Sunday March 31, 2013 | 02:13 PM
Posted by Harold Johnson

A follower of my Flotsam Diaries FaceBook page asked a good question last week. He wondered if I had side-by-side images of my favorite beach, Curtis Cove in Biddeford, from a year ago compared to now. To see how much better it looked after a year of clean-ups.

I told him that I did have pictures. But they wouldn’t show any difference.

The Gulf of Maine (like oceans worldwide) isn’t fouled with a little bit of junk. It doesn’t take a year to refoul a cleaned beach.

It takes a day.

Here is a breakdown of what I’ve found at the cove, week after week, during my first full year there (Feb. 29, 2012 - Feb. 26, 2013).

Since lobstering debris is fully 75% of what I find, I broke down the specific types of lobstering gear that wash in. The other 25% makes up the rest of the plastic world -- bottles & caps, plant pots, balloons, forks & spoons, sewage discs, cable ties, broken records. Everything.

Week after week, the deluge comes.

This is why I have a love/hate relationship with annual ocean cleanups.

On the one hand, people visiting the beach to clean it -- and seeing first-hand the garbage there -- is a good thing. On the other hand, thinking it’ll take a whole year for the beach to look trashed again -- that’s a bad thing. It teaches the wrong lesson, that ocean fouling is manageable. That we can keep our environment clean without really changing our plastic throwaway society.

Which just isn’t true.

I’m proud of the work I’ve tried to do at Curtis Cove. But by itself, it does nothing. When I stop cleaning it up, it will go back to being ruined in a matter of days.

But the pointlessness of it is the point. It shows, viscerally, that the answer is not in beach cleanups. And it’s not in pie-in-the-sky “ocean cleanup devices” either.

The answer lies in keeping plastic out of the ocean in the first place. Changing a culture that fishes, shops, transports, and plays in disposable, losable plastic -- and pretends that recycling a fraction makes it all OK.

That change will require a relook at how we choose to live our lives. What we think of as “progress.”

Otherwise, our kids & grandkids will think this is “normal.”

“Plastic Beach” - Kamilo Point, Hawaii

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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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