Nature Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo
Is This Trash or Treasure?

Actually, it’s (kind of) both.

From the September 2019 Issue

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One hundred years ago, you might have stood on this beach and watched the waves crash. You might have listened to the birds squawk as you breathed in the sea air.

And then you might have tossed your empty soda bottle right onto the sand. That’s because this gorgeous beach in Fort Bragg, California, was once used as a garbage dump. 

Dumping Garbage

Today, the idea of dumping your trash on a beach is unthinkable—and illegal in many places. But a century ago, tossing garbage into the ocean or other bodies of water was common practice. In Fort Bragg, people dumped their cracked dishes on the beach. They dumped their busted radios on the beach. They dumped their rusty car parts on the beach. They even left whole cars.

In time, people came to understand that dumping garbage on beaches harms marine plants and animals. In the 1960s, Fort Bragg put a stop to the dumping and began the job of cleaning up. Metal scraps and damaged stoves were hauled away. But hunks of glass were left behind.

Over the next few decades, the Pacific Ocean tossed and tumbled the broken bottles and dishes, then put them back on the shore. Sand rounded off sharp edges and wore the glass down into frosted chunks. By the 1980s, thousands of smooth, colorful pieces of glass covered the beach.

It can take many years for the ocean to turn old glass bottles into what is known as sea glass, and it can happen only under certain conditions. That means sea glass can be hard to find. It’s even more rare to find beaches like Glass Beach, as it’s now called, that are completely covered in smooth, frosted glass.

HH Wonacott/Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Historical Society    

In this photo from the 1920s, people are dumping a car off a cliff into the ocean!

Glittering Treasure

Today, people from all over the world visit Glass Beach. The sea glass is a rainbow of colors. There are red pieces from old car taillights, blue pieces from heavy medicine jars, and green pieces from delicate perfume bottles.

But the glass is disappearing. Even though it’s against the law to take glass from the beach, many visitors take it anyway. Why? Some people collect it. Others take sea glass to make jewelry and crafts. The rarest colors—purple and orange—are especially prized.

The glass used to be trash, so what’s the big deal if someone wants to take a few pieces? In fact, many people say that Glass Beach should not be plundered. They want visitors to be able to enjoy this unique spot for years to come, to see where nature turned a heap of disgusting trash into a pile of glittering treasure.

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