Once Eric, Joe and I paddle our kayaks away from the shore, Becky yells, “Head for the island straight ahead,” pointing to one of several tear-drop-shaped outcroppings that from a distance look like porcupines with pine and spruce trees on their backs instead of quills. Seagulls screech at us as they fly overhead, and the wind whips the ice-cold sea spray coming off our paddles back into our faces. It’s a brisk fall day, the sky weighed down by leaded clouds, and we are embarking on another shoreline cleanup in Maine, wary not of the waves, wind, and a potential rainstorm, but of what we will encounter across the bay.
This is the kind of beachcombing where you hunt for trash rather than treasure, nab unbecoming sea debris rather than luminescent sea glass. We are like archeologists plying the middens but disturbed by what we’re finding. One third grade teacher who participated in the last cleanup cried when she saw all the trash that had collected on the islands. After she came back, she arranged for a volunteer with a boat to take her school kids out to see for themselves what happens when you treat the ocean like a garbage can. Eric tells us he was kayaking the other day behind a lobster boat and saw a steady stream of debris being thrown off the stern, from Clorox bottles to candy wrappers and soda cans.
Some of the trash from lobstering is unintentional—storms sweep up lobster traps and buoys along with the ropes between them. This wasn’t such a problem years ago when the traps and buoys were wooden and the ropes hemp, both of which blended into the landscape and rapidly decomposed when they beached and then bleached on shore. But now the ropes and buoys are made of more durable plastic that doesn’t biodegrade, nor does it lose its garish primary colors. Colorful plastic also coats the metal traps all lobstermen use these days, as well as comprises the bait bags inside them. Consequently, unnaturally colored mounds of rope and scatterings of bait bags, buoys and storm-bashed traps persistently wreathe many of the islands’ shores, marring the beaches of Maine’s many peninsulas, their plastic leaching out toxic chemicals, their unnatural shades jolting the eye.
Some of the plastic trash has nothing to do with lobster fishing. During the last cleanup, Becky pulled from forest brush a deflated silver balloon with ‘Happy Birthday!’ inscribed on it in bright blue and yellow bubble letters. “They should outlaw these Mylar balloons because they never decompose,” Becky muttered, as she shoved the balloon into her trash bag. “People should use the ones made out of cornstarch.”
If not purposively dumped at sea, a practice still prevalent among developing countries, plastic trash is often blown out of open landfills, tossed onto landscapes and seascapes by litterbugs, or enters the ocean after being washed down sink drains in the form of the microbeads used as scrubbing agents in many soaps and dental products. Shipping accidents also enable plastic to enter the sea. A major storm besieged a ship when it was in the Pacific Ocean midway between Hong Kong and Seattle causing the notorious loss of an entire shipping container, which spilled out more than 28,000 plastic tub toys. Once sprung loose, these modern-day equivalents of rubber duckies then embarked on epic journeys, floating their way to shores as far north as Siberia and Alaska, where beachcombers found them. Due to similar accidents, small pellets of plastic used in plastics manufacturing often land in the ocean, which sprinkles them on shore where they become permanent plastic debris environmentalists call mermaid’s tears. More prevalent are plastic bags, which, next to cigarette butts, are often the most common item of trash found on beaches.
Plastic floats far and wide in the ocean, so even remote beaches are not free from it. We think of the Arctic and Alaska as being pristine environments, but researchers found an island in the Arctic had an average of one plastic item every three feet of shoreline. In 2006, volunteers traveling by kayak, bush plane and fishing boats cleaned up 350 miles of Alaska shoreline, filling up forty-six dumpsters in the process. Forty-six dumpsters!
Becky organizes shoreline cleanups on the Schoodic peninsula several times every summer and fall, motivated to keep the beautiful shores there from becoming contaminated by toxic trash and the broken dolls, umbrellas and other unbecoming human detritus she’s seen ruin the white sand beaches in the Caribbean where she winters. With a long tawny braid tinged with grey and a face etched by years spent mostly outdoors, Becky is a back-to-the-lander who built her own log cabin in Maine forty years ago with her husband, Art. Enamored of Maine’s forests and seascapes, she tries to capture them with her watercolors and has resisted having indoor plumbing in her house because she says she would miss seeing the moon shining through the firs at night on her way to the outhouse. A gardener and forager of both Maine forest and sea, Becky depends on a healthy and awe-inspiring natural world to provide her with nourishment, both physical and spiritual, hence her commitment to shoreline cleanups. I too am motivated to clean up our shores, not just to rid them of the buildup of lobster traps and trash that are environmental contaminants and eyesores, but because I am haunted by something much smaller, more widespread, and much more insidious—plastic sand.
When scientists first figured out how to spin their strands of plastic from liquid concoctions in the early 20th century, these chemical wizards had no idea how quickly they would transform our world. The more durable and less expensive plastic was soon used to replace natural biodegradable materials, from the silk in stockings and the wood in toys to the metal in cars. But what made plastic favorable for manufacturers—its long lifespan—has made it problematic for the planet. It takes 450 years for plastic bottles and disposable diapers to break down, and even longer for plastic bags, which some estimate require 1000 years to fully decompose. “Plastic bags are a product with a useful life measured in hours and a waste life measured in centuries,” notes Edward Humes in his book Garbology. Americans now throw out more than sixty times as much plastic as they did fifty years ago.
But plastic thrown out does not necessarily mean plastic that disappears.
As Ian Frazier noted in a New Yorker article, “Science learned long ago how to put together hydrocarbon polymers to create plastic, but it still has not found a good way to take them apart. Unlike wood or paper or the human body, a plastic bag does not decay to the basic elements it used to be before it took solid form. Even broken down to microscopic crumbs, plastic will still be plastic.”
Exposed to saltwater, sun, and surf, the plastic debris floating in the sea shreds into tiny pieces that act as chemical magnets for toxic substances such as PCBs and other pollutants and become what Humes calls “floating pockets of concentrated nasties.” These plastic particles also leach out bisphenol and other compounds that can wreak havoc with the reproductive systems of animals and cause cancer.
Plastic particles ultimately become broken down into colorful plastic confetti that makes its way to the shore where it piles up, creating toxic, durable plastic sand for the sand castles of future generations. Some beaches are so contaminated with plastic that their sand resembles the colorful gravel seen at the bottoms of decorative fish tanks, Donovan Hohn notes in his book Moby Duck, which documents Hohn’s pursuit of the floating bath toys spilled into the ocean. “What’s most nefarious about plastic is the way it invites fantasy…the way it is intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last. By offering the false promise of disposability, of consumption without cost, it has helped create a culture of wasteful make-believe, an economy of forgetting,” Hohn writes. Only five percent of plastic products are recycled and the equivalent of five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic enters the ocean each year for every foot of coastline in the world, a number made scarier by the fact that it is on the rise and that ultimately this plague of plastic will result in plastic sand. Plastic sand! I shudder to think what beaches will be like for my grandchildren.
I don’t have any grandchildren yet, but I think of the next generation when I am on my hands and knees in the forest picking up pieces of Styrofoam. When we first landed on the island it looked relatively free of debris, but then Becky noticed a line of baby-blue Styrofoam crumbs creating an aberrant pathway from the cobbles on shore into the spruces, as if pieces of sky had fallen and become embedded on the ground.
The unnatural appearance of Styrofoam doesn’t stop birds from thinking it is food, and their pecking at it creates the plastic crumbs we see scattered in the forest. Many marine birds and fish die from ingesting plastic particles, including the poster child for plastic pollution, an albatross chick from which was recovered more than 250 plastic items, including cigarette lighters and bottle caps. These items were featured in a poster Greenpeace made with the startling title “How to Starve To Death on a Full Stomach.”
“Shit!” Becky says, her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. “We can’t possibly pick all that Styrofoam up.” But I suggest we give it a try, and both of us crawl on the ground, spending about ten minutes using our fingers to rake it into piles we could then scoop into a black trash bag.
While we’re raking, we hear Joe shout out, “Oh man, look at this!” With a full head of hair starting to go grey and round wire-rimmed glasses, Joe is another back-to-the-lander, who started his Maine homestead the same time Becky did and once worked as a guide for kayak tours into wild areas. We follow his voice to discover him standing next to a large piece of blue Styrofoam that probably ripped off a dock and was still intact—sort of. When he picks it up to show us, blue Styrofoam dust sprinkles down to the ground. “Look at that,” Joe says disgusted. “That’s going to make it back into the water and become lobster food.” He also shows us an old television and the rusted front grate of a car. He leaves both where he found them because we can’t possible carry them back in our kayaks.
What we can tote back easily are Clorox bottles, and after returning to the rocky edge of the shore we find there’s one of these bottles about every twenty feet. Lobstermen use the Clorox to clean their boats and then throw their empty bottles into the sea, as if that makes them disappear. We untangle some of the rope we find washed on shore and use it to create long strings of Clorox bottles that will float behind our kayaks on our return to the mainland. “I just wish the lobstermen could see this,” Becky says, taking a picture of the Clorox bottle tails we are dragging behind us. Becky once went into the local elementary school to talk to the children about pollution in the ocean and asked them “Why do you think lobstermen throw Clorox bottles out of their boats?” One boy shot up his hand, obviously pleased that he knew the answer. “Because they’re empty!” he told Becky triumphantly. Sigh.
Environmentalists debate the value of shoreline cleanups. Some promote them because they not only clean the beaches, but make those picking up trash more mindful and less likely to use and carelessly dispose of a water bottle or some other common trash item. Other environmentalists think it wiser to expend efforts forging policies that prevent the trash in the first place rather than those that involve picking it up. Such policies include making people pay for the plastic bags used for their purchases at stores or banning them outright. The average American throws away 500 plastic bags a year, most of which cannot be recycled because it jams recycling equipment. Fighting that rising tide of plastic pollution, many cities as well as entire countries charge fees for the bags or have banned their use, both of which have noticeably decreased plastic bag use and litter. Just a 5-cent fee on plastic bags in Washington DC led to about a 60-percent decrease of bags found in its Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, and after China banned thin plastic bags, bag use in the country fell by forty billion bags a year.
Beyond advocating for plastic bag bans and other laws aimed at stemming the rising tide of plastic products, we can all do our part to prevent the buildup of plastic sand by reusing, recycling, and refusing plastic disposables that truly aren’t so easily dispensed. Vendors can pour coffee into the reusable mugs we provide them rather than into Styrofoam cups, and pack our groceries into reusable cloth bags. We can drink tap water and carry reusable water bottles instead of buying the 60 million plastic water bottles that Americans throw out each day. Every plastic bottle we reuse is one less bottle likely to beach on shore.
And we can do shoreline cleanups.
After strolling the cobbled beach picking up Clorox bottles, we find a stretch of brush that Becky calls the mother lode because it has trapped an abundance of soda bottles and cans, motor oil containers, the bright blue plastic gloves lobstermen wear, rope, buoys, bait bags, lobster traps, plastic bags, and other miscellaneous trash. After two hours, we have filled up close to a dozen large black trash bags and made several strings of Clorox bottles. Joe looks over our collection. “This is good—look what just a few people were able to gather in just a few hours,” he says. “But it’s also bad,” he adds, shaking his head.
This time there are no lobstermen to help by picking up the trash bags and traps we collect on shore and by hauling them away on their boats. The first time we did a shoreline cleanup, Becky contacted many of the lobstermen in the area to see if they would be willing to help haul away the trash. Despite most of that trash originating from their boats or traps, only one lobsterman agreed to help out, the rest either in denial as to the problem of trash on shorelines, or resistant to help out for fear that shoreline cleanups will foster greater awareness of that problem, leading to government regulations that would cramp the independence of lobstermen. On that first cleanup, we couldn’t possibly kayak back all the large busted lobster traps weighed down with bricks we found on the island, so Becky had us build a tower of them that would make an obvious environmental impact statement, a monument to any boaters passing by, lobstermen included. After that, more lobstermen were willing to help us with our cleanups.
But there are no lobstermen helping today, and the sky is gunmetal gray as we strap trash bags and tie Clorox bottle tails to our kayaks and then finally push off from shore. The wind has picked up, making small waves that occasionally splash into the opening of my boat, drenching my bottom half with frigid water. Our small kayaks are barely noticeable once we enter the open ocean, tiny bobbing lines of red, yellow and green on the slate-colored expanse of water.