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).

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The Plastisphere

Welcome to the plastisphere – the world of things that live on plastics. Much of the debris we’ve bee finding hosts little worlds of algae, barnacles and worms, sheltering pelagic (open sea) crabs and even the odd bivalve. In the image to the left, Marcus is breaking apart a chunk of polyurethane foam to see who is home. Looks like goose-neck barnacles again.

Scientists studying the plastisphere are interested in the organisms inhabiting plastic debris. There are ongoing debates over whether certain microbes might be eating plastic or whether organisms are transformed by their synthetic homes. (Are algae just occupying body-shaped divots in plastics or did they make them?) The plastisphere is also of interest to marine biologists studying ‘rafting’ – organisms hitching rides across the sea on floating materials. Historically, this has meant mats of greenery, bits of wood or other organic flotsam, but plastic is now a major, and much more durable, part of the mix. Yesterday Hank found a found a coastal oyster (the pacific kind, Native to Asia, but introduced to North America) stowed away on a foam-based ‘rubber’ mat over a thousand miles from shore.

Diving Off the Deep End

Finally the day we’ve all been waiting for – calm seas and little wind at the edges of the main east accumulation zone in the North Pacific Gyre. The high-pressure system is no longer a myth. Everyone was up and buzzing at lunch, making plans for what might be our only chance to film from the water, dive around debris and – what I’ve been hoping for – take a swim in the very, very deep end of the ocean.

The film crew set off in the dinghy, cameras at the ready. With no debris in the immediate vicinity, Tim (feeling somewhat guilty) throws a small Chinese fishing float retrieved a few hours earlier back into the water. Up at the bow I play spotter, pointing with my eyes on the debris as the boat comes round so we can scoop the float with a net (again).

Just about swim time, after days of seeing little in the way of marine life other than barnacles latched on to the debris we’ve been collecting, Judy spots a fin in the water. I kid not. A shark. Circling the boat right before pool time. Coupled with warnings of likely jellyfish stings, leaping off the bow took a bit of courage, but how often do you have the chance to take a dip in the middle of the ocean?

Hawaii, 1200 miles to the south, is still the closest bit of earth apart from the sea floor over 5km below! Looking down through my goggles, the water is impossibly blue, and thankfully, shark-free.

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.