Tuesday December 10, 2013 | 08:26 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

In March 2011, there was an accident at the wastewater treatment plant in Hooksett, NH. 4 million little plastic discs escaped and careened down the Merrimack River, toward the Gulf of Maine.

These round, 2” discs had been floating in the treatment tanks to give more surface area for sewage-eating bacteria to multiply. They were meant to boost efficiency at the plant.

Unfortunately, heavy rainfall and human error led to their release. Down the Merrimack they went. Within just a couple days large clumps of these discs were washing up on beaches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.


Throughout the summer of 2011 the discs spread, washing up as far south as Rhode Island and as far north as Downeast Maine. This Google Map tracks their spread, further and further from the mouth of the Merrimack.

I of course have found them off and on ever since on my southern Maine beach cleanups.

But in a plastic age, "local" doesn't stay local.

Being buoyant -- and plastic -- I thought surely some would escape the Gulf of Maine’s little mini-gyres. Some would make the trip across the Atlantic. I’ve been putting out feelers off and on ever since to my friends across the ocean. And yesterday the news -- and photo -- arrived:

These two Hooksett discs washed up this week in Newquay, England. Newquay is actually a huge collection site for flotsam from all over the Atlantic. Check out the awesome "Newquay Beachcombing" photo page for the array of finds washing in there. It’ll amaze you, make you smile sometimes, and possibly break your heart.

Look closely at that photo above. These discs have spent 2 ½ years in a most corrosive and hostile environment. And they look as good as new.

Nothing eats plastic. Nothing breaks plastic down into its building blocks. Saltwater doesn’t corrode it. Stomach acid doesn’t dissolve it. Every piece of plastic released into the ocean -- from every little “oops” to big accident to epic disaster -- still exists.* Every spoon, plastic bag, yogurt cup, Coke bottle, lobster trap tag, kids' toy, diaper, plant pot, strip of house siding.

Every sewage treatment plant disc.

Through the summer of 2011, big cleanups up and down the New England coastline attempted to clear the mess off our beaches. In the end, the majority of discs were actually found. (One man collected 12,000 alone!)

But some 400,000 remained missing.


Now they’ve started washing up 3,000 miles from home. How many years, and how far away, will people be finding remnants of this one “local” accident?


* Unless that plastic has washed up onto a shore, been collected, and been burned in an industrial incinerator. That’s the only way plastic goes away.

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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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