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.

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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.