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.

Gorilla Toothbrush

The most entertaining trawl to date surfaced two pen caps, a Korean toothbrush, and to much amusement, a grey plastic gorilla among the usual unidentifiable bits and pre-production nurdles. I’ve made a deal with Marcus, and should we happen to catch a lion, it’s mine.

(a closeup of the gorilla from Algalita’s photos)

Sea state is a bit calmer today, but we’re still racing North for the elusive high pressure zone that has been ‘two days away’ for the past 5 days running. It’s getting cooler now – we were about level with San Francisco yesterday. To follow our exact location follow the link to the Algalita website and register for the ship to shore blog.

The View From Here

Looks like this. All the way around, 12 miles to the horizon.

We are pretty much alone out here. An albatross or other bird sighting is an event that brings those awake up on deck. Yesterday morning we crossed the path of a giant container ship, fully loaded and headed east for Hong Kong. I wonder if plastic waste from North America is on board. It was only the second ship we’ve seen in a week.

When seas are calmer I feel like we are traveling through an artificial dome of blue and cloud and sky. I can imagine, Truman-show style, the bow piercing the canvas horizon at any minute.

This is also the view of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Not exactly somewhere you can get out and have a picnic, but debris continues to fill trawls and float past. On watch this afternoon I spotted a bottle, a square white float and a bunch of random bits. While hardly a floating trash heap, the presence of bits and pieces so far from anything, anyone, anywhere is a constant reminder of the impact of plastics on the sea.

On watch from 10pm-2am, I imagine the nets and floats and bottles passing by in the dark, the seas still churning, mixing pieces into the water column and out of sight and reach of the trawl.

Trawl-la-la-la-la

We’ve finally arrived in the high pressure zone, and seas are calm this morning. Showered, refreshed and full of papaya I’m thinking life if pretty gosh-darn nice at the moment.

We’ve slowed the boat to 2 knots to deploy the first systematic ‘manta trawl,’ a device designed to skim the surface of the sea and sift out bits of plastic and sea life it encounters. Carefully timed and mapped, the resulting samples (we just call ‘trawls’) are collected for various scientific projects of both crewmembers and shore-based affiliates. The first of what is hopefully a minimum of 25 such trawls has come up with a bunch of bits and several fish.

Since yesterday we’ve been deploying the ‘high-speed trawl,’ that, while less representative of sea surfaces, skips along at a quicker clip, picking up fish and plastics for projects where distribution is less crucial. At 2 am last night I helped extract two small silver fish, which we wrapped in foil, located, dated and froze. Today also surfaced a beautiful Christmas ornament-sized glass float encrusted with gooseneck barnacles.

Just before dinner we spot a 6 foot diameter netball – a tangle of colourful, if plastic, derelict nets and ropes, and whatever else they have snared (possible crab trap) in their travels. We rush to slow the boat, taking in the sails, keeping an eye on the netball and manage to swing round and attach it to the boat. Brandon and Jin, our resident Korean film crew, scramble into their dive gear launching selves and cameras into the still churning seas. Swimming to keep up with the boat, they bring back footage of fish sheltering in the ropes and nets. Plastic, waste, and toxic, but also a synthetic shelter, mini-reef ecosystem harbouring life in the middle of the Pacific.

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.

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.