NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

Marine Debris: Trash to Long-Lived Treasure


By Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator, NOAA Marine Debris Program

I recently had the privilege to visit Midway Atoll Wildlife Refuge in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. At Midway, nature dominates. There are more birds and bird species than I’ve ever seen, Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles, fish, coral, and invertebrates, and they all exist among relics of WWII and Midway’s military days as an important naval air station and submarine refit base [More info:].  Also among the wildlife on Midway, you can reliably find evidence of another human impact: marine debris.

Marine debris is incredibly abundant on Midway.  Case in point: In June, NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Division removed over 50,000 lbs. of marine debris from the shores and near shore areas of Midway Atoll.

NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division’s Marine Debris Team with marine debris removed from Midway’s shores and near shore areas in 2012.
Photo credit: NOAA PIFSC CRED

While most shores were pretty clean by the time I was on Midway, the beaches I walked along on the south side of Eastern Island were strewn with debris. There were piles of derelict fishing nets, plastic buoys, plastic and glass bottles, toothbrushes, bottle caps, oyster sticks, and loads of small plastic fragments.

Glass float on Eastern Island.
Photo credit: NOAA MDP

I walked the beach picking up what I could. That’s when I spotted it—the instant when trash collecting became treasure hunting—my first glass float! This pretty piece of marine debris has become an antique collector’s item worth (for rare floats) thousands of dollars as well as chic home décor. Not only are these floats pretty, each one of them has history—many decades worth in most cases!

A bit of research gave me a better idea of just how old these floats might be and how long they may have been floating in the Pacific Ocean. Glass floats have been made since the 1800s (possibly earlier) and used by numerous countries up until the mid-20th century. It’s not clear when glass floats were replaced by plastic ones, but one article mentioned that cork and aluminum floats began to replace glass as early as the 1920s, soon after followed by plastic. That means most glass floats you find on beaches today have likely been floating around for 50+ years!  Think of how long cheaper, longer-lasting plastic buoys will survive in our oceans… Perhaps one day those will become collector’s items? Chic décor? Not likely.

Plastic buoys on Sand Island.
Photo credit: NOAA MDP

As plastics are chosen over glass and synthetics over natural, the world has seen more and more of these materials as marine debris on our shores and floating in our seas. As intriguing and beautiful as my glass float is, it is still marine debris. The float should be a reminder to us all that our oceans are connected and marine debris, particularly these days, is extremely long-lived. Remember that the pollution of today—that bottle cap that you lost—may become the problem of our next generation decades from now.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

5 thoughts on “Marine Debris: Trash to Long-Lived Treasure

  1. I collect sea glass. My collection began because I saw the glass as pretty now it’s I display it as an marker of trash that ends up in our oceans and on our beaches. There is a beach not far from my home called ‘glass beach’ where it’s frowned upon if you remove any glass. Seriously?

  2. Reading about the debris at Midway Atoll is just astonishing. The plight of the albatross alone is a little disturbing, but the overall picture that a mostly human free island is littered with trash floating through the ocean some 50+ years old like the glass float – just hard to imagine. Here’s an excerpt from another article about plastics, plus a link to the full article if you are so inclined.

  3. nbotb——no butts on the beach!

  4. It’s always nice to hear about finding treasure in a mess like that. The issue of marine debris is such a sad one (particularly all the uncleanable small plastic fragments that fish could mistake for food) that we have to see the silver lining like this sometimes. Who knows, maybe your treasure can raise awareness somehow!

  5. I find small plastic round floats on NE Florida beaches -The have a hole for line and vary in color from red, green, blue, yelloe to clear; they average about 3/4 inches in diameter – anyone know what they are

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