One gardener's observations, discoveries and random thoughts whilst simultaneously worshipping and dallying in a Cape Cod garden. "A garden," said Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is like those pernicious machineries which catch a man's coatskirt or his hand, and draw in his arm, his leg and his whole body to irresistable destruction."

Wretched Refuse

Now that we’ve Sprung Ahead, P and I have been getting ourselves into some nice late afternoon walking habits, getting ourselves to the bay and back a few nights a week.   After a long and sometimes lazy winter, the exercise feels good and its so nice to be out there in the fresh air.    Our route offers all kinds of wildlife viewing possibilities, what with geese and ducks and herons in the  marsh and all sorts of shoreline wildlife once we reach the bay and we never know quite what we’ll encounter.

Anyone who’s walked along the shore knows that all kinds of things wash up in the seaweed left by high tide.    Sometimes we fill our pockets with pretty shells or pebbles or interesting bits of driftwood.   As often as not, there’s a dead fish or bird or crab in the wrack, but all kinds of brightly colored evidence of Man, too.    Just the other night, for not the first time, we bemoaned not having remembered to bring trash bags to collect some of the garbage that floats up.

Really, it’s how the whole tidal marsh system works:   the high tide carries in all the refuse of the sea, which is filtered out of the water by the tall marsh grasses, which then settles and builds up the layers that form a salt marsh, and eventually more land.  Sort of a compensation for erosion elsewhere.   Of course the system was designed to address and recycle organic materials, not all the plastic cast-offs our culture creates.   All kinds of stuff washes up on the bay shore, which is why Provincetown artist Jay Critchley‘s been making art of washed-up tampon applicators for years.

But then we heard about the disks.   Somehow the story only got out into the media this weekend, even though the original incident happened back on March 6th:    a sewage treatment plant in New Hampshire experienced an “escape” of some 4 to 8 million of these little two inch disks, which are used to filter bacteria out of waste water.

What a convenient word, “escape”, excusing everyone responsible by imbuing these filty plastic filters with a desire to break out of captivity and taste freedom.    Here’s the whole story.


Probably not the whole story, though.    After I posted a link about this “local”/regional story on Facebook this evening, Jess pointed out that a seemingly-identical “escape” occurred at a sewage treatment plant in Westchester County on the very same day, causing those discs to begin washing up on Long Island’s North Shore beaches now.  That nearly identical story is found here.

So WTF is the real story, eh?   Is it just mass simultaneous incompetence?   I suppose that’s easy enough to believe.   But now I wonder if there are other coastal communities experiencing similar things from their moron-operated sewage treatment plant.   My personal conspiracy theory so far falls short in imagining some appropriately-nefarious “real reason” behind these little disks’ great adventure, but it must be something bad.   As if trashing our precious waters isn’t bad enough.

In any case, we are assured they are harmless.   Isn’t it funny how often we hear that song anymore these days…?   The disks, they say, have spent enough time in the water that there’s no more bacteria to worry about.    Just as we hear there’s no reason to worry about the radiation, it’s blowing out to sea.    We ask so much of our oceans.

Having heard on the radio this morning that these discs were beginning to find their way onto our shores, tonight we armed ourselves with gloves and trashbags and when our walk brought us to the shore, we began looking around for the things.    At first, we didn’t spot them.   But then we began to see them everywhere.

We collected discs for about an hour, adding deep knee bends and squat thrusts to our regular walking exercise, as we teased apart the piles of seaweed along the wrackline, finding them full of discs and all sorts of other manmade debris.    Dead cigarette lighters, a flashlight, various bits of rope and netting, twisted tangles of pretty colored ribbon attached to now-dead latex balloons, tampon applicators, ToGo containers and Starbucks cups, golf balls and condoms (both used and unused, apparently), plastic water bottles, that little plastic ring you peel off your milk that the cat likes to play with, fishing lures and miscellaneous plastic bits and discs, everywhere we looked more discs.    Augh.

Wouldn’t you hate it if you lived in one of these shells and then these things washed up in your front yard?


After picking along the shoreline for an hour, we’d each collected hundreds of the things, along with all that other debris.    It was a good hour or so of work, and as the sun sank it was getting colder and the tide was creeping in, pushing the dampness ahead of it.

It was time to stop, but so frustrating to do so.   The tide would just bring in more and move around the ones we hadn’t gotten to back into the spots we cleaned.    A couple of hundred discs that felt like an accomplishment a few minutes before seems suddenly a drop in a bucket of 4 to 8 million.

All along the beach are still hundreds, probably thousands of them.    They are washing up on beaches all along the bayshore and have been found on the oceanside beaches, as well.    If conditions are right, some could catch a ride on the Gulf Stream and find their way to Europe.


We’re going back again after work tomorrow and we’ll see what we can accomplished.    We’re hoping we’ll see more people there, so if you’re on the Cape (or the North Shore, for that matter), grab some gloves and a bag and come join us.   Or go to some other beach near you.   It sounds like there’s plenty to go around and though it’s frustrating work, every bit helps.

If only we could get everyone to show up at the beach and pick up a few.    It would start to put a dent into the millions.    As we worked, we pondered aloud the idea that  you could get more people to come help out if you presented the possibility of winning prizes for the number of discs collected.    What a shame it comes down to bribery.   You’d think it’d be more clear that cleaning up our environment is its own reward.

Whoever cleans up the most trash gets to save the Planet.    OK, go!

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Comments on: "Wretched Refuse" (7)

  1. You have struck the nail directly on the head! So amazing that you chose this title as I just finished commenting on another blog that we should be very careful of demonizing immigrants, legal and otherwise, until we recall the engraving on the Statue of Liberty,

    Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

    Few of us would be here without this sentiment…

  2. I would so be there if I could. I agree with Chris. Too many sound off about each other yet have no clue that we are all on this planet together. It reminds me of my grandmother’s tried and true saying…..many hands make light work. Thank you, P and G, for taking this on sending out the message.

  3. We are killing the oceans but we don’t act because we can’t see it. Trash at the shoreline, awful as it looks, is the equivalent of dust particles on the real mess. My heart is warmed by your actions in cleaning up other people’s trash.

  4. A wonderful act of kindness to Mother Earth. Thank you, my dear.

  5. The more I think about it, the more I think we’re being lied to. Accidental release… sure. I don’t know what the reason was, of course, but there’s more to it than what we’ve been told. Coincidences usually aren’t coincidences, and this one is just too weird to be true.

    But let’s get to what really matters, as if I wouldn’t notice, you animal. Squat thrusts, indeed! I love it when you talk dirty! ;)

  6. Charles said:

    I would have been there in a heart beat if I could.

  7. Great piece I have been spotting hundreds of those filters on East Hampton Beaches all summer

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