Monday, May 19, 2014

Plastic Paradise: A Call for Change

I think it goes without saying that those of us who live on boats, or spend any significant time on the water, are involved in a unique relationship with the ocean.  She inspires us, enlightens us, refreshes us, bathes us, terrifies us, buoys us and (for those who are better fisher-folk than Scott and I) sustains us.  In addition to these things, she also reminds us, unfortunately, of the ever-growing impact we have on her.  A simple walk to the windward side of any island will show a glimpse of the mark we have made, and continue to make.  Scott and I have seen everything from giant spare tires to full-sized refrigerators washed up ashore, not to mention all the old standbys: flip flops, shoe soles, lighters, plastic bottles and bags, fishing nets, and nylon line to name a few.  Though the size, shape and former use of all this junk is different; there is one thing that it has in common:  it is made out of plastic.

Did you know that:

EVERY single piece of plastic that has ever been created since the 19th century is still SOMEWHERE on our planet. 

So if it never goes away, where does it go? - Plastic Paradise

How's that for a sobering thought?

Scott and I were invited to a special screening of "Plastic Paradise", a documentary that sheds light on our overuse and irresponsible disposal of plastic and the effects of this on our oceans.   SPOILER ALERT:  It is not insignificant.

I knew the film's focus was on the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" but upon researching the documentary before viewing it I embarrassingly realized I had no idea exactly what that was.  I'd heard the "patch" was actually a giant island of trash that collected in the middle of the ocean due to currents and wind patterns.  I'd also heard it was a conglomeration of microscopic plastic molecules broken down by the sun's rays that was floating around like a giant blob.  It was the size of Texas.  Or maybe the size of Europe?  The rumors of what, exactly, it was ran the gamut.

The Great Pacific Garbage patch is not actually a blob of broken down plastic molecules and it is much more complicated than an "island of garbage".   The exact size, unfortunately, is unknown, though experts agree that it is massive.  According to this great article, "it's like a galaxy of garbage, populated by billions of smaller trash islands that may be hidden underwater or spread out over many miles...there's not consistency in our idea of its size.  It's these 'hot spots', not one big mass. Maybe if you added them all up it's the size of Texas, but we still don't know. It could be bigger than Texas."  One thing that is certain?  Just about all of the "garbage" that populates this illusive patch is made from plastic.

But wait, there's more.  The film's synopsis says this:
"Thousands of miles away from civilization, Midway Atoll is in one of the most remote places on earth. And yet its become ground zero for The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, syphoning plastics from three distant continents. In this independent documentary film, journalist/filmmaker Angela Sun travels on a personal journey of discovery to uncover this mysterious phenomenon. Along the way she meets scientists, researchers, influencers, and volunteers who shed light on the effects of our rabid plastic consumption and learns the problem is more insidious than we could have ever imagined" - Plastic Paradise.
While investigating the Garbage Patch, Angela learns that plastic and associated chemicals are not only leeching into our environment, but our bodies as well.  Through water bottles, food containers, thermal receipt paper and even in fish we consume, chemicals from plastic (Bisphenol A, otherwise known as BPA, is the big one) are finding their way into our systems.  No matter how healthy we "think" we are; harmful, toxic chemicals are in our bodies and having unknown effects on our health. As one researcher so eloquently points out, "It's like we're all in the midst of a giant, uncontrolled experiment" which begs the question: "Without your permission, you are being polluted.  Is that okay with you?"

Don't get me wrong, I love plastic. I use it all the time. Hundreds of times a day even.  Plastic, itself, is not the enemy - and the film says as much. It's the amount we use and how we dispose of it that is real the crux of this problem.  Our lives are so inundated by plastic that to tell people to stop using it would be impossible for most. But there are little things that, when done en masse, can help. We have the choice and (more importantly) the power to become conscious consumers.  I have a long way to go myself, but I've made a commitment to improve.

So what can we do?  Here are some very simple tips that can have an impact:
  • LIMIT YOUR USE OF SINGLE USE PLASTIC ITEMS.  Stop using things like plastic cups, plastic silverware, and plastic water bottles.  Bring your own bottle to refill and skip the take-out silverware.
  • STOP USING PLASTIC BAGS.  BYOB: Bring your own bag.  It's simple and can make a big difference.  If you go to the convenient store and buy a soda and a granola bar, think twice about that bag - do you really need it?  
  • BUY IN BULK.  This will reduce unnecessary packaging from buying things multiple times.  Also focus on products that are re-usable and offer "refill" pouches.
  • CHOSE WISELY.  If you can, select products that are packaged in recycled materials.
  • USE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY PRODUCTS.  I know this is easier said than done, as often the "green" cleaner is more expensive - but go green when you can.  And don't be afraid to make your own cleaners, I started using essential oils for cleaning a while back and while I've been slacking on them recently, they were great.
  • REDUCE, REUSE and RECYCLE.  For real.  An oldie, but goodie.
  • STAY INFORMED.  Knowledge is power, and if are aware of the negative impact our choices have, we might think twice before we make them.  A few Facebook Groups that will keep your consumer conscience in check:  The Algalita Marine Research Institute, Clean Our Oceans Rescue Coalition (COORC), and of course, Plastic Paradise.
In July, under the leadership of Captain Charles Moore, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation will be sending a research vessel to the largest and most polluted of the five gyres for a month long study beginning this July.  If you are interested in supporting this effort, please do.  I did:

Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Trailer from Angela Sun on Vimeo.

What steps have you taken to help our environment?  What other tips can you share that will have positive effects on our oceans? Share in the comments so we all can benefit!


Nate said...

There are organizations looking to partner with sailors and hikers and explorers of all types and locations. One group I'm working with is to monitor microplastics in the ocean.

The Ocean Research Project is also doing work related to the big pacific gyres. They have a list of ways sailors can assist here:

Reduce your use as much as possible. Go a little beyond what is convenient for you, soon it won't be a burden.
Reuse plastics after they have been used for their original purpose.
Recycle what has no more use. Yes, pay for it if you have to. Your conscience will thank you.

Windtraveler said...

Good stuff Nate - thank you!!!

JP said...

So sad but important.

I saw a documentary on this problem a few years ago that described a beach in the Pacific covered in plastic and think that's what the band Gorillaz must have seen given their album was called the Plastic Beach

Becky said...

I just recently finished a great book called Plastic Free by Beth Terry. While Beth is a big proponent of cutting out all the plastic humanly possible she gives you great plastic free tips in a non-judgmental way. I can't recommend the book enough. Since reading it I have drastically reduced my plastic use.

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