There is a bright side to everything, says a true optimist.
While I am not always optimistic, I do try to make lemonade out of lemons. Consider the problem of trash in our oceans. You may wonder, where is the good in that? Yet it’s true that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. I found a bounty of good garbage in the form of sea glass on a recent trip to Nicaragua.
Sea glass is the unrivalled treasure of marine trash. While I do believe that you should “take only pictures and leave only footprints,” there are some exceptions to this rule. Besides a jarful of sea glass, I also brought home things that support local artisans, including locally made honey and jewelry.
The amount of sea glass, also called mermaid’s tears, beach glass and lucky tears, was impressive on the Nicaraguan shoreline. This is in contrast to my beachcombing on the East Coast of the U.S., where there seems to be less and less sea glass.
It is no surprise that these little globs of glass are becoming an endangered species in this country. Since the 1960s, we have moved from using mainly glass for packaging to plastic, which doesn’t age nearly as well as glass and definitely won’t become a collectable. Additionally, as population increased, the practice of recycling glass also thankfully increased, which reduced the amount of sea glass fodder. Not surprisingly, one well-known location for collecting sea glass in this country is Glass Beach, Calif., which was formerly the town dump.
Most sea glass found could be considered antique. It has been estimated that sea glass takes at least 10 years and anywhere up to 30 years to cure. It is not uncommon to find pieces that are over a hundred years old! To get to their ripe, ‘sea-soned’ best, new glass must undergo a hydration process in the water. During this process, lime and soda are leached out of the glass, leaving the surface frosty and pitted as the compounds crystallize. (The soda that leaches out is the mineral that went into the manufacturing of the glass, not the soft drink that it later contained.) The edges are smoothed and rounded by the wave action and abrasion of sand and water.
According to sea glass experts, who are a secretive bunch when it comes to their favorite locales, the best time to go searching for sea glass is after storms and during the perigean spring tides. This is when the tides of the full or new moon fall during the time when the moon’s orbit is in its perigee, or closest to the earth.
If you are lucky enough to find these glassy gifts, you can find a history (and statistics) lesson in your jar. Chances are good that you will find green, brown or clear glass, as these are the most common colors picked up and come from beer bottles, panes of glass, and/or old Clorox and Lysol bottles.
Less common are jade, amber, lime and forest green, which are found once for every 200 pieces collected. Even more uncommon are opaque or white, cornflower, aqua and cobalt blues, seen once in every 1,000 to 10,000 pieces. The white bits are former soda and milk bottles, and the cobalt could have been part of an old Phillips Milk of Magnesia, Noxema, Bromo or Alka Seltzer bottle.
Lavender sea glass is a find that can be dated to around World War I, when the chemical that colored glass, which came from Germany, wasn’t available here. The wartime replacement gave glass a lavender hue.
The holy grail for sea glass collectors are the colors black, red, and orange. These are the hardest to find and are a once in 10,000 piece occurrence. Red glass was believed to have come from bottles from the Anchor Hocking Glass Company, Schlitz beer bottles (pre-1950s), or possibly from red running lights on boats.
From trash to trinkets and garbage to gold, sea glass will become more valuable to the collector, a paean to Mother Nature who through her artful changes may be the ultimate recycler and biggest optimist of all.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.