-climates play a major role in how & where flotsam washes in.
Anyone interested can examine the week-by-week spreadsheet data here.
I’m now well into my second year of recording at Bay View. And I’m already looking forward to comparing Year 1 to Year 2 next June. Since starting this, I’ve discovered fabulous resources to help tell the story of when, how, and why debris floats in. From the network of scientific buoys sending back live data about ocean conditions, to historical data on wind, tide, and storm . The kinds of resources that enable "citizen scientists" to make a real contribution to the understanding of our world. If we have the will to try.
Marine plastic pollution is not a problem far away, "over there." It’s a global scourge of our time, and it’s all happened within a couple of generations. Right under our noses. 80+% of Arctic fulmars now have plastic in them. Every major ocean gyre in the world has plastic in it. Despite the rhetoric of recycling, virgin plastic use continues to rise. And no part of the world is now free of the effects of a throwaway culture.
Yet I remain hopeful. There is a wealth of natural beauty and treasure surrounding us. And a large, growing global network of people fighting to preserve it. I’m excited to continue learning, analyzing, and sharing what I’ve discovered. It’s amazing what happens when we stop, look at the ground around our toes, and really open our eyes.