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message on a bottle

David de Rothschild
Founder, Adventure Ecology

We are placing an ever-growing, devastating set of plastic fingerprints on our natural world. Every single molecule of plastic ever manufactured — except for a very small percentage that has been incinerated — still exists somewhere in our environment. Most apparent and shocking is the plastic waste now scattered across the surfaces and depths of our planet’s oceans.

For me the reality of the situation kicked-in back in 2006 when I came across a UNEP publication: “Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas.” The report pointed out that there were 46,000 pieces of floating marine debris on or below every square mile of our ocean, with the problem particularly acute in certain areas. The most notorious — labelled the ”Eastern Garbage Patch” — is a swirling gyre in the North Pacific twice the size of Texas, where researchers found six pounds of plastic litter for every pound of plankton. This and four other enormous gyres of swirling trash cover approximately 40 percent of our planet’s surface.

As much as 90 to 95 percent of the total amount of marine debris is plastic, which, unlike organic compounds, doesn’t biodegrade.

Plastic is impervious to enzymatic breakdown and literally jams up the code of nature. The very durability that renders it so useful to humans also makes it incredibly harmful to all natural life cycles in every ecosystem worldwide, it has a double effect on fish, marine mammals and birds.

First is ingestion of plastic, as by the majestic and now endangered albatross. The laysan albatrosses that nest on Kure Atoll and Oahu Hawaii get it worst. Researcher Lindsay Young of the University of Hawaii found “so many small plastic toys in the birds from Kure Atoll…that we could have assembled a complete nativity scene with them.” Almost half of the 500,000 albatross chicks born every year on Midway are thought to die from consuming plastic fed to them by their parents. One was found to have 306 pieces of plastic in its belly.

The second major issue, toxicity transference, is even more ominous. Plastic photo-degrades in the open ocean, beginning to breakdown into simpler compounds without ever actually disappearing. The resulting tiny pellets — called nurdles or ‘mermaid tears’ — sponge up fat-soluble compounds like PCBs, DDT, and a host of herbicides and pesticides present in diluted quantities in the ocean. Plastics also have a nasty affinity for oil.

Small amounts of these chemicals work their way up the food chain from filter feeders through to the fish fingers on the kitchen table. So, all over the world, children and adults are unwittingly exposing themselves to low levels of toxicity.

Plastic and other marine debris is also smothering beaches — especially those in the path of a swirling garbage patch. Currents that drag rubbish into the gyres also shoot it out. The 19 islands of the Hawaiian archipelago, for instance, receive massive quantities of trash, some of it decades old. Some beaches are buried under 5 to 10 feet of refuse: others are riddled with fine granules of “plastic sand.”

In October 2006 the US government established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Monument to try to quell the rising tide of debris. Congress passed legislation to increase funding for trash removal and ordered several government agencies to expand cleanup efforts.

Yet people studying the issue point to an overall lack of viable solutions. Trawling the oceans for trash would be impractical and costly and would ultimately harm plankton and other marine life. Cleaning up the north Pacific gyre alone would involve clearing a section of ocean spanning the area of a continent and extending 100 feet below the surface. Managing the waste on land, where fully 80 percent of ocean debris originate, is more feasible and exponentially more effective.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we can shift the perception of plastic from waste to a valuable resource we can slow, and in some places even reverse, the environmental damage. Meeting this challenge can be an adventure — an honest-to-goodness, swashbuckling adventure like the Plastiki voyage across the Pacific last year on a boat made of 12,500 discarded plastic bottles.

The Plastiki expedition tried to focus on more than the destination. Our journey and viewpoint created a platform for smart thinking — and a place where everyone acknowledged nobody is as smart as everybody. We strove to cultivate a community of thought leaders, designers, engineers, and scientists that recognized their role as being part of a holistic system in which every individual action creates a reaction — and realised that we need to stop and realise the devastating impact of our everincreasing human fingerprints.

Together is the only way we can move forward and create the necessary solutions for our oceans and our planet — so we can stop apologizing to the million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals unnecessarily killed, and to the children already asking why no-one is reacting.

For some this will mean lobbying companies and communities to find alternatives to plastic packaging. Or it might entail getting governments to expand recycling programs and accommodate bio-plastics in the market place.

But the Plastiki looked to inspire a sea change, if you will, in how we view waste and integrate it back into the web of life. This starts with recognizing there isn’t a place called ‘away,’ and involves nurturing and directing inquisitiveness toward inventing smart ways to design and use everyday materials. We took the plastic bottle, which symbolizes what’s wrong with dumb thinking, and turned it into a platform of hope by showing it can be an effective and useful resource.

The Plastiki was not just about voicing of problems, but about articulating and acting upon solutions. If a plastic bottle can become a boat, and that boat can forge its way into the collective imagination of people everywhere, then who knows what else is possible with a little curiosity, imagination, and time to innovate. One day, maybe, we could dream for more than just the survival of our oceans.


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