Adventures With Algalita

Yes, they took me to the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 2011, but since then they’ve also let me hang out at their office and lab and taught me a ton about plastic pollution science and education. As I wrap up another session of fieldwork with the Algalita Marine Research Institute, I thought I’d share some of the most memorable moments from the past year.

1. Heathwood Hall Visit

Being part of the team leading a week of student research at the lab helped me realize just how much I’ve learned about the science of plastic in the ocean. I even got to go out sample collecting on the Alguita with Captain Moore and help make this awesome video documenting the research process. The students insisted on including my brief, yet highly embarrassing appearance circa 1:00. And now I know exactly how ridiculous I look when teaching.

2. Trash-hunting

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From landfill tours to checking trash booms on local rivers and watching Katie rescue runaway 6-pack rings from the marina behind the office (while waiting for the Endeavour flyover), I’ve learned a ton about how plastic moves through the local watershed. Like the little duck, plastic continues to sneak past barriers and head out to sea. Not only do I now have plastic-vision super powers (I see it EVERYWHERE), I have developed a habit of bringing garbage home: there’s a pretty decent collection of plastic curiosities growing on my shelf.

3. Youth Summit at the Google Office

Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions - Regional Youth Training 2012

 

Inspired by people half my age twice as articulate, I found my cynical academic-self challenged make peace with optimism. Maybe reusable bags, straws and sporks really do lead to something bigger, especially in the hands of youth upset about the global problems they’ve inherited. I learned a thing or two about public speaking (no crossed arms, tell a story), and got to eat pizza cooked by a dragon before helping to scrub google’s shiny counters free of flour.

The big events are easy to highlight, but it’s really all the little everyday things that make them and my research possible. Like microplastics at sea, the things that matter are not always the most photogenic. A giant north pacific subtropical gyre-sized thank you to Algalita for always, always making me feel so welcome. And don’t worry, I’ll be back for more adventures!

Kamilo Beach on Material World

For a relatively small dose of my more academic writing, check out my guest post over at Material World. Lots of great articles and announcements for material culture folks, and a really interesting short entry on attempts to care for and return photos and other items lost with the 3/11 tsunami.

Nurdle Hunting

Yesterday I walked the Long Beach shore in the late afternoon sun. As usual, I was on the lookout for plastic, but I also had a more specific mission: I was hunting for nurdles. But what, you ask, is a nurdle? Nurdle is the nickname given to pre-production plastic pellets. Not to be confused with crumbled bits of Styrofoam, these little beads-without-holes are what plastic looks like before it’s molded into more familiar objects. They are far more difficult to pick up than to find, once you know what they are and where to look in the sand (you can see at least eight in the blog banner image too). Freshly produced nurdles are smooth and bright, but over time the pellets get worn by sun and waves, and tinted by the synthetic toxins that stick to their oily surface (think all those nice things like BPA, PCBs and DDT that we’ve been flushing out to sea for decades). The more yellowed or browned, the longer they’ve been at sea and the more chemicals they’ve amassed.

As I walk the beach, I fill a grocery bag with more visible trash, collecting the expected remains of styrofoam cups, bottle caps, and straws. But the handful of nurdles I patiently picked from the tide line are especially important because they represent a whole class of plastic that slips right past solutions grounded in consumer recycling: nurdles are waste before they are consumer goods. Shipped by giant container loads from refineries that ‘crack’ them from gas or oil at high temperatures, to factories that melt and shape them into more recognizable objects, round pellets slip through cracks and roll right into storm drains and waterways. Despite some local improvements, nurdles continue to flow down LA’s rivers and out to sea.

Long Beach is a particularly good place to think about plastic’s industrial ties. The small islands just offshore are oil-drilling platforms in disguise. Designed in the 1960s by the theme park architects responsible for Disney’s Tomorrowland, they are decorated with palm tress and artificial waterfalls, drills hidden in condo-like structures with blue ‘balconies’ (hint: the towers move!). I am still convinced that they are mad-scientist laboratories. The port is just beyond the islands, massive container ships on the horizon shuttling consumer goods and plastic waste back and forth between North America and Asia.

As the sun begins to set over the oil rigs and port cranes, I pluck a green plastic army man from the sand, adding the military to the web of primary resource extraction, shipping and consumption on display in front of me. With synthetic materials heavily developed during WWII, chemical companies looking for postwar markets helped establish plastic’s current ubiquity (not to mention the place of oil in ongoing conflicts). While he takes aim at the sea, the tiny figure gives no clue as to where he was molded, and I wonder how many times the plastic materials have crossed the Pacific.

Beached nurdles are by no means unique to Southern California. My well-traveled friends over at 5 Gyres report that they have yet to find a beach anywhere in the world without at least a few nurdles to be found. Most recently a huge container spill near Hong Kong left shores buried in plastic. As volunteers scrambled, to pick, shovel and even vacuum tons of nurdles from the shore, whole farms of fish unable to distinguish the beads from their usual feed pellets perished, floating belly up with stomachs full of plastic.

Next time you are at the beach, any beach, take a look along the tide line where bits of wood and seaweed and other debris congregate. Look for the pieces that are a little too round, a little too buoyant. You will see them. The nurdles are there.

My Day, In Plastic

I’ve always been an environmentally minded person. When my father cut down the acre of forest in our backyard, I felt so bad for the trees that I vowed not to speak with him again (I caved sometime after dinner, several hours close enough to eternity for a 10 year old). I stopped eating meat years ago, have always been suspicious of where recycling really goes, and have an uneasy relationship with shopping for anything, especially if it comes in a package.

Since starting my plastic project, I’ve been systematically cutting down on the plastic in my life. I’ve substituted metal and glass for plastic containers, cotton and wool for polyester and nylon, cellulose for synthetic sponges. At any give time, I likely have a reusable bag, bottle and pair of chopsticks within reach. So when I asked my students to write down all the plastic objects they touched in 24 hours, I decided to check in on my own plastic habits and do the assignment along with them. The results? My life, as the 67 item-long list documents, is far from plastic free.

Some of the items represent things I can’t easily control: the synthetic carpet in grad housing; a strong glasses prescription. But many more are things I am not willing to go without, plastic objects part of important daily practices I feel I could not otherwise perform. Most concerning are the 17 things that could be considered single-use, containers not meant to be refilled, razor blades that cannot be sharpened, food packages that will long outlive their contents. I do not often possess the skills that alternatives would require (I am mortally terrified of wielding a straight razor), competency lost as disposables and ready-mades proliferated long before I was born. In other cases it’s a matter of time. While I enjoy making and baking all kinds of things from scratch, I would have to seriously re-arrange my life in order to supply myself with homemade staples like laundry-soap and almond milk on a regular basis.

Trained to think about systems, not individuals, I try not to beat myself up or judge others too harshly for plastic habits. After all, plastic is part of the ways we have learned to be capable participants in everyday life. I do not like alienating people or myself (always in danger of being labeled an eco-freak). But understanding these complicated commitments is only part of the process. There is a fine line between not blaming and not doing anything at all. Every time I tell a group of students about my research, someone sheepishly hides a single-use plastic bottle under the table. But we don’t need to feel bad about plastic, we need to put the bottle back on the table, think about how it is connected to the politics of a shared way of life and capitalist mode of production, and look for the cracks through which it can be changed.

As I grade my students’ reflections on their plastic days, can’t help but notice that I am still surrounded, sitting in a plastic chair at a plastic table, with a plastic cup and straw (oh boba, how I can’t leave you), beside my plastic sunglasses, grading with a purple plastic pen. It seems I have done more to change my ability to see plastic (in pretty much everything) than to give it up.  I don’t have an easy solution for my plastic life, but there’s one thing I do know: an individual giving up the bags, bottles and cutlery symbolic of plastic habits might be a place to start, but it is far different from systemic change.

How much plastic is in your life?

24 hours, in order:

Glasses! Contact case Contacts Hairbrush Milk carton/cap Kitchen floor Toothbrush Soap Toothpaste tube Scissors Stapler Tupperware Dishsoap bottle Shower curtain Bodywash Shampoo bottle Razor Shirt? (no tag) Flip flops Credit card Screen door Detergent bottle Washer door Floss (nylon and possibleyTeflon – eeew!) Pepper grinder Bottle top Bike key/seat/pedals Bathing suit Shorts Goggles Student card Kickboard Deck chair Ice cube tray Folder Messenger bag Chair Sunglasses Tack This pen! Fan Computer cord Veggie peeler Colander Knife handle Phone Carpet Fridge door handle Micro-suede couch Knitting needles Chip bag Salsa container PB jar Garlic bag Compost bin Remote Chocolate package Toilet seat Keyboard/cover ipad case USB stick Saline bottle Nintendo 3DS Powder bottle Blinds Lamp Light switch

Plastic Culture & Consumption

It’s summer teaching time! A selection of books inspiring my senior seminar (COGN 150) on the role of plastic and plastic things in everyday life. I’m super excited about the class and can’t wait to see my students’ final projects.

The details: Plastic Culture & Consumption Syllabus

Kamilo beach lost & found

Google sleuths and polyglots! I need your help solving a collection of (s)pacific mysteries. Instincts honed in the 80s served me well in identifying the green lump of plastic above as a battlecat saddle from He-Man (Panthor’s actually based on the colour), but do you have any ideas about the rest of these objects found washed up on Kamilo beach in Hawaii?

Much of the plastic circulating the Pacific remains anonymous, even after it gets caught in nets or picked up off beaches. Broken into pieces, labels and contents long gone, there are few if any clues to help trace waste to its possible place of production, consumption or disposal.  Identifying objects and bits of writing is not only incredibly satisfying (especially compared to counting bits of confetti), this information helps researchers track where waste comes from and how it circulates in the ocean.

Some kind of game pieces? Glassware but what does it say?

These are Japanese survey stakes, but from where/when?

Found in a beachcombers closet, not on the beach:

The owner loves the shirt but would like to make sure it’s not advertising something offensive before she wears it.

Finally, Noni’s toy collection, in case you’re still in mystery/nostalgia mode.

Comments appreciated!

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.