ASSATEAGUE ISLAND — "Plastics. . . . Think about it."
I've been taking that famous bit of cinematic advice from "The Graduate" since a trip one September Saturday to this pristine barrier-island beach.
At least it looked pristine -- and therein lies the tale.
My run-in with plastics was prompted by an invitation to join in Maryland Beach Cleanup Day, part of an annual national effort to comb America's seashores for trash.
Our family took the plunge. We got up before dawn on a Saturday (ouch!), dragged ourselves and the kids, ages 10 and 7, to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and boarded a bus along with other eco-tourists to Assateague Island, Maryland's beach park south of Ocean City.
Along the way, we read handouts about the 1989 beach cleanup. The numbers were impressive: More than 65,000 volunteers nationwide had collected 850 tons of debris along nearly 3,000 miles of coastline.
Plastics accounted for 63 percent of the trash collected.
Actually, I started thinking about plastics the night before while packing lunches for our trash-picking day on the beach.
Was it environmentally responsible to put each sandwich in its own plastic bag? I wrapped them in napkins. Was there a way around packing plastic spoons for the yogurt? I decided to try to save them.
Would my fellow eco-tourists look up from their reusable cloth bags of trail mix, bird seed or whatever else such earth people eat and heap scorn on our mainstream, suburban ways?
Would they point out in righteous environmental anger that, as we heard in the 60s, that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem? That you're either on the bus or off the bus?
Well, we were on the bus when I discovered that the answer was: Nope.
The trip organizers offered not trail mix from the health food store, but doughnut holes from a purveyor of saturated fats. The juice came in the little boxes with the plastic straw attached -- one of the most wasteful forms of packaging ever devised by humankind.
Relieved, I sat back and enjoyed the trip across the Eastern Shore.
Soon we were in a parking lot at Assateague Island National Seashore surrounded by several hundred trash-pickers-for-a-day. The organizers were doling out free T-shirts -- is there an event anymore without them? -- clipboards, pencils, plastic gloves, trash bags (not degradable) and "beach cleanup data cards" on which to record the items we found.
Then park rangers started shuttling volunteers to spots along the 20 miles or so of Assateague Island that lie in Maryland.
It was fun riding north in a van on the beach -- a beach with no four-lane highway, saltwater taffy shops or cacophonous arcades -- past wild ponies as the waves crashed and sea gulls dipped and soared alongside us.
We were dropped about a mile south of the Ocean City inlet, within sight of a resort amusement park, on a stretch of beach that is normally off-limits to all but park officials.
Wrong. In three hours of leisurely beachcombing, here's part of what we found: 38 plastic bags, 11 plastic bottles, 12 plastic caps or lids, 15 pieces of plastic rope, 27 plastic straws, a pair of sunglasses, a plastic crate, an ice tray, two shotgun cartridges, a hairbrush, a hair curler, a jump-rope handle, a sun visor, three cigarette lighters, two combs and 46 unclassifiable pieces of -- you guessed it -- plastic.
That's not including plastic foam, of which we found 17 cups, three plates, one piece of insulation, a part of a cooler and 40 assorted pieces.
And there was glass: 35 pieces, 17 bottles and jars and one light bulb; rubber: two gloves, a tire, a sandal, a small Volkswagen part and six balloons; and pieces of metal, paper and wood too numerous to mention.
Each piece of trash had made a journey, often a voyage at sea, to wash up on this lonely stretch of Assateague. Each was an archaeological slice of life in 1990.
My favorite item, as a reporter, was a strand of ribbon attached to a deflated piece of balloon with the imprint, "Return Sid Kramer as County Executive."
Had Mr. Kramer, who lost the Democratic primary in Montgomery County three days later, campaigned in Ocean City? Perhaps the child of a supporter loved the balloon so much that it rode along on a vacation trip from Montgomery County to the beach. Or could it have ridden the winds all the way from Bethesda or wherever to the water's edge?
We bagged and recorded 380 items in all and left our stretch of beach feeling that we had only touched the tip of the iceberg.
As we rode back along the sand, we saw piles of lumber and trash that volunteers had collected every several hundred yards on the sand.
We didn't find any syringes or shore birds entangled in plastic six-pack rings or any other environmental horror story truly worthy of print. But we were grossed out nonetheless by the throwaways of our "throwaway society" that had washed up at our feet.