Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dilemma in a Bottle

Rivers move and carry things out of sight. Childhood stories like “Paddle to the Sea” by Holling C Holling and the tale of Poohsticks from the House at Pooh Corner captivate us. So it really should be no surprise that rivers, by accident or intent, are trash magnets.

On our daily paddles Mark and I often gather trash, hoping to spare the garbage gyres in the Atlantic a few more members. And we’re entertained by some things that we find. Recently we found a message in a bottle, with a return address indicating it had traveled several hundred miles. It also asked that we refer to 25,802 when we responded.
“You don’t suppose that means there have been that many bottle released?” Mark asked.

“No way, ” I responded with misplaced assurance.

Surprise, surprise, Mark was right. BR (Bottle Researcher) has released close to 26,000 messages in bottles (both plastic and glass) since 1972. BR has made these releases when BR travels, so the bottle we found came not from hundreds of miles away, but a few miles upstream.

So, now as we paddle we can’t help but think that we need to gather two bottles just to make up for BR’s actions. And that leads to my dilemma: should we attempt to stop the flow?

On the one hand, BR is a very organized person with 53 books recording bottles released. It seems like a rewarding hobby for BR, who mentions several found across the Atlantic and one by a Princess.

And finding a message in a bottle is entertaining.

On the other hand 90% of the bottles released were not found, or no information came back on them, they are just trash. We pull maybe 5 bags of trash out of the river each year; this is the equivalent wiping out several years of our efforts. The missing plastic bottles are slowly leaching contaminants into the ocean.

BR uses glass bottles as well, but glass bottles aren’t perfect either. The missing glass bottle could be making sea glass, which every visitor to Maine seeks, or they could be slicing unprotected bare feet.
Some trash waiting to get up the hill.  Almost no one releases balloons with messages anymore; should the same be true for bottles?

Durhamblogger carries a special container to help him remove and dispose of lost fishing gear. Baffinpaddler has links to the Ottawa Riverkeepers and David Suzuki’s page. Many kayakers and outdoor enthusiasts adhere to Leave no Trace. Trashpaddler – a recent discovery- devotes his paddling to cleaning rivers in Massachusetts and keeps records of his recoveries.

What do you think about messages in bottles? Are they magical conveyances from far off, or a misguided intrusion on the landscape?

Does your answer change if the bottle was placed by an 8 year old? By a class of 8 year olds? If BR finds bottles by the water and rereleases them? If the number was in base 34? (I can’t help but think bottle MAU wouldn’t raise as many concerns.)
Today was a big haul


  1. You raise excellent points in your posting on both the pros and cons of releasing "messages in a bottle." However, from my perspective, the "less" bottles with messages inside or just "less" bottles themselves, the better! I find way too much trash when I paddle, so I would NOT encourage folks to throw a bunch of bottles with messages into our waterways!

  2. It sounds like BR has been doing this for a long time. Back when he or she started releasing the bottles, folks weren't aware of the consequences of plastics accumulating in the environment. Hopefully, once BR understands the problem, he or she will want to cease any actions that could be making things worse.
    Going back to the drawing board, how about a hollowed-out coconut with a message inside (sealed with wax)?