By Emily Penn
I was woken in the middle of the night by a thud on the hull of our boat. We rushed up on deck to find we were surrounded by pieces of plastic floating in the ocean. It didn’t make any sense. We were over 1000 miles from land. The closest people to us were in the International Space Station, in orbit above our heads. And yet here was evidence of human life, and waste, all around us in one of the most remote parts of our planet.
I was just out of university and working my passage to Australia when this incident sparked a new career direction for me: sailing the world on a mission to connect people—scientists and communicators—with the ocean, exploring marine issues from the Equator to the Poles.
At sea I saw first-hand the collapse of fisheries, toxic chemicals accumulating in marine organisms, island communities relying on imported packaged food and the extent of plastic pollution. We would stop at small islands and find that the locals could no longer catch fish to feed their families because commercial vessels had caused their fisheries to collapse. They could no longer grow crops in the ground as the rising sea levels had made their soil too salty. The consequence of this was a new reliance on imported food that comes wrapped and packaged in this strange new material—plastic.
With no system in place to deal with this trash, it ends up getting thrown on the beach and in the ocean, and is often burned. That stench of burning plastic kept getting in my nose. When I started researching what the smell was, I learned about certain chemicals—dioxins—that are formed during incomplete combustion of waste, and how they are carcinogens that can get absorbed into our bodies.
And so this became my first mission: to eliminate the burning of plastic across a group of islands in Tonga.
THE TONGA CHALLENGE
First it was about shifting thinking. As I started learning the Tongan language, I realized there wasn’t a word for ‘rubbish bin’ on these South Pacific islands. The concept of throwing something away into a managed system didn’t exist in that culture, as it hadn’t needed to exist until very recently-organics can be thrown on the ground without problem. It wasn’t only infrastructure that was needed; it was a whole new way of thinking about this new inorganic material.
Six months of working and teaching with the local community culminated in a colossal clean up. Together with 3,000 local volunteers we picked up 56 tons of trash in just 5 hours.
This amount of trash staggered me. We collected what was being produced locally, but also what was washing up on the shoreline each day, including items with packaging labels written in languages I didn’t recognize. This got me asking more questions—where was this plastic coming from and why was it ending up on these remote islands in the Pacific?
And so I started to learn more about how we use plastic.
THE DESIGN PROBLEM
It turns out we use nearly 2 million plastic bags, globally, every minute.1 Those bags get used once, maybe twice, probably three times at best. Then they are thrown away. Plastic is an amazing material because it is designed to last forever. We use it to make products such as plastic bags and bottles that are designed to be used once and then thrown away. This mismatch of material science and product design puts us in the situation of having vast amounts of waste that no longer has any use or value.
But that’s OK, I thought. Can’t we just recycle all that plastic? Well no, apparently we cannot. Less than 10 per cent of plastic used in the United States of America ends up getting recycled.2 A visit to a recycling centre showed me why that number was so low. Plastic is an umbrella term we give to many different materials that all have different properties, and therefore different chemical structures. To recycle them, they first need to be cleaned and separated, a lengthy and expensive process, which in itself consumes enormous amounts of energy and water. There also needs to be a demand for people to pay more for recycled materials rather than opt for cheaper virgin plastic.
Given that we have all this used plastic with no place to go, it is not surprising that we see tons—up to 8 million metric tons each year3—washing down our streams and waterways and into the ocean.
I learned about where plastic goes when it leaves land, and how it moves with the ocean currents and ends up accumulating in five hot spots—known as the five subtropical oceanic gyres. In the centre of the gyre (the large system of rotating currents) the ocean is calm and everything, whether it is a piece of organic debris or a piece of plastic, is drawn to the centre. I heard about floating ‘islands’ of plastic, but the more I learned the more I realized how little we collectively knew.
And so this became the next mission: to sail to these accumulation zones and find out what really existed there.
ON A MISSION TO THE GYRES
We went searching for islands of plastic—for areas that could be scooped up and brought back to land for recycling. But we quickly realized that the plastic pieces were smaller than expected. Plastic waste doesn’t just float around in big rafts on the surface. Ultraviolet light photodegrades it into tiny fragments. Some sink, and some are ingested by marine life.4 On my extensive voyages across the globe I have discovered that it is the same story everywhere—not only in the gyres, but all the way from the Tropics to the Arctic. Our oceans have become a fine soup of plastic fragments.
Much of it can’t be seen from the surface by the human eye, which makes the seas look cleaner than they really are, and makes large-scale clean up an immense challenge. We had to take a fine net through the water to take a closer look. Each time we turned the net inside out, we would find hundreds of tiny fragments of plastic.
When we got the samples on board, we analysed them. I was shocked by how difficult it was to distinguish the plastic from the plankton. I wondered how fish cope figuring out what is plastic and what is food. And so we caught fish and looked inside their stomachs, only to realize that there was plastic there too.
This opened up a whole new series of questions. We were not only concerned about the effect plastic may have on the environment through its physical presence, but what about the chemical impact? Given that plastic is getting into the food chain-our food chain-could this mean toxic chemicals are getting inside us?
THE POISON INSIDE
I decided to have my blood tested, to find out what toxic chemicals I have inside me. Working together with the United Nations Safe Planet Campaign,5 we chose to test for 35 chemicals that are all banned because they are known to be toxic to humans and the environment. Of those 35 chemicals, we found 29 of them inside my body.
This is when things really changed for me. So often when we talk about environmental problems we hear about things that are happening somewhere else, to somebody else, at some point in the future. It seems, however, that you and I already have a body burden, a chemical footprint that we will never get rid of. And while the concentrations of chemicals I currently have inside me are not alarmingly high, it’s a chilling indicator of the direction in which our society might be heading.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Exploration, understanding and education are keys to helping us figure out how to restore a healthy ocean. The issues are complex but the more time I spend at sea, the more I realize that the solutions start on land.
There are ways to tackle the problem at every point-from source to ocean and from product design to waste management. But to solve these problems for the long term we need to turn off the tap. We need to work at the source. This upstream action is required across all sectors of society, working with designers in industry, policymakers at a governmental level and all of us as individual consumers.
If we want to continue to count on the ocean as a source of food, energy, transport and minerals for generations to come, we need to stem the flow of waste and devise more sustainable ways of using this vital resource. As I learned on my journey, we care most about things to which we feel connected. We urgently need more awareness of our blue planet to regain that connection and inspire action.
We care for what we love. We can only love what we know.
1 Earth Policy Institute, “Plastic bags fact sheet”, Available from http://www.earth-policy.org/images/uploads/press_room/Plastic_Bags.pdf
(uploaded October 2014).
2 Gaelle Gourmelon, “Global plastic production rises, recycling lags, Worldwatch Institute, 28 January 2015. Available from http://www. worldwatch.org/node/14576.
3 Jenna R. Jambeck and others,. Plastic waste inputs from land into the Ocean, Science, vol. 347, no. 6223 (13 February 2015), p.p. 768-771. Available from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768.full.
4 United Nations Environment Programme, “UN declares war on ocean plastic”, 23 February 2017. Available from http://www.rona.unep.org/un-declares-war-ocean plastic.
5 Safe Planet: the United Nations Campaign for Responsibility on Hazardous Chemicals and Wastes, background note. Available from http://networking.pops.lnt/portals/O/VIvolndexltem/lndex2482JSafePlanet_Body_Burden_backgrounder_21apr2011_rev.pdf (accessed April 2017).
Author bio: Emily Penn is Ocean Advocate, Skipper and Co-founder of Pangea Exploration.