To the Sea (Dragon)!

Leaving for the Sea Dragon in a few minutes. Have had trouble looking the ocean straight in the eye the past few days. Thunder rumbles matched nervous tummy grumbles last night, but I’m all packed for the third time and hopefully haven’t forgot anything vital. If you haven’t looked at a map recently, there’s nary and mini-islet for stretching land-legs between Hawaii and Vancouver – we will be sailing across some of the deepest reaches of the Pacific. We’re spending tonight on the boat in the harbour, perhaps to ensure nothing is forgotten, or maybe to weed out anyone with second thoughts before living in close confines for three weeks.

I’ll be almost completely offline, offgrid until at least July 27th  but will keep posting as much as possible. I have limited email access via satellite phone, and have (hopefully) arranged for blog comments to be sent my way if you have thoughts, questions, messages. Pretty photos will be few and far between due to data costs, but I’ll be sharing the highlights on the other side.

How to clean a beach

Yesterday sister and I bused up to Waimanlo beach for a day of cleanup and a change of pace from buzzing Waikiki. Like most places on Oahu’s windward side, Waimanalo boasts both rugged beauty and a steady accumulation of marine debris, especially plastic from around the pacific rim.

While not covered in piles of waste, the beach was littered with poker-chip sized pieces every few steps, often the blues and greens and oranges of detergent bottles. We found some identifiable chunks – bottle caps, a shoe, plastic bucket handles, and three weathered half toothbrushes that seem proof of distant origin. Unlike cigarette butts (made of millions of plastic fibers, not paper and harbouring toxins that release into water after only an hour), and new-looking food wrappers, these were not items carelessly discarded by beachgoers. The strange blue-grey tubes, on the middle-left, are ‘oyster spacers,’ from farming operations in Asia.

As my sister pointed out, you don’t even see most of the plastic unless you are looking for it. Like the garbage patch, most detritus is broken into pieces, colorful sprinkles of festive, but toxic synthetic sand.  Dragging an increasingly weighty garbage bag on a hot morning across only a tiny fragment of one beach, unable to collect all the little pieces, we began to get a very practical sense the impossibility of clean-up.

As the bus driver joked when asked about the length 0f the beach – “it goes all the way around.” Multiplying plastic bits  by 112 miles (180km) of coastline on Oahu alone, I can barely begin to imagine the immensity of the problem at sea. I am also struggling to reconcile the treasure-hunt satisfaction of finding large, colourful, or identifiable pieces, with the gravity of plastic waste, a contradiction I can only imagined will be greatly multiplied on the expedition as we hope as ‘explorers’ to find waste, while, whole-heartedly wishing it was not there to be found.

A few days ago, I had a long phone conversation with a founding member of B.E.A.C.H. who pointed me in the right direction for beach clean-up, strongly recommending gloves as protection against the dangerous synthetic chemicals like DDT that adhere to the surface of ocean plastics at many, many times the concentration of surrounding water. She was also adamant that BEACH was not simply a beach cleanup organization. In fact, she had refused to participate in a cleanup of Waikiki beach on grounds of lacking litter prevention measures. In response to my commenting that tourists act as if maid service extends to the beach, she replied with a story of a man finishing a cigarette and dropping it deliberately on the ground in the path of a girl scout collecting litter.

Collecting plastic on the beach does helps ensure it does not break into smaller pieces, wash out to take another 6 year turn around the gyre, or be eaten by marine life. As many have pointed out before me, however, truly cleaning a beach requires stopping the flow of plastics. Yet, despite BEACH’s efforts targeting in sequence, cigarette butts, bags, bottle caps and cutlery, ever more plastic disposables seem to be appearing. Cheap inflatable beach toys, in bright blue, pink and green, are almost as prevalent as tourists in Waikiki. Sold on almost every corner for less than 5 dollars (“air mattress $2.99; $3.59 inflated”), they are designed to last a single, short vacation at most and it is unlikely that even resolute survivors would be packed back home to be used again.

Pacific Crossroads / Spam Musubi

I’ve been in Honolulu the past few days, half holidaying, half-researching. My trip started with strange and serendipitous encounters – an airplane seat neighbour that claimed to be Steven Segal’s body guard buying me 10am champagne, and randomly recognizing fellow expedition mate, Tim Silverwood, in the hostel lounge.

Early Friday morning I took a taxi to Pearl Harbor with a youth hostel friend, securing a coveted ticket to the memorial. I tried to politely offer my version of the ‘factual’ exhibit. The “road to war” display begins with Commodore Perry landing in Japan and thus ending a long period of isolationism – or, white American man magically changes the entire course of history the second his foot lands on foreign soil. I was most enrage-amused by a large map that marked all the sites of “Japanese Expansion” across Asia and the Pacific but neglected to explain exactly what the US was doing in Hawaii (not a State until 1959) and the Philippines. While overall a careful, interactive exhibit that gives much credit to a technologically advanced, meticulously planned, daring attack, and acknowledging the naïve and arrogant mistakes of the US navy at the time, the exhibit designers still manage to label the Japanese as enemies. Perhaps the most striking contrast from the Hiroshima memorial, is the promotion of American patriotism, not peace, as if what is carefully framed as an event in the past still justifies current (and unacknowledged) presence in Japan and the Pacific. With the mandatory movie explicitly instructing the audience to “mourn the dead,” and remember the event as “monumental history,” Pearl Harbor is a memorial to military sacrifice, not a plea for humanity.

Oahu, of course, is more than a crossroads for textbook history. Waikiki’s transient tourist community has an especially prominent Japanese presence. The grocery store carries bento-box lunches and other Japanese style to-go food with multi-language labels, but offers only plastic forks, not chopsticks at the check-out. There’s an Aloha sushi chain, ubiquitous bilingual reminders that tips are not included in restaurant bills and taxi fares, and local guys cat-calling after pretty girls in awkward Japanese, “kawaii desu ne!” (pretty, isn’t it?). The commodified, superficial mix of cultures (as food/shopping/kitsch), is perhaps most obviously materialized as ‘spam musubi’ – Hawaiin pork, American processed into Japanese convenience food:

At the end of the day, Waikiki reminds me as much of Vegas’ tourist infrastructure as of other beach cities. The towing hotels connected by malls, designed for consumption alone make Cuba’s Veradero seem quiet and quaint in comparison. What is otherwise mostly a typical Hawaiin holiday is increasingly punctured by reminders  – as I stare across the sea, hear others speak of flights home or stumble across signs numbering the miles to North America  – that I am about to embark on my own monumental crossing of 2705 (4354 km) to Vancouver.

The Things I Ferry

Tomorrow I’m flying to Hawaii where I’ll join the Algalita Marine Research Foundation’s North Pacific Survey, sailing from Honolulu to Vancouver conducting research on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Lots more details to follow, but you can meet the crew and read about research goals here.

As the first installment, I will not attempt to solve the problems of plastic pollution, but offer instead my answer to the question: What to pack for a three-week sailing expedition through multiple climate zones? This will be followed next week by how to make it all fit in a 50x40x26 centimeter storage box.

Highlights include: water shoes, dramamine, pen made from recycled bottle, 5 different modes of documentation (camera, video, audio, laptop, notebooks), sea bands (will they work?), board shorts from when skater clothes were cool in high school, headlamp (for night watch???), comm department t-shirt, Marx t-shirt, lots and lots of sunscreen.

And, after months of deliberation (seriously), the book list:


Moby Dick is secreted away on my ipod, so as to avoid embarrassing photo-cliche opportunities.

Tah-dah!

Packaging

In preparation for the expedition I’ve been ordering electronic bits and pieces off the internet. While rarely pleased with the amount of packaging that accompanies my purchases, I was especially dismayed to have a single, tiny camera battery arrive nested among plastic pillows in a giant box:


As it turns out, Amazon has a packaging feedback button build right into order histories – the internets were awaiting my complaints about packaging size and ease of opening in multiple choice, text and image form. While consumer-me feels somewhat vindicated having uploaded the above image, academic-me is at best ambivalent about the Amazon feature as a market mechanism and voluntary response to systemic problems.  Amazon’s responsibility is to customer satisfaction, making me feel better about consuming, not addressing relationships with people, waste and the environment.

In more promising news, a zero waste grocery store is opening in Austin (thanks to Hanie for the link), that will encourage re-usable containers while providing compostable plastics as an alternative. Interestingly, the store is billed as ‘package free’ as if re-usable and biodegradable containers somehow don’t qualify as packaging, or more likely, as if packaging has become a dirty word.

Toxic Love

I’ve just finished reading Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. The book is super well researched, and the author, with journalist training, finds the balance between story and substance that made me want to read every page.

Each chapter is organized around a discrete consumer object in conjunction with a particular part of the plastic life cycle – for example, bottles and recycling, design and the plastic chair,  (although Harvey Molotch’s Where Stuff Comes from is a much stronger account of the design of mundane objects). The book offers some interesting and new to even plastic obsessed me ‘fun facts’ – that more plastic has been produced in the last decade than the entirety of the 20th century, that there is not a single plastic resin reprocessing facility on the west coast. At times Friedel follows the conceptual plan to a fault, as with what feels like an overly contrived link between credit cards and the emergence of bioplastics as new materials.

What I find most valuable and captivating, however, are the meticulous behind the scenes prose tours of a plastic resin plant in the US, a Frisbee factory in China, and San Francisco’s recycling sorting facilities (where the line is stopped twice daily so that escaped plastic bags can be extracted from the machinery with the help of bolt cutters). I think these kinds of efforts are incredibly helpful for imagining the longer trajectories of plastic things that seem designed out of consumption processes where consumer goods magically appear on shelves and disappear when thrown ‘away’.

While these accounts are backed by extensive research, I only discovered the ample endnotes after finishing the book. The decision not to include numbers or any other indication in the main text caters to popular reading practices and a smooth story, but unfortunately obscures many important sources. Similarly designed to sell, the story ends optimistically with human ingenuity (the literal building of bridges from recycled plastics), not the frightening plasticized world where synthetic chemicals have seeped into out bodies, and litter even the most uninhabited reaches of the earth. But in refusing to simply blame industry or the offending substance, Friedel’s account suggests the complexity of our entanglements with plastic, a substance we can no longer live without.