People on the Outer Banks collect sea glass for many reasons. Some use it to make jewelry and other types of art, some use it as an excuse to get out of their house and onto the beach, especially in the winter months. Others use it as a way to share a special experience with a partner or a loved one, relishing in the adventure of seeking out that frosted glimmer of blue peeking out from the sand that has been tumbling around in the ocean for possibly 100 years.
For Richard Lamotte, sea glass researcher and author of the book Discovering Nature’s Vanishing Gems, it’s not only the beauty of the weathered glass, but its journey, that keep people searching for it.
“I think the first thing that really got me when I found a really good piece was how amazingly soft and round something looks, almost like a jewel, that yet originally was a broken piece of hazardous glass.”
In a poem popular in the beachcomber community, author Bernadette Noll writes, ‘I want to age like sea glass. Smoothed by tides, not broken. I want the currents of life to toss me around, shake me up and leave me feeling washed clean. I want my hard edges to soften as the years pass—made not weak but supple. I want to ride the waves, go with the flow, feel the impact of the surging tides rolling in and out.”
But these days, sea glass is disappearing from our shores, due in large part to the growth of recycling, according to Dr. Deacon Ritterbush, author of the book, A Beachcomber’s Odyssey: Treasures from a Collected Past, and founder of the only international beachcombers’ conference in the world.
Sea glass artists on the Outer Banks who use local, authentic sea glass have particularly noticed the difference as it becomes harder and harder to find sea glass on our local shores. Some artists say it is beginning to affect their livelihood.
According to Lamotte, one other reason for the shortage could be an overharvesting of sea glass, so to speak, when the industry experienced a sudden boom, and the objects became quite profitable.
According to both Lamotte and Ritterbush (also known as Dr. Beachcomb), the switch from glass manufacturing to plastic manufacturing is another large reason. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, before 1972 ocean waste dumping was commonplace, meaning much of the world dumped its trash into the ocean. And glass was much more common throughout that time than plastic.
Lamotte believes most of the supply of sea glass comes from the late 1800s and early 1900, explaining that :there were a lot of beautiful colors of glass back then.”
According to Lamotte, you can tell the age of sea glass by looking at its color. If it’s the light blues and seafoam greens, they date back around 100 years. In the 1920’s and 30’s, more of it became clear brown and green. In the 1930’s and 40’s there was a lot of blue from the Bromo-Seltzer and Milk of Magnesia bottles. If you find a red piece, which is very rare, it’s probably from an old Schlitz or Royal Ruby beer bottle from the 50’s and 60’s. And if the glass is white, dark green, or brown it’s most likely from the last 50 years, he explained.
Both Lamotte and Ritterbush also suspect dredging and beach renourishment projects might have something to do with the drastic reduction that has occurred on the Outer Banks in the last couple of years especially. Lamotte believes that sea glass is possibly getting buried 10-15 feet beneath that new layer of sand. Voice efforts to reach beach nourishment contractor Weeks Marine for its view of the impact of these projects on the supply of beach glass were unsuccessful.
Whatever the reason for the sea glass shortage, one question is whether less glass in the ocean is actually good news for the environment.
According to Ritterbush, the answer is no. Sea glass is made from all natural substances. It’s mostly silica (the same substance as sand) and quartz. It breaks down and is a finite resource. Most sand basically started out as a larger piece of quatrz, broken down into grain-like sizes over centuries by lightning, storms, and the power of the ocean, she explained.
“The bad thing for the environment is that plastic…It’s toxic. Sea glass is benign,” says Ritterbush.
Ritterbush said the only time glass is dangerous is if it is sharp and in a shallow area where people may be walking and swimming. But she believes there is still plenty to be found. Her advice is to look for beach glass, the freshwater form of sea glass, on the shores of rivers, lakes and sounds. Look for the less popular beaches. But her main piece of advice is to share the wealth.
She has adopted the practice of finding an object on the beach, admiring it for a moment, and leaving it for another person to enjoy. Too often, she says she sees pictures of people going out after a storm and bringing home buckets of it. But she understands that urge.
“Finding that perfect piece, when you’re on the beach and you see it reflecting the sunlight—It’s incredible. It lifts your spirits. It’s a natural high that you never forget.”