Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, CA is an extraordinary example of the evolution of our American throwaway culture. This unusual beach was used as the city landfill from 1941-1967, at which point the area was closed by the Water Quality Board and the landfill was relocated. Since household consumer goods were sold mostly in glass and tin (and later, steel) containers until the second half of the century, when plastics slowly entered the disposable packaging scene, whatâs left of the landfill is almost exclusively glass remnants (the tin and steel has presumably eroded away). When consumer plastic was introduced to the hardworking and time-pressed families of the 1950s after the end of WWII, the plastics industry experienced an enormous post-war boom in consumer products which benefited from the new techniques developed out of necessity during the war.
Being the garbage archeo-anthropologist Iâve found myself to be, I knew Iâd find this place fascinating.
Itâs hard to imagine a landfill not filled with plastic, but since household garbage wasnât dumped here much after 1967, the beach theoretically should be almost plastic-free. However, the area around Glass Beach was used as an automotive and industrial landfill until 1973, and 1967 (when the landfill was restricted to automotive and industrial use) was just around the time when disposable plastics became a mainstay in American households. I wondered if I might find a vestige of the beginnings of our throwaway plastic lifestyle here.
The beach was glimmering at first sight â the beach stones and sand are bejeweled with translucent, amber, green and blue glass worn smooth from the tides. I scooped up big handfuls of these little gemstones of our past, and if I looked hard enough, saw small scraps of tin and steel.
I explored further back against the cliffs, and after a good deal of searching, came back with some larger pieces of tin and steel, a scrap of copper, the unsafe end of a metal safety pin, a pop-top from a soda can, and the following pieces of plastic: four partial bottle caps, one intact bottle cap, one electrical outlet cover, one partial and one intact spark plug, one small wheel-type object, and 12 unidentifiable automotive or industrial plastic pieces. As you can see, the use of plastic for household consumer goods was very limited at this point, and is reflected in what remains of the waste stream history.
Before we left, Stiv and Stephen called me over to the rocky waterâs edge with a remarkable discovery: bits and pieces of automotive waste were embedded directly into the rock. Innumerable white plastic spark plugs, copper coils, nuts and bolts had become part of the surrounding natural landscape of the beach.
It felt like we had found the first 20th century fossils.
You can see from this photo how time has corroded (or maintained) the different materials in use at the time. Plastic may wear down, but ultimately does not go away. Glass, made of silica, breaks into pieces and wears into smooth, small pieces. The various metals can oxidize and crumble or bend and break into smaller pieces. All of these materials, however, are inert â meaning not chemically reactive -- except plastic, which even time cannot decay.