Sea glass, a treasure formed from trash, is on the decline as single-use plastic takes over

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Hands hold pieces of clear and green beach glass

Once you stroll alongside a seashore, it’s possible you’ll look down and spot colourful bits of worn glass combined in with the sand. However the little treasures you’ve discovered really started as discarded trash.

As an environmental science professor, I discover these presents from the ocean notably fascinating. I’ve analyzed sand from internationally and added samples, together with one among sea glass, into a group for the environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences at UMass Lowell. The best way this trash-turned-treasure washes up on seashores displays an intersection between human exercise and Earth’s pure processes.

A historical past of glass

Previous to the proliferation of single-use plastics beginning within the early Nineteen Seventies, glass was the container of alternative. Folks in historic Egypt, Greece and Rome used glass for home windows, bottles, plates, bowls and extra.

Within the mid-Twentieth century, folks throughout america had milk bottles delivered to their houses, and soda got here in glass bottles. After these glass containers served their objective, customers would toss them right into a dump.

Earlier than the environmental actions of the Nineteen Sixties, trash dumps in america had been typically left open and uncovered to rain and wind. As a lot of these trash heaps sat close to waterways or coves, runoff would wash the trash – together with discarded glass bottles – into the ocean.

On their strategy to the ocean, glass bottles would run into rocks and different objects, which might break the glass into smaller items. When these fractured bits traveled shut sufficient to the coast, excessive tides and incoming waves would wash them out to sea.

Wave motion causes these fragments to slip and roll alongside the sandy seafloor. It’s this motion that rounds the glass’ sharp edges and offers the as soon as clean and clear glass its pitted, frosted look.

Plastic waste litters sand on a beach, with waves seen in the background.

With the shift to single-use plastic, seashores have extra plastic waste and fewer sea glass.AP Picture/Julio Cortez

Sand to glass, then again to the sand

All glass, together with sea glass, begins as sand, particularly quartz sand. Quartz sand is evident or white – you’ll be able to see it on many seashores alongside Florida’s Gulf Coast.

To make glass from sand, refiners first purify their quartz sand utilizing each bodily and chemical processes to take away all minerals however quartz. They then soften the remaining quartz sand, add a little bit of soda ash and limestone to extend the malleability and energy of the glass, and reform it into bottles, bowls, home windows and extra.

As a result of quartz is the inspiration of all glass, a lot of the mineral’s traits are mirrored in sea glass. The obvious is its readability – quartz is sort of translucent – but additionally how quartz fractures or breaks. Quartz fractures are usually a particular sort of break, referred to as a conchoidal fracture. One of these fracture begins from a single level and breaks outwardly in a semicircular form, in order that the damaged floor sort of seems to be like the within of a seashell.

A zoomed in look at sand -- several small rocks of varying colors, from yellow to white to gray.

The yellowish piece of glass pictured within the heart has a conchoidal fracture frequent for quartz.Lori Weeden

Quartz can be extremely proof against chemical weathering. As a result of sea glass is produced from quartz, it tends to interrupt down into smaller fragments, but it surely gained’t climate away shortly.

Most sea glass spends at the very least a number of a long time on the seafloor getting tossed round and smoothing its sharp edges within the sand. Some items of sea glass are estimated to be a whole bunch of years outdated – it’s quartz’s hardiness that permits sea glass to persist within the setting for such a very long time.

A world business

Promoting and buying and selling sea glass is a multimillion-dollar business in america, supported by organizations just like the North American Sea Glass Affiliation and the Worldwide Sea Glass Affiliation.

Sea glass jewellery and collections populate craft reveals throughout the nation. There are possible only a few seashore cities in america with out a native sea glass jeweler promoting customized designs.

With the explosion of single-use plastics as an alternative choice to glass bottles, sea glass could quickly change into tougher to seek out, with much less glass and extra plastic within the provide chain.

As sea glass turns into tougher to seek out, some retailers are creating their very own synthetic sea glass utilizing rock tumblers and chemical substances. The distinction between the true and synthetic seashore glass is delicate however nonetheless recognizable. Synthetic sea glass has a uniformly frosted exterior, with out the pitting seen in pure sea glass.

A close up image of sand, which looks like small rocks, with a green, translucent piece of sea glass

Synthetic sea glass doesn’t have the identical pitted texture as actual sea glass. Pictured right here in inexperienced is actual sea glass, with small, textured marks throughout its floor.Lori Weeden

The general public could finally change into much less fascinated by single-use gadgets and flip again to glass. Not like plastic, glass will be recycled a number of instances with out shedding its integrity, and glass doesn’t have the identical environmental influence as microplastics.

However as a result of there aren’t many markets for recycled glass and it’s heavy and tough to move, it’s not at all times financially useful to recycle glass.

Nevertheless, activists have demanded environmentally pleasant options to single-use plastics in recent times. Aluminum bottles and cans are rising in popularity, and glass will stay an alternative choice to plastic. Until it’s correctly recycled, discarded glass will proceed offering sea glass for the following generations to find.

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