Monday February 25, 2013 | 09:52 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Undercurrents’ subheading is “Thoughts on a timeless coast in a plastic world.” Up to now there hasn’t been that much discussion of this plastic world. I wanted to change that.

As I mentioned once, I visit a small beach in Biddeford weekly and collect all the trash that has washed in along the same 150-foot section. Between late February 2012 and late January 2013, this is what I’ve brought in:

All from one small section of one small “protected” and untouristed beach.

This photo doesn’t include the mounds of fishing rope. It couldn’t hope to. I have retrieved 3699 pieces, a total length now of over 6,000 ft! Here’s a photo I did take of my rope last May when there was less than 1/4 of that:

All told, I’ve collected 12965 pieces of debris, from one small part of one small beach, in under a year.

Nearly all of this debris is plastic. The Gulf of Maine is remarkably fouled by both industrial & consumer plastics. Plastics don’t biodegrade. Nothing digests them. Stomach acid doesn’t break them down. In fact nothing in nature knows how to destroy them. Sunlight will make plastic brittle, so it breaks into small pieces. But they’re still pieces of plastic. They last forever.

Disturbingly, much of the plastic that washes into my shore has bite & claw marks all over it.

Whatever effect this is having on our ocean, it cannot be good.

Some ask how all this plastic could get into the ocean. How could it not? In order to give us the "cheap" seafood we demand, our fishing industries use (and lose) plastic rope, buoys, bait bags, vinyl-coated traps, almost exclusively. Our households are filled with plastic: Bottles, chairs, toothpaste tubes, shower curtains, phones, picture frames, TV remotes, clothes hangers, flyswatters, combs, toys. Our open-air seaside restaurants -- on a windy coast -- use plastic cups, forks, ketchup packs, sauce cups. Our nylon/polyester clothes shed thousands of plastic fibers into sewer systems with each wash.

Even our wooden pencils are now often sheathed in plastic, so TV characters can be printed on them and marketed. These shavings will never go away:

Since our lives are now so plastic, almost everything we throw out is also now plastic. Look at the garbage in your trash can. Aside from coffee grounds and rotten food, how much is plastic? Every week, in every city, at least one garbage bin spills its contents. Here’s Saco a couple weeks ago:

This happens, it's life. It could be your trash, or mine. It could be from wind, an animal, a car sideswipe, or careless collection. The bits that blow away will wash into gutters, through storm drains, and straight to the ocean. Picture just one bin, per city, per week.

You can see results around your feet at many beaches.

As a wrap-up, please check out this striking blog. Last week in NC a Bull Dolphin was caught, pudding cup & squirt gun lodged in its gut.

In the Caribbean a deep-sea research team is finding human debris 3 miles down, in places humans are only now starting to explore.

It is now a plastic world. And that has consequences.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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