Collectors Finding Less Sea Glass

11/23/09 6:34AM By Nancy Eve Cohen
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Nancy Cohen
(Host) One of the biggest environmental conundrums today is what to do with all of our trash: how to use less, recycle more, and get rid of it without burdening the ecosystem.

But there are some people who actually covet old trash - in particular, glass that's ended up in the sea. As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, Nancy Cohen from WNPR reports.

(Cohen) Sue Gray Fitzpatrick is a petite, but sturdy woman who prefers to walk the beach in the colder months when big winds drive in more treasures.

(Fitzpatrick) "There might be a blue behind your foot there. How's that for eyes?"

(Cohen) Fitzpatrick spends at least a day a week scanning for bits of colored glass, smoothed by the waves and rocks, in Newport, Rhode Island.

This is known as "sea glass." And these days she's finding mostly small pieces.

(Fitzpatrick) "Oh, look at the size of this thing? But I'll pick it anyway."

(Cohen) Fitzpatrick has been collecting sea glass and making jewelry with it for more than 20 years. Even though it was once somebody else's garbage.

(Fitzpatrick) "They left it behind tossed it off a boat or ship maybe, tossed it off a cliff. Who knows how it ended up here? But yeah, this is somebody else's trash and now they're my treasures."

(Cohen) But these days she's finding far less sea glass. Other collectors are having the same problem. From Long Island Sound to Massachusetts to Maine. It may be because there are more plastic containers and fewer made of glass. Or because we're better at recycling. But it's also because we're more careful about how we throw things out.

(Fitzpatrick) "Before the days of the trash collector I think people discarded their trash wherever they could."

(Cohen) Some of the glass that's found today dates back as far as the 1800s. Long before sanitary landfills became the norm.

Fitzpatrick agreed to take me collecting only if I don't reveal where we go.

(Fitzpatrick) "It's not a beach with a name."

(Cohen) All that I'm able to disclose is that this stretch of sand is tucked behind a concrete wall.

Fitzpatrick is finding mostly green glass and brown, here. The brown is probably from beer bottles. But it could be old medicine bottles or the amber glass Clorox bleach came in before 1962.

(Fitzpatrick) "I think part of the beauty of sea glass is wondering what it used to be."

(Cohen) Blue glass could be from Noxema or Milk of Magnesia bottles. Clear glass, which turns white over time in the ocean, is common.  Orange and red are considered rare.

(Fitzpatrick) "I'll go first, so I'll lead the way."

(Cohen) Fitzpatrick takes me down a steep cliff, to a small cove

Below the tide is washing in. And Fitzpatrick plants herself, strategically, at the water's edge.

(Fitzpatrick) "Oh my God. Look!  It is red!"

(Cohen) She pulls up a chunk of glass, the color of a red gumdrop.

(Fitzpatrick) "Better than candy, huh? I cannot even believe that I just found this here."

(Cohen) But she's not sure how the piece started out.

(Fitzpatrick) "It's really thick. I think it was a piece of decorative glass. Candy dish or something like that."

(Cohen) The color alone makes this piece so rare Fitzpatrick won't sell it. Even though she has seen red glass go for more than $200 on Ebay. It will go in her special collection back home.

Fitzpatrick admits she kind of yearns for more litter on the beach. But she's not counting on it

(Fitzpatrick) "Someday I'm not going to find sea glass. So I'm going to pick all I can while I can pick, while it's there, so that I'll have it."

For VPR News, I'm Nancy Cohen

(Fitzpatrick) "Oh, I just saw a really nice green. Look at this. It's like a jade green."

(Fade out waves)

(Host) Northeast Environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative. It is funded, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.


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