Updated July 5, 2019 – ANNA MARIA ISLAND – Visitors to this resort island say it all the time when meeting folks from far-flung hometowns – “Small world!”
How small is it?
A blue plastic cup from the Anna Maria Island Beach Café in Coquina Beach washed up 3,350 miles away in Sao Miguel, an island in the Azores, and was discovered in December 2018 by a man named Elio.
Not to be outdone, a red plastic cup from the Anna Maria Island Beach Café washed up 4,199 miles away in Cascais, Portugal, and was discovered in February 2019 by Miguel Lacerda.
A cup of an unknown color from the Anna Maria Island Beach Café went farther still, washing up 4,250 miles away in Cornwall, England, and was discovered in June 2019.
And the winner – a green plastic cup from the Anna Maria Island Beach Café washed up 4,299 miles away on a beach in Brest, France, and was discovered in March 2019 by Gilbert Mellaza.
Four cups, four destinations, seven months, 16,098 miles.
The Florida flotsam has European beachcombers hypothesizing all over social media.
The plastic tumblers could have tumbled off a cruise ship. They could be victims of Hurricane Irma. They could have been left on the beach and grabbed by a high tide. They could have been bought as souvenirs by European tourists who dropped them back home on European beaches.
The buzz, an inadvertent European advertising campaign for the restaurant, has made it back to the café managers on email and social media.
Miguel Lacerda posted a video on Facebook, tracking the red cup he found in Portugal back to the Anna Maria Island restaurant “to encourage them to respect the environment.”
Manager Maria Steffens said that the café does respect the environment, and doesn’t even allow straws in drinks, to protect wildlife.
“The whole purpose of the cups is that they’re reusable and environmentally friendly,” said Tanner Enoch, the general manager of the Anna Maria Island Beach Café, which has two locations at Manatee Beach and Coquina Beach on Anna Maria Island. “We encourage people to reuse them by giving them a discount.”
Melazza, who has been in touch with two other recipients of the flotsam on his Facebook page, says it’s not about placing blame, “It’s more about how it happened.”
How did it happen?
You may not have heard of Dr. Curt Ebbesmeyer, formerly a Mobil Oil oceanographer, but you probably know the term he coined – “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – defining the plastic and other trash floating in the Pacific Ocean.
Dr. Ebbesmeyer tracks flotsam in ocean currents, and became famous for documenting sightings of rubber duckies and other toys that spilled into the Pacific Ocean in 1992, and for tracking a 1990 container spill of thousands of Nike sneakers into the Pacific that washed up a year later on North America’s west coast.
“We rarely get flotsam reported in Europe from the Gulf of Mexico,” he told The Sun. “We had a duck decoy and a channel marker, but this will go in the newsletter (beachcombersalert.org).”
He estimates it took about a year for the cups to get from Florida to their destinations.
But did they really come from Florida?
“Finding three cups from the same little island is almost beyond coincidence,” Ebbesmeyer agreed. “It boggles the imagination. It’s the same pattern as the lost Nikes. Maybe they were lost in shipping.”
He suggested checking the bottom of the cups for any stamped information, and after a couple of Facebook messages from The Sun, the answers came back from Portugal and France.
“Hand Wash Only.”
“Made in China.”
Dean Rosow, owner of Plainville, Connecticut-based Progressive Glass, which has factories in Pennsylvania and Nevada as well as overseas, did not confirm any shipping difficulties.
But back on Anna Maria Island, Enoch remembered something.
“We lost a container last year, in March of 2018, in rough weather between Charleston and Norfolk,” he said.
Tom Pitchford, another ocean plastic tracker on social media, says that was the Maersk Shanghai, based in Liberia, which lost more than 70 containers in early March, including one containing sulfuric acid.
The BBC reported last month that Nike sneakers (again) from the spill were being found in the Azores, England and France.
The Virginian-Pilot reported in April that among the lost containers of the Maersk Shanghai were flip-flops with “Outer Banks NC” stamped on them that are washing ashore in England, France and Ireland, apparently the same route as AMI’s plastic cups took – which means that Europeans might be getting more of the free souvenirs any day now.
The good news is that if they bring them to either café on Anna Maria Island, they will get a drink discount.
The better news is that people like Ebbesmeyer are keeping an eye on plastics in the sea.
“It’s up to us to save the ocean,” Ebbesmeyer said.