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Sands of Glass : Encinitas Hopes Synthetic Grains Can Shore Up Eroding Beaches

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dan Dalager has this thing about sand.

The granular stuff, sifting luxuriously between his toes, played a major role in creating his memories of youthful, glorious afternoons along the Southern California shore.

That was during the late 1960s, when Dalager, then a North County lifeguard, and his surfer friends romped along soft beaches and buried each other neck-deep in the shifting, sensuous sand.

But Dalager’s sandy playground disappeared--eroded by vicious storms and the hand of man.

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Now, decades after the vanishing grains drove him from the beach, Dalager is getting serious attention for a wacky-sounding idea he hopes will one day restore the North County shore to the beach of his memories.

His synthetic sand, fashioned from pulverized recycled glass is, Dalager says, darn close to the real thing. It looks authentic, feels like the real stuff, even runs through your fingers like the real McCoy.

The match is close enough to intrigue Encinitas officials who hope imitation sand can provide a long-sought solution for its near-barren coastline and at the same time create a needed market for recycled glass.

If so, they say, it would mark the first time nationwide that synthetic sand--made from materials that otherwise might have crowded some landfill--has been used as beach cover.

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In some ways, Dalager says, his blend of weird science is even better than Mother Nature’s brand. Synthetic sand can be produced in various shapes, grain sizes and colors. Best of all, those multicolored grains could be used in scientific studies on annual erosion.

As he sat on the rocky shore near Moonlight Beach, Dalager poured some of his sand from a Mason jar and let it run through his fingers, prizing it like a jeweler sifting a pile of rubies.

“Look at this stuff,” said the Encinitas parks and recreation commissioner. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Go ahead, call him The Sandman. That’s what excited Encinitas officials do. In recent months, they have begun to look at funding further studies of the sparkling, man-made grains, which they have dubbed “Dalager Sand.”

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Recently, geological engineers consulted by the city gave an initial thumbs-up to the product, and the San Diego Assn. of Governments is searching for a $10,000 state grant to examine other immediate questions: Is the stuff dangerous? Would it cut people’s feet? Will it wash away soon after being dumped on the area’s sand-starved beaches?

Encinitas officials are jubilant at the thought of such an unexpected solution to the beach erosion problem. Although pulverized, recycled glass has recently been used by the city of Los Angeles in a road-paving substance known as “glasphalt,” using it along the coast is an entirely different story.

“Nobody ever thought of putting this stuff at the beach,” said Dave Wigginton, the city’s director of community services. “All the engineers we’ve talked to can’t understand why the idea wasn’t thought up before.”

There are some aspects of their plans for Dalager Sand that city officials still aren’t prepared to discuss. But City Councilwoman Anne Omsted, who said she may introduce a new wrinkle on the topic to the council as early as Wednesday, believes the synthetic sand may just pan out.

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“It’s going to work. It’s going to work big time,” she said. “Dalager Sand is definitely going to be a source of sand for our area in the future--not the only source, but it’s part of the puzzle that wasn’t there before.”

Steve Sachs, a senior planner with Sandag, said a decision on a funding request to study the idea will come in January. But he already sees the idea as one that might kill two pesky birds with one sandstone.

“If you think about it, it’s really an elegant solution to two environmental problems,” he said. “On one hand, you have this recycled glass without much of a market. On the other, you’ve got this great need for sand at the beach.”

Dalager, a thin man who dresses in gas station-style work shirts, finds satisfaction in having his idea accepted after years of silent ridicule.

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“It wasn’t so much outright scoffing,” he said of the initial reactions. “It was more of a rolling of the eyes. But I could hear the laughs every once in a while.”

For the onetime avid body surfer, there’s the excitement of being able to do something to improve a beach atmosphere he enjoyed for so many years.

“Everyone asks me what I’m getting out of this whole thing, and, financially, the answer is nothing, not a red cent,” said the 41-year-old father of two, who runs a tool-sharpening business with his brother.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen, but you have to act on them. For me, it was a project that made people think I was nuts at first. And, three years from now, nobody’s going to remember who thought of this stuff first. But I will.”

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Dalager recalls the first time he spotted trouble signs along his beloved North County beaches. As a college student driving home from UC Santa Barbara--where he majored in chemistry and computer science--he noticed rocky sections poking through the sand that extended down the coastline.

The sand had begun to disappear after its sources, the rivers and streams that emptied into the Pacific with a steady flow of sandy sediment, were blocked by projects such as freeway construction.

Then came the disastrous storms of the early 1980s that stripped much of the coastline in places such as Encinitas, Leucadia and Carlsbad, replacing the sand with cumbersome ocean cobblestones that turned a walk on the beach into something like a trek along a lunar landscape.

Several years ago, on a trip to the Ft. Bragg area in Northern California, Dalager and his wife visited a beach he said consisted entirely of rounded shards of weathered glass--all that remained of a beachside garbage dump that had existed there years before.

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Back home, he found himself complaining each time he went body-surfing with his brother Myron, who co-owns the downtown Encinitas tool-sharpening shop. “It was tough to get back on shore during high tide,” Dalager said. “You had to fight your way through the rocks.”

Although he had ruminated over the idea of making synthetic sand from glass, Dalager says, he owes his brother for finally “making the light come on” about three years ago.

“Myron is real subtle,” he recalled. “One day he says, ‘Well, stupid, why don’t you stop talking about this sand and go home and make some--put it into a form people can understand.’ ”

So he went home, threw some glass bottles into a back-yard cement mixer and made some sand. Then he started talking up his idea among friends--telling them his product could be a cheap alternative to the more expensive process of importing real sand from far-off riverbeds and dams.

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One touch of Dalager’s Sand made Dave Wigginton a believer.

“I squeezed it in my hand, rubbed some across my body and said, ‘Gol-dang, Dan, this stuff is sand!’ ” the city’s community services director recalled. “It didn’t cut me. There were no lacerations. It was like a day at the beach, right in my office.

“I’m not a betting man,” Wigginton said, “but if I had these kinds of odds for success in Las Vegas, I’d be a very wealthy man. It’s good stuff.”

In recent weeks, Dalager says, he has gotten calls from as far away as Sacramento and Washington state, from officials who have heard about the sand and want updates on the status of any studies.

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Nick Candela, vice president of the recycling division of CR&R; Inc. of Orange County, which has supplied pulverized glass to the city of Los Angeles for its glasphalt project, said the substance would make good beach sand as well.

“I mean, here’s stuff that could otherwise end up in a landfill someplace now being used to benefit the public,” he said.

Now, Candela said, there isn’t much of a market for the pulverized glass, which is known in the industry as cullet. Much of the substance cannot be recycled into new glass because it contains impurities such as ceramic and porcelain--thrown mistakenly into glass recycling bins--that would blister the new glass.

Candela said he is satisfied that the synthesized sand is safe. Studies conducted by the city of Los Angeles showed there were no airborne dangers to workers, he said.

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Still, Encinitas officials are concerned about public safety, as well as the economics of using the new sand.

“What we don’t need is a lawsuit from some guy who said he cut up his feet on our sand,” Councilwoman Omsted said.

Officials also want to find out what grain size and shape would best hold the synthetic sand to beaches, which are routinely buffeted by large waves that can sweep them clean in days.

“It’s ironic,” Dalager said, “that places like the San Luis Rey River bed have been used as a source of sand to make glass. What we would be doing is returning the particles back to the ocean, where they were intended to be in the first place.”

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If all goes well, he said, his synthesized sand could be blanketing North County beaches within two years. And that would suit him just fine--to see the sand crabs and other ocean borers return to the shores where they belong. Along with an old body-surfer like himself.

“Now locals are coming up to me and saying, ‘You know, I had that same idea.’ Half of them are people I told about my synthetic sand last year,” Dalager said.

“They’re the same ones who once rolled their eyes at me and then walked away.”


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