Fake Grass on a Plastic Beach

My recent research trip to the Big Island, Hawaii included a pilgrimage to Kamilo beach, near South Point. Kamilo is not a tourist beach; it is far from towns and houses, five miles down a very rough 4-wheel drive road. And it is covered in plastic waste. Like many people involved with plastic pollution, I have wanted to visit this beach for a very long time. I finally got the chance thanks to the incredible generosity of Noni and Ron Sanford, a local couple that have been beachcombing and cleaning up debris here for years.

Given the difficult trek, we left well before dawn, making our way through tall grass and groves of trees on increasingly rough roads. As the sky lightened the dirt track gave way to an otherworldly crossing of jagged black lava. Finally arriving at the beach with the dawn, this is what we saw:

This is not a local littler problem. A few containers read “Hawaii dairy,” but the vast majority of writing is Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and occasionally Russian. But don’t exonerate yourselves too quickly my North American friends – currents speed waste from the west coast of North America right past these islands to wash up on shores in Asia, or to circulate back around years later, likely as the tiny pieces scattered everywhere on the beach, recognizable only as plastic:

I’ve held large bags of Kamilo ‘sand’ before, but nothing compared to digging for hours through piles of plastic, synthetic confetti over a foot deep where it gets caught in the rocks. Among these motley fragments are pre-production plastic pellets called nurdles (the super round white balls), which are industrial rather than consumer waste.

The beach is an unforgettable lesson in what things are made of plastic, and what kinds of plastics float. I learn by looking  that rolls of tape, bicycle pedals and umbrella handles qualify in both categories. And so too, I learn, does Astroturf. With disturbingly poetic irony, I pick fake grass off a plastic beach. We also saw lots of bottle caps, bottles with caps  (the most common kinds of plastic bottles sink when not full of air), and a surprising number of toothbrushes, most extremely weathered, bristles worn down to almost nothing. From amongst these broken pieces, Noni and I pulled a collection of strange treasures, including wheels and lighters Noni is collecting for art projects. I am particularly intrigued by seemingly less-interesting knotted pieces of plastic bag. I learned a few months back that Hawaii promoted a ‘knot your bag’ campaign in an effort to ground flighty plastic film, and wonder whether it did more than make people feel better about using disposable plastic.

Further down the beach, turtles swim in surge channels garnished with waste, bright plastic pieces floating visible in the frothy waters, a reminder of the animal lives at stake. Even more sobering, is a wood pallet that Noni suggests might be Japanese tsunami debris, but we have no way to confirm. Like much of the waste here, it too ultimately remains anonymous. It is especially worth noting, though, that this is the best the beach has looked in years. Fishing nets, ropes, floats and bottles are no longer piled waist high, thanks to the diligent clean-up efforts of Ron and Noni, and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. But cleanups at collector beaches do not stop flows of plastic into the ocean, they do not remove pieces already inside fish and birds, and they do not end the need for more cleanups.

Sea Dragon Reunion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent a happy past weekend helping out with Algalita special events at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. In addition to extra big display tables and a lecture and book signing by Charlie, the Sea Dragon and crew were docked for tours.

After seven months apart, I weave through buildings with the tall mast as my guide, approaching the boat with excitement and slight trepidation. Would the Sea Dragon look the same? Would the crew remember me from the July expedition? Would stepping aboard bring back the nausea?

And there she is, all white-clean and shiny from a winter of refurbishments. A brand new mainsail replaces the one splitting at the seams last summer, the shiny paint on the now-white hull not yet chipped by sampling equipment hand-hauled on and off deck in open seas.

I descend into the cabin (facing forward, swinging from the deck rather than safely backwards as directed of course), and it feels like the same friendly boat with new clothes. There’s some fancy wood shelving, brand-new seat cushions, and everything moveable stowed clean out of sight. I admire the new electrical system, especially the individual sockets for charging laptops in each bunk space. But the second I see ‘my’ bunk there’s a tiny flashback to the first rough days of the expedition, a mini wave of nausea. Or maybe it was just skipper Dale sneaking up behind me to rock my shoulders while chanting “woooeeeeweeeeooo.”

This was a test. The visit held the answer to a question I keep asking myself: would I do it again despite the first rough days, the close quarters with people that start as strangers, weeks without land in sight?

YES! Absolutely. If only I had funding.

If you’d like to join the Algalita-Sea Dragon families on the science adventure of a lifetime, a few guest crew spaces remain for both the Western Pacific Garbage Patch and Tsunami Debris Field expeditions coming up this May.

A Spoonful of Absurdity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last weekend I was fortunate to accompany an Algalita member giving a talk for a local women’s group. It was a great presentation, covering all kinds of marine plastic problems and Algalita’s efforts to research and to educate. The audience was clearly captivated, even with the trash talk encroaching on lunchtime.I really enjoy watching people give these kind of presentations on marine debris and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In part, because I can almost always count on an audience member to make some kind of comment that is amazing-to-me, yet so telling of general sentiment.

I was not disappointed. Illustrating what Algalita and others have been calling the 4th ‘R’ – refuse – the presenter pointed out that restaurant beverages, even humble glasses of water almost always come with straws that aren’t necessary for conveying liquids to mouths from containers designed exactly for that purpose. Seems reasonable, but an audience member was quick to interject, “but the glasses are dirty,” soliciting nods of approval from the crowd.

Thinking about how to handle such comments, I remembered Max Tempkin’s poster (posted above but unfortunately sold out), that circulated the interwebs in the recent past. I think it’s a great example of the technological fix in all its absurdity. It helps shake the strange logic out of what have become ‘reasonable’ common practices, like declaring plastic straws necessities instead of washing dishes or asking yourself why you frequent restaurants that you do not find clean.

Occupy Trash Island?

Making slides for a recent conference presentation, I googled across this image:

Intrigued, I click though to its source, an article titled “Paradise Recycled: Architects Dream of Turning Great Pacific Garbage Patch Into Habitable Island,” which outlines plans for a floating metropolis to be made from plastic waste gathered from the sea. I gaze in wonder at images of occupants lounging canal-side outside plastic high-rise homes, no longer convinced that stories of people ready to invest in garbage patch real estate are only jokes.

While the article implies that ‘trash island’ is not already existing as such, explaining that ‘new land’ needs to be made not simply found, the project is clearly inspired by accounts of a large, dense mass of plastic at sea (“as big as France and Spain combined”). Such grand plans, however, do not emerge exclusively from the image of garbage patch as island. A few weeks ago, after an Algalita presentation on ‘toxic soup’, I listened politely as one audience member continued to insist on the possibility of filtering plastic fragments from entire oceans without harming marine life. He refused to be swayed by reminders of the elusiveness of plastic bits or the vastness of global seas. We do not, it seems, suffer from a lack of imagination or conviction when it comes to grand technological fixes that ensure consumption as usual.

Dangerous Species

This nature-culture crossing poster comes to me from Hanie (thanks lady!).  I like it because it offers, if only in jest, the possibility of waste ‘acting’ like other dangerous creatures of the sea. Roaming free, bottles, bags and batteries threaten not humans (as goes the usual understanding of ‘dangerous’), but the wellbeing of the ocean: human waste left unchecked poses “ a threat to the seas.” Imagining plastic-monster fish that swim around when we’re not looking seems like a productive way to remember the unintended consequences of synthetics.

The poster’s powers, though, seem equally grounded in the impossibility of just that: waste is not or should not be equated with wild creatures. These are species that should not meet. The poster relies on (maybe even produces) audiences that know that types of waste do not count as species (there are scare quotes around “species” in the imgur post title). So how to make sense of a poster that is effective because it at once connects and separates kinds of waste and kinds of fish? That mixes nature-creatures and culture-waste so effectively, but ultimately makes an argument for their untangling?

My initial excitement gives way to suspect that the ‘danger’ here, is a poster that only flirts with giving agency to waste to produce the familiar divisions between fish and plastic, nature and culture. Perhaps this ultimately reinforces the kind of thinking where humans are separate from the environment, and the kind of acting that is part of all the making and throwing away of synthetics in the first place. OK, OK, so it’s also eye-catching and fun and I have to admit, the bottle fish are pretty gosh darn cute.

(And yes, STS crowd, I have indeed been perusing Haraway’s When Species Meet).

Leeks in the Lab

As I type up my field notes, I am constantly reminded of the challenges of conducting scientific research on a sailboat designed for racing. Take the following conversation, in which I attempt to procure ingredients for a giant pot of lentil soup:

“Hey Hank, are there any more leeks?”

“I think there’s still some in the cooler.”

“Which one is that?”

“Here.” [Hands me three slightly yellowed leeks]

Seems like a pretty unremarkable exchange. Except that Hank was our resident marine biologist postodc, hard at work processing samples in the ‘lab.’ Imagine, for comparison, a university cafeteria cook walking into the biology lab asking for onions. So why I am troubling Hank with my legume improvement project? The ‘lab,’ you see, was a requisitioned bunk with barely enough room for a single person to stand on the cabin floor. And this tiny space was also home to the cooler, bread machine, and freezer (where Hank rested his laptop when using the microscope). Where other research vessels reportedly have lab spaces bigger than our entire boat, on the Sea Dragon leeks become benchmates with drying samples and digital microscopes. Questions about the location of vegetables are only part of what I can only assume were some pretty strange circumstances for laboratory research, even on a boat. Not long into the expedition, Hank realized that using his digital microscope alongside the hardworking bread maker would trip the breaker on the limited electrical system. Bread versus science quickly became a very practical decision: make fresh food for lunch or let Hank use his microscope?

As much of the lab space as my normal camera lens could capture. The freezer is behind the bucket next to the fan:

The Last Straw

Plastic is so entangled with everything we do, that is seems pretty much impossible to stop using it cold turkey. My computer is plastic, my contacts, even my toilet seat. The last time I purchased eyeglasses I was told that getting my prescription filled with actual glass lenses would leave me with spectacles so heavy as to prohibit their staying on my face in any useful fashion. I am, however, still trying to reduce my plastic use as much as possible. I think one of the best strategies for doing this on an individual level (but never at the expense of systemic change!), is consciously cutting out items, one by one. My clarinet teacher used to say that it took 28 days to break a bad habit: it takes many conscious repetitions to turn carrying a reusable bottle or bringing your own bags to the grocery store from an exception into a new routine.

The next question, of course, is what items? Speaking with beach-clean up and plastic waste educators, the items most often cited are single-use disposables, especially those commonly found on their respective local beaches and easily substituted or done without. Plastic bags and bottles (don’t forget the caps!) seem particularly charismatic examples, and ones that most people would probably be quick to name. But to my surprise, plastic straws also top many worst offender lists. While small in comparison to whole cups or bottles, they are items far less likely to be reused or disposed of carefully. And they float.

Unlike my glasses, I generally use plastic straws for only a few short minutes. In fact, despite my admirable bag and bottle habits, I am so used to straws, that I was actually annoyed by their absence on single-serving tetra packs of coconut water. I associate drink-box packages so closely with bendy straws that the ‘problem’ of consuming the contents without caused me to pause. I actually had to think for a minute to figure out that I could very, very easily lift the little foil tab and drink right from the container. But after picking up a generous handful of straws (many in Starbucks green) off the beach near my parents’ house, I’ve finally been motivated to work on cutting them out of my routines – one by one.

How to be plastic straw-free:

1. Do without – request “no straw” with your next iced coffee/soda/G&T

2. Can’t imagine your iced tea tasting the same sipped straight from the cup? Carry your own reusable straw.  Stay classy with stainless steel

3. Can’t imagine how we ever lived without plastic straws? Encourage your local beverage establishment to switch back to paper

PS If anyone finds a reusable boba (bubble tea) straw let me know!

Beachcombing, with plastic

Searching beaches for polished glass and pretty rocks is a common activity for my family, but my recent work has put plastic on our collective radar. Today my mom and I decided to go down to our local beach, Sargeant Bay in BC, to pick up plastic waste. We were both under the impression that the beach was fairly clean, but I had noticed some bottle caps, styrofoam chunks and floating bags on a recent walk thanks to the plastic-spotting vision acquired on the expedition.

On my last visit, there was a big piece of Styrofoam floating right at the shoreline. But it had been made into a boat with little stick masts, decorated with feathers and tethered to the shore with rope. I used its ambiguous status, floating somewhere between toy and garbage and art, as an excuse for not carrying it to the trash. Two weeks later there’s no sign of the ‘boat,’ and I feel slightly guilty for leaving it as I pull piles of crumbling Styrofoam from the high tide line. But my regrets are soon interrupted by a little crab and bottle cap, left side by side on a log – someone’s beachcombing treasures. I began to wonder if finding and playing with plastic waste has become as normal a part of going to the beach as looking for baby crabs under rocks, not even registering as unsightly litter (never mind potentially toxic or harmful to marine life).

Scouring only half the beach, and leaving the higher areas and driftwood piles unexplored, my mom and I managed to fill a large garbage bag with all kinds of plastic. While the ropes and floats associated with the fishing industry (and so common in the North Pacific Gyre) were definitely present, much of what we gathered seemed to have more familiar origins. Some items were likely from beachgoers, wrappers and baggies and other items escaped from picnics or accidentally left behind. But the same currents that wash all the logs and bark and seaweed into the bay are likely also delivering plastic waste to the shore. Look closely and amongst the bottle caps, straws and foam you’ll find: milk-jug rings, caution tape, hairbrush handle, balloon ends, tampon applicators, earplug, rubber glove, BB-gun pellets and a lighter.

As we sorted through the waste at home, my mom asked why it was better off in the landfill than left on the beach. The short answer is that it keeps the pieces from breaking down into smaller pieces and floating back out to sea where they can be eaten by fish and other marine life. But her question also brings up the bigger issue – that clean-ups really need to be seen as last resorts, not solutions.

Special thanks to my mom for helping to pick up plastic waste not only once, untangling it from driftwood and seaweed at the beach, but twice – sweeping it up after the patio photo shoot. ‘Boat’ photo courtesy of Ming.

Sea Dragon Index

While I’m not ‘that kind’ of social scientist, here are some silly statistics I compiled aboard the Sea Dragon using top secret methods:

Number of crew aboard the Sea Dragon for Algalita’s North Pacific Expedition: 13

Number of countries represented: 7

Nautical miles sailed between July 7 and July 27, 2011: 2995

Miles actually sailed in the right direction 2343, or 78%

Chance that the person sitting next to you had substantial sailing experience: 1 in 4*

Percentage of guest crew that experienced seasickness: 90

Approximate number of days where better conditions were ‘just 2 more days away’: 5

Average number of  additional photos taken each time Jin declared ‘one more’: 4

Number of digital image capture devices on board: 62, or almost 5 per person.

Number of books packed with the intention of being read: 33

Number read in their entirety: 5

Divide between those electing to sleep facing the stern versus bow: 50/50

Relationship between sleep direction and something important: 0

Number of sharks sighted throughout entire 20 day voyage: 4

Times elapsed between first shark sighting and swim time: 50 minutes

Number of trawl samples collected: 38

Percentage of samples containing plastic: 100

*While I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition, I must confess that most miles in the ‘wrong’ direction involved beelines direct north for better weather, chasing debris and zigzagging through the accumulation zone rather than lack of experience.