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!

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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.

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.

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.

A ‘Patchy Patch’

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is, well, patchy. We’ve spent the last few days skirting its fringes, while still well within the area the Algalita Marine Research Foundation previously collected dense plastic samples. Just last week, the gorilla trawl was one of the densest Marcus has seen from the smaller trawls used on the crane-less Sea Dragon. Our most recent samples, however, have been coming up mostly jelly. As in jellyfish. Mostly blue, but sometimes pink, pulverized into messy jam-like goo by the water passing through the high-speed trawl. There seems to be more zooplankton than the synthetic variety here, at least on the surface that we’re skimming. This shows some of the trouble with the 6:1 plastic to plankton ratio circulated widely as a measure of density – conditions are variable as plastics and currents circulate, plankton blooms and congregates at the surface. Traveling through this amorphous, shifting accumulation with changing sea states, it’s difficult to tell if we or the plastics are ‘there’ or not.

We’re officially headed to Vancouver now, but Northbound traffic is being forced east by the winds (supposed to change any minute now). At least we had one last morning sail straight into the sunrise. Marcus saw a ‘green flash’ but I was too busy posing on demand for the film crew, trying not to be bounced off the bow into what are increasingly chilly seas (down from 25 C to 16).

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.