The secret life of beach glass

Published on Thursday, 20th Sep, 2018 at 1:28pm


Beach glass is a popular medium for crafts, such as this skull crafted from beach glass by a local artist. It is also commonly fashioned into jewelry.

Photo: Beachify

Beach glass is a popular medium for crafts, such as this skull crafted from beach glass by a local artist. It is also commonly fashioned into jewelry.


You may have some sitting on your mantle or bookshelf right now. You may have even filled your pockets with it while strolling along the beach. We’re talking beach glass - the abundant un-natural resource that adorns our shoreline with beautiful flecks of colour.

Also called drift glass, sea glass, or more whimsically "mermaid’s tears", beach glass is more correctly the cousin of sea glass, which is found on the shores of the world’s salt-water oceans.

Beach glass is regular old glass, mostly from discarded bottles, that has been slowly broken up and tumbled by the waves until it achieves a beautifully smooth, matte patina. The natural processes that transform a jagged piece of broken glass into beach glass can take decades. In the ocean, where the acidity of salt water and wave rigor accelerate the process, it can take between ten to forty years to form. In fresh water the process takes much longer - it’s not unusual to find glass that is eighty years-old, or more, on our shores.

As the broken glass is slowly rolled and polished by the waves and sand, it undergoes a chemical transformation called "hydration", where soda and lime are leached out of the glass. This leaves tiny pits on the surface, which contributes to its unique, frosted appearance. Washed up on the shore, the glass can also undergo further color changes due to the action of UV light from sunlight.

Beach glass is most easily found on sandy shores, but large amounts can be found mixed in with like-sized gravel. Exposure to UV light can cause the color of the glass to change over time.

Image: Beachify

Beach glass is most easily found on sandy shores, but large amounts can be found mixed in with like-sized gravel. Exposure to UV light can cause the color of the glass to change over time.

History in your hand

Today, most people wouldn’t dream of throwing their trash into the Lake, but in earlier times the world was a bigger place, and out of sight was out of mind. It was not uncommon for lakeside communities to use the lake as a dumping ground for household and municipal waste.

Beach glass typically begins life as discarded cosmetic and medicine bottles, window glass, glass tableware, car tail lights, and even children’s marbles. But the vast majority comes from liquor, beer and soft drink bottles. Uniquely, much of our local beach glass can be traced to a particular source and period.

Between 1907 and 1925, the Beach was home to Scarboro Beach Amusement Park. Modeled on New York’s Coney Island, Scarboro Beach featured roller coasters, arcade games, a lacrosse court, and a velodrome for bicycle racing. Even more popular were canoe and boat rentals, were revelers could escape the constables who roamed the boardwalk enforcing a strict prohibition on alcohol in the park. Many an empty went over the side in the 19 years that the park operated.

 The boardwalk at Scarboro Beach Amusement Park in 1910. Canoe and boat rentals were popular at the beach throughout the first half of the twentieth century, when many an empty went over the side.

Image: Toronto Archives

The boardwalk at Scarboro Beach Amusement Park in 1910. Canoe and boat rentals were popular at the beach throughout the first half of the twentieth century, when many an empty went over the side.

Later, in the 1920’s and 30’s after the park closed, boat rentals continued to be a popular draw at the Beach. The location of Leuty Lifeguard Station was strategically chosen for its proximity to nearby boat rental businesses, as the Life Saving Service assisted more capsized boats and canoes than swimmers.

Tippling boaters, along with a century of other beach goers, deposited a prodigious amount of glass on the lake bed. This history helps to account for the uneven distribution of beach glass on our shores, where it occurs in greatest abundance between the foot of Glen Manor Drive and Leuty Lifeguard Station. Longshore drift also carries the glass westward towards Woodbine Beach.

Color counts

Beach glass can be found in a wide range of colours, although white is by far the most common. Some of the white glass tends towards beautiful shades of aquamarine blue. Various shades of green are also plentiful, as is beer-bottle brown. Rarer is cobalt blue, the “sapphire” of the beach, which comes largely from medicine and cosmetics containers like Vick’s Vapo Rub, Milk of Magnesia, and Noxema jars.

Rarer still is ruby red glass from automobile tail lights, lantern and traffic light lenses, and some old types of beer bottles. Other rare colours include yellow, pink, lavender, and purple. Much of the pink and lavender glass comes from originally clear glass that contained selenium (pink), or magnesium (lavender). Over time, UV light reacts with these elements in the glass to cause the color to change.

 Beach glass is found in various colors, with white being the most common. This photo shows the relative abundance of some common colors, although the amount of white is understated in this image by a factor of two.

Image: Beachify

Beach glass is found in various colors, with white being the most common. This photo shows the relative abundance of some common colors, although the amount of white is understated in this image by a factor of two.

Cash for trash

Proving the old axiom that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, beach glass is a valuable commodity, highly sought by collectors. In fact, you can buy Lake Ontario beach glass from sites like Etsy for a mere $1 per piece, on average. While some people collect beach glass simply for its natural beauty, it is also commonly used to make jewelry, mosaics, and other crafts.

If you don’t feel like shelling out big bucks online, you can easily collect your own beach glass. All you need is a strong back, plenty of patience, and a little luck. As we mentioned earlier, the highest concentration of glass if found along Kew-Balmy Beach, although it is also relatively abundant on the sandier parts of Woodbine Beach. The best time to look for glass is after a storm, when the rigorous wave action stirs up the bottom and carries large amounts of glass onto the beach. It’s also best to search early in the morning, as there is a surprising amount of completion for the glass. On a good day you can fill a jar in an hour or two.

If that sounds like too much trouble, you can always order it online – but be wary. Believe it or not, there is fake beach glass out there. Made from modern glass in rock tumblers, or etched with acid, it’s often sold as craft glass, but has been known to show up on collector sites passed off as the real deal. Let that sink in for a moment – counterfeit beach glass. Did we mention that it’s trash?