Though the Pacific Ocean Gyre was discovered in the 1960's and created the phenomena coined the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Captain Charles Moore in 1997, in the fifteen years since the "garbage island the size of Texas" entered global awareness the problem has intensified. Environmentalist Tim Silverwood of Newcastle, eager to discover the nature of this issue, sailed to the shores of Hawaii to find the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and personally experience the plastic beach. Coming from the mostly unadulterated shores of Australia it is hard to imagine what you'd find, so we wanted his account of the adventure...
In 2009 Tim co-founded the non-profit organisation 'Take 3' that asks everyone to simply Take 3 pieces of trash with them when they leave the beach, waterway or...anywhere! It's an easy gesture that can greatly reduce the amount of debris ending up in our oceans. Visit the Take 3 website - www.take3.org.au.
(To hear more of his experience check out the Bag It screening near you at the bottom of the page, or check out Tim Silverwood's website)
Words by Tim Silverwood
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch…the mere mention of the place conjures images of a vast, obese, monolithic 'beast' swamping the North Pacific like a wet blanket over a dreary fire. Sorry to burst your bubble…the 'floating island' doesn't exist. There is no such metaphorical punctuation mark demonstrating our impact on nature, you won't be logging in to Google Earth anytime soon to see a new continent forming between Hawaii and Canada.
I just spent two months examining the impact the accumulation of discarded plastics is having amongst the network of currents that constitute the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I sailed 5000km from Honolulu to Vancouver with an international team of researchers and environmentalists to see and document this marvel. The results? Well, I'd be pleased if it were a 'floating island', if it were it might be feasible for us to get out there and clean it up. But in fact, it's much much worse than that…
Hawaii's Plastic Beaches
My journey commenced in Hawaii where I spent two weeks with the co-founders of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii. Suzanne and Dean from BEACH have spent over five years cleaning the beaches of Hawaii, educating the community on the issue and encouraging people to choose sustainable alternatives to disposable single use plastics. Together we travelled to a remote corner on the Big Island where lies Kamilo Beach, toted 'the world's dirtiest beach'. Who would ever have thought the world's dirtiest beach would be on a remote coast of the island paradise we know as Hawaii?
Prior to reaching Kamilo I'd received an email stating that, "I might not find much there" as there'd been a clean up on her shores only three weeks prior. It turned out that the 500m stretch of rocky coast was absolutely covered with all manner of plastic debris from toilet seats, toothbrushes, and tennis balls to mountains of rope, piles of crates, umbrella handles and bottles, bottle caps and bottle necks. I was frolicking in cinematic heaven before quickly being swamped by a feeling of being delivered into a postcard of oceanic hell.
Each item on Kamilo Beach had a story to tell. A story of being extracted from the earth, refined, liquefied, pumped through metallic intestines, hardened into tapioca like beads, shipped here, shipped there, melted, moulded, made into a product, sold to a consumer, used for a purpose and then…for whatever reason…knowingly or not…discarded. At a guess 99.9% of the items on the shore were clearly not from Hawaii but from countries circling the North Pacific ring from Asia to North America. The North Pacific Gyre, like a laborious conveyer belt delivers new trash to Hawaii on each and every tide like the bad guy in a movie coughing blood as he meets his demise. Except this isn't the bad guy dying, this is the source of life and the key to our future doing it's best to spit out what we keep putting in.
Sailing to see trash
My home and courier for the journey across the Pacific was the 72ft Sea Dragon, a racing yacht built for the 2004 Challenge Round the World Yacht Race. As we set sail from Honolulu I said goodbye to the islands and hello to the vast, unfamiliar blue. Never having sailed across an ocean I was immediately struck by the enormity of the sea, this realisation that now more than ever I really was just a speck on an immense blue planet.
The team of 13 scientists, artists, environmentalists and film makers endured five days of rough seas battling the strong trade winds that blow North East from a massive high pressure system in the centre of the North Pacific. At the centre of the high pressure system is found absolute calm, and, when nature is cooperating it may align with what new science believes is the centre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Nature wasn't cooperating and where the patch was reported to be and where the centre of the high sat, we were separated by 1000km of unrelenting rough sea. The sanity of the crew and the need for calmer conditions to undertake the research objectives made the decision to chase the centre of the high pressure an easy one.
During our path to the centre we deployed over a dozen 'high speed trawls', a device that skims the oceans surface with a vertical rectangular aperture of 15cm by 45cm to gather all items larger 500 microns (tighter than the weave in your t-shirt). What we found was startling – this minute, angel hair width sample of ocean delivered all manner of debris from bottle tops and pen caps to a toothbrush and a toy plastic gorilla. If only he could tell us his story…
Looking out upon the ocean on the countless hours I spent steering the yacht, cleaning the deck, deploying trawls and hoisting sails I never once saw an island of trash. The island of trash doesn't exist. The image of an 'island' was conjured by the media in the hype surrounding Captain Charles Moore's 'discovery' of the Garbage Patch in 1997. In fact we've known about the accumulation of waste in this part of the ocean since the 1960's and for hundreds of thousands of years all manner of coconuts, driftwood and seed pods would have drifted the same.
But the difference is, this plastic isn't going anywhere. Plastic doesn't biodegrade, it simply breaks apart into smaller and smaller pieces. This is why it is more accurate to think of the Garbage Patch as a giant plastic soup. Large items don't retain their structure in the ocean for long. The sun's radiation and the physical motion of the sea causes it to break up into small pieces – billions and trillions and zillions of pieces of plastic that descend throughout the water quality where they mimic the food fish, birds, turtles and even whales like to eat. The impacts of marine debris on wildlife are profound with millions of deaths each year, but what about the impact on us? Do you want plastic in your sushi?
How do we stop it?
Plastic is a remarkable substance: lightweight, strong, cheap and of course durable. It's an item designed to last forever yet more often than not we utilise it for weeks, days, minutes…seconds? How do we make plastic? We use non-renewable fossil fuels. Plastic is made from petroleum (oil and natural gas) and it takes a heck of a lot of petroleum to produce the plastic we use and a whole stack more to move it around and make sure you buy it. We can attribute so much of who we are and how we live our lives to plastic, look at the positive impact it has had on healthcare and medicine alone. In my life right now I am typing away on a plastic keyboard on a plastic computer wearing my plastic t-shirt and my plastic sunglasses as I sit on a plastic train seat surrounded by other people each in their own plastic bubble talking on plastic phones. Sometimes I am labelled as a 'hater' of plastic…this couldn't be further from the truth. Reassessing our dependence on plastic to make single use disposable items isn't about hating plastic…on the contrary; it's about loving plastic too much.
We know we won't have access to cheap petroleum forever, we know our consumption of petroleum is being linked to impacts on our climate, we know some chemicals used in the manufacture of plastic can negatively impact our health and we know that it isn't feasible to think we can use as much plastic as we do and not have it escape our clutches and end up polluting our oceans and the environment. Once in our oceans we know plastic kills marine life, makes our beaches look like rubbish tips, becomes brittle and breaks apart into billions of pieces making it impossible to clean up and is consumed by all manner of marine life including those that make up the basis of our food chain. We've used more plastic in the last decade than we have in the entire 100 years of the 20th Century, if we continue on this path unabated what will it mean for my children, and their children? What will the beach of the future look like and what marine animals will be left for us to appreciate or eat without fear of contamination?
It is clear to me and to a growing number of scientists and environmentalists that the time to act on this issue is now. We have used and consumed more plastic in the last 10 years than we did in the entire one hundred years preceding. It's time to re-evaluate our relationship with plastic. Re-think our actions, do we really need that over packaged product? Plastic bag? Plastic cup? Plastic bottle? Plastic piece of cutlery? Or is there a reusable alternative we can adopt? Remember to reduce, reuse and recycle but go above and beyond – vote with our wallets – we need our producers to redesign products built to last, be highly recyclable and made from recycled material.
Tim Silverwood will be visiting parts of Australia over the coming months where he will giving presentations, showing the Bag It documentary and some other great films. Please come along and be inspired.
Manly OceanWorld – Tuesday 18th October 6.30pm. In conjunction with Sydney Aquarium Conservation Fund and Manly Environment Centre.
Mosman Art Gallery – Thursday 20th October 6.30pm
Gerringong/ Kiama – Friday 21st October 7pm - Gerringong Town Hall
Pittwater – 9th November 7pm - Newport Public School
Terrigal – 24th October 7pm, Terrigal Surf Club. Presentation Only – No Film
Newcastle – 25th October 7pm, Dixon Park Surf Life Saving Club - Presentation Only – No Film
Forster – 26th October, venue TBC. Presentation Only – No Film Think we should host one near your house? Contact me for more info…
Magnetic Island – 29th September 6pm @ xbase, 1 Nelly Bay Rd Magnetic Island
Townsville – 30th september 1pm @ Reef HQ Aquarium, Flinders St East, Townsville
Townsville – 30th september 6pm @ Court Theatre, Cnr Sturt and Stokes St, Townsville
Perth - Tuesday 11th October 7pm @ Northbridge Piazza (Spaceship Earth 2 Film Season)
Freemantle – 13th October 5.30pm @ Curtin University Policy Institute, 3 Pakenham St, Freemantle 6160.
Dunsborough - Friday 14th October 7pm @ Three Bears Bar
Bunbury - Saturday 15th October 7pm @ Koombana Sailing Club
Screenings in WA in conjunction with Easy Living Green Products the fantastic 2011 West Australian Beach Clean Up being organised by Tangaroa Blue
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