From August 2010 to May 2011,
over 1900 disposable plastic cigarette lighters were collected
from 47 different waterfront locations
throughout the five boroughs of New York City.
The map above, and corresponding list on the right, shows the individual spots where lighters were found.
Click on a flag or name to see the actual lighters and details about the spot itself.
More information about the project is written below. Enjoy!
Tallapossa West (146)
Pelham Bridge Lookout (5)
Seagull Shore (14)
Pugsley Creek (29)
Soundview Park (12)
South Brother Island (20)
Nature Walk (3)
Bushwick Inlet (7)
Navy Yard (3)
Valentino Jr Pier (6)
Verrazanos Beach (10)
Summerfield Creek (16)
Calvert Vaux Park (13)
Beach at Kaiser Park (56)
Coney Island (7)
Manhattan Beach (9)
Plum Beach West (49)
Plum Beach Channel (200)
Plum Beach East (19)
Dead Horse Bay (9)
Aviation Road (10)
Ruffle Bar (12)
Canarsie Pol (16)
Bergen Beach (488)
Canarsie Pier West (89)
Canarsie Pier East (163)
Jeffrey Hook South (12)
Governors Island (16)
Poormans Paradise (28)
Astoria Park (28)
25th Ave End (6)
MacNeil Park (10)
Powells Cove (3)
Francis Lewis Park (7)
Cross Bay West (2)
North Channel Cove (12)
A Train East (62)
DeCosta Ave Peninsula (142)
Bayfield Ave West (35)
Far Outfield at American Park (21)
Little Egg (1)
Beach 94 - 116 St (10)
Staten Island (140)
St. George (65)
Oakwood Beach (6)
Great Kills Park (11)
Lemon Creek Park (14)
Ship Graveyard (44)
Chosen as a familiar item which we all know and often use, lighters are just one of many disposable, non biodegradable and quite durable synthetic items that escape from our infrastructure of consumption and disposal, travel through our waterways and wash up on shorelines near or far, heavily-trafficked or off-limits. This project documents these findings with the following goals guiding the way:
1. Map where lighters are washing up (see map).
2. Develop hypothesis on why and where (see methodology).
3. Document the industrial and decaying traits of the lighters (see photos).
4. Use the project to explore NYC coastlines (see access).
I originally began collecting lighters for a few reasons. First, their durability allows them to stay in one solid and recognizable piece that many other plastic objects, such as toys and common household items, lose while traveling about through the water, under the sun and against the rocks. They are instantly identifiable, and therefore easy to spot. Secondly, they seem to exist with the right amount of frequency to keep a comber on the hunt and optimistic but not overwhelmed. Collecting bottle caps would make for a more daunting experience, collecting hearing aids a lonely one . In the spectrum of synthetic flotsam they exist at a happy medium population. Lastly, the consistencies in shape and size amongst lighters makes them not only easy to recognize but also interesting for more detailed reasons, such as color, specific angles of the mold, type and brand.
Additionally, I came to gain interest in the lighters as advanced products of industrial design, whose precision prescribed attributes are challenged by the sun, heat and saltwater. Some colors remain clear and vivid, some scratch and fade, and some plastics, like the type used by Bic, morph in their actual texture, creating a rustic look.
Lastly, the lighter’s use and function itself became of interest as well. What an advance of convenience original lighters must have been - the idea of an instant flame in your pocket, how fast we have moved beyond the remarkableness with millions of disposable lighters now used and discarded every year. The idea of fire versus water, the lighters battling with the marine environments through which they have traveled, losing functionality, trying to stay in tact, yielding to the directions the sea forces it. The lighters relationship to cigarettes, its most common use, and of the carton or so of cigarettes it could have very well lit. Where were those cigarettes smoked, where did the butts end up? Also, how do lighters themselves end up as litter? Are they purposefully thrown to the curb? Accidentally dropped by a bar patron smoking outside in the early morning hours? Do they slip out of pockets? Are they left and forgotten on a stoop? Somehow disappear amongst a quick loan to a fellow smoker? It seems that of the people that regularly use cigarette lighters, many can recall more accounts of buying lighters than disposing of them. Ultimately, wondering upon the unique history and path of each lighter becomes a project of itself.
There are some 600 miles of shoreline bordering the land of New York City (longer than a drive from Maine to Washington D.C.). Yet much of this 600 miles is inaccessible; one can not actually touch the water without hopping an esplanade’s railing, climbing fences, or trespassing. With the prominence of industry and development, the once organic transitions between land and water have been cut, divided, and molded by bulkheads. Bulkheads are man made walls, straight-edged borders with the water built to prevent land erosion, maximize area for commercial use and development and allow ships to dock and (un)load directly to land without the use of docks or worry of running aground. For interests here, bulkheads present a barrier to the ebbing and flowing of the sea, a wall that, unlike a beach or natural shore, prevents items from washing on to land (in some areas strong waves are capable of launching items over the bulkhead and onto the elevated land as was found to be the case on Governor’s Island where 16 lighters were found).
If the shorelines are not bulkheaded (as is the case with the most heavily visited shores, like all of Manhattan’s southern half) they are usually difficult to access. Despite much of the shipping industry leaving NYC in the last 50 years there still exist large sections of shore accessed only by private companies. And while accessing such secured spaces, like the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, presents adventure and challenge much of the shore is bulkheaded anyways which leaves the lighters without a place to rest and thus of little interest for combing.
Yet many miles of our supposed drive from Maine to D.C. are not bulkheaded, and natural(like) shores exist. Identifying such places and finding access to them became a driving motivation during the project. In a place as urban, dense, and developed as New York City, it is both surprising and comforting to stumble upon a tract of shore and find no structures, people, or sign of supervision/maintenance. For while the city is steadily creating more access points to the water, which is great in many regards, much of this comes with a bit of manicuring, landscaping, and security. A park may come with rangers to actively enforce rules of ‘no swimming or wading’ (as in the case with the East River State Park in Williamsburg Brooklyn) or a staff to keep the land clean and orderly (as in the case of Randall’s Island where no lighters were found at all). Such controlled conditions inhibit a free and honest interaction with the landscape and prevent the experience of finding human produced and consumed synthetic items in a totally unadulterated environment. It is often only outside the context of our routine environment that common objects, like lighters, become artifacts of intrigue.
As mentioned, accessibility to shorelines in NYC varies with distinguishable note. Getting to the water can be easy and pleasant, like a short stroll from a nearby subway to a welcoming beach (as in the case of Coney Island); time consuming and challenging, like skirting around fences and hiking through marsh (as in the case of pugsley creek) and even illegal and treacherous, like rowing a boat to a restricted mass of isolated land (as in the case of the wildlife reserve islands in Jamaica Bay). Thus, given the diversity of accessibility to desired locations a number of alternate forms of travel, subway, bus, bicycle, foot, and boat were employed.
For determining what qualifies as a ‘spot’ i used a variety of arbitrary and sometimes varying guidelines. If it was a small island for instance I would think of it as one spot even though there might be a variety of terrain and shorelines facing in all directions (ex. Canarsie Pol). If it were a large strip of land I might break the area up into separate spots based upon a dividing structure, geography type, or direction. Additionally many of the names were created for areas of which I could not identify a proper title. Such names reference surrounding geography, structures, history, or trend witnessed. It is also worth noting that the distance listed for each spot does not always refer to the true length of the area, only the surface that was searched (as with Jeffrey Hook South and Ruffle Bar).
All sites were visited at least once, some on the same day, and some multiple times over the course of weeks or months. When revisiting a site with 1-3 weeks, it was to continue a more thorough search than first conducted. Yet revisiting a site months later does allow ample time for more lighters to was ashore, which can create inconsistencies in the data. Therefore, I felt it proper to mention these specific sites as well as allow the data to show how many were collected on just one visit, for consistent comparison to other sites, and use the increase as an indicator of how many are actively washing up. Here are the spots, lighters found at first and subsequent visit, time between visits, average new lighters per month, and overall percentage increase:
Astoria Park, 6, 22, 4.5 months, 4.9 per month, +367% increase
Bergen Beach, 292, 139, 7 months, 19.9 per month, +48% increase
Jeffrey Hook South, 5, 7, 7.5 months, .93 per month, +140% increase
With this data we see about 1 lighter per month washing up on Jeffrey Hook South, about 5 at Astoria Park, and 20 at Bergen Beach.
As for criteria to follow in actual collecting, I only counted plastic lighters laying on shorelines, reasonably close to highest tide lines - nothing from streets, sidewalks, parks or trashcans. Also the lighters on shore had to have obviously washed ashore, as opposed to being left behind from someone smoking cigars on site. Most often the rusted condition, or total absence, of the metal components atop the lighter indicate whether the artifact has been exposed to salt water or not (see photos for detail).
The process for selecting locations, as well as finding areas with abundant lighters, was a combination of strategic online scouting using Google Earth, scouring areas likely to accumulate flotsam and chance encounters through bicycle rides near or around bodies of water. Because the project began not as a defined ambition to collect as many lighters from as many locations as possible, but rather an inoffensive curiosity in a particular species of flotsam - many of the original spots were chance encounters (this includes the spot known as Bergen Beach, which was stumbled upon after spotting a trail through a wooded area). It was only as the project progressed that I began to employ a more science based approach, including the use of satellite maps, geographical features, and previous trends in identifying new areas of interest. Such methods resulted in clear demonstration of what would constitute as populous locations. Before the depths of winter caused brief hiatus from on-site collecting, I had explored 24 spots and found a total of 603 lighters. After the freeze, I explored 23 more locations and found a total of 1,116; a near doubling in efficiency. Furthermore, if Bergen Beach (the most populous location throughout the project) is excluded as an outlier, we see an average of 13.5 and 48.5 lighters per spot, respectively, translating into a 359% increase from the beginnings of the project until the end.
During and after the project, specific signs of an area with possible high density of lighters present began to become more clear. Listed here are three attributes/methods which can be used, independently or synergetically, as indicators for such.
1. Detailed satellite image of the location
The easiest way to find lighters is to find other flotsam. If enough trash accumulates in an area that is uncovered and not cleaned on a regular basis, it can often be spotted on google earth at a high zoom. Additionally, the map can often provide an aerial perspective of what kind of terrain to expect and how one might access the shore.
2. Geography of the shore
Three distinct terrain types existed in the shorelines i visited, generally categorized as: sand, rock/boulder, and marsh. Sand, found mostly on public beaches, presents classic beachcombing conditions: easy to navigate across and spot artifacts from far away with very little risk of injury or contact with the water. These sites were some of the longest and widest, presenting more land mass for flotsam to land but only on a few occasions did sand conditions produce more than 20 lighters total. Boulder based geographies produced similar concentrations of lighters overall, but with more challenging terrain to travel about. Shores with boulders, often accessible but not encouraged for public meandering can be slippery, steep, sharp, unstable and cavernous enough for flotsam to hide amongst.
Yet it was the marsh landscapes that proved to be the most efficient for housing high densities of lighters. Properly known as tidal wetlands, these areas are flat enough to allow high tides and storm surges to wash over a flood plain and drain out underneath the reeds and grasses, keeping debris on land more securely than might sand, soil, or rock. Evidence that even a specific species of plant could have such a netting effect and thus be correlated with high volumes of lighters (and similar flotsam) can be found in a 2007 report issued by the NY Department of Environmental Conservation. Amongst numerous improvement proposals for wetland habitats throughtout the city, a project titled "Phragmites Management" is listed for two separate spots of which I found some of the largest concentrations of lighters: Bergen Beach and Tallapossa West (488 and 146 respectively). This means that the spots where I found the most amount of lighters were specifically targeted for removal of a specific plant species, phragmites (also known as the common reed or ‘phrag’ and listed as one of the 20 most invasive plants in New York State (NYC Parks Department). Partly speculative yes, but nevertheless such a correlation seems to aid in identifying potential lighter locations.
3. Sewage and runoff infrastructure
The majority of garbage found on shorelines, especially the spots in discussion, does not originate on site but washes ashore after first entering the waterways through the sewage and stormwater system. When a rainstorm hits NYC, items laying on the concrete curb, as well as the rain water itself, are pushed into the gutter and, in most areas, connect with the actual sewage being pushed from homes and businesses. With large volumes of rain, the system becomes overburdened at certain points and to avoid clogging the system and sending sewage back where it came from (our sinks, toilets, and streets) the sewers divert matter away from the waterwater treatment plants and flow directly into nyc waterways. This is known as ‘combined sewage overflow’ (CSO), and there exists a total of 460 discharge points throughout the city.
While CSO is the most common system for many of the dense areas of the city there also exists ‘separate sewer’ areas in NYC, where stormwater from the streets does not mix with sewage but instead goes directly into waterways, as well as ‘unsewered areas’ where stormwater does not enter a drainage system but is absorbed into the ground or channeled into waterways. Mapping these areas, as well as CSO discharge points, indicates where it is that refuse leaves the land from which it originated and enters the waterway that will carry it out to sea or to another shore near or far. Assuming that more debris would stay closer to a point of origin rather than travel a far distance, one can look for ideal geographies near these entry areas to find lighters and similar sized flotsam.
Lighter contributions made possible by the following loggers:
W.Elkins, L.Gerson, A.Midland, R.Steinberg, S.Schwartz, N.Boley, N.Storey, & members of the LICCB