Swimming in plastic soup
// Yette Gram

When I was young, I remember eating seaweed straight off the beach, after watching an episode of David Suzuki's the Nature of Things where he did the same. It was slimy and salty, but overall not awful; it was also the kind of seaweed that they put in some toothpastes and yogurts. I thought eating something straight from the ocean was one of the coolest things I had ever done, and I used to proudly tell family and friends. With the oceans becoming more and more polluted every day, though, I have to wonder if that would even be safe anymore. Oil spills, such as the one that recently happened in the Gulf of Mexico, are prompting concern about the safety of seafood, as well as the health of sea-dwelling and ocean-reliant creatures. However, oil spills aren't the only thing to worry about.

There is a patch of ocean in the North Pacific which gets called the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, where the currents carry all the garbage that ends up in the water to swirl around indefinitely. There are several of these patches around the world, where circular ocean currents called “gyres” hold the garbage (most of it plastic) in place and slowly break it down into small pieces. The Pacific garbage patch has gotten to the point where it is just under twice the size of British Columbia, and is well beyond cleaning up. Plastic lasts pretty much forever, and even though the water breaks up the plastic, it can't totally break it down, and we end up with water samples from the area that look like a thick plastic soup.

One of the dangers posed by all this plastic is to the wildlife. Many birds mistake the small, brightly coloured bits of plastic in the ocean for food, and will take it to their nests to feed to their young. Many a baby albatross has been found starved to death, with only plastic in their stomach. Other ocean creatures pass pellets of plastic up through the food chain, ending up in fish and sea food that we eat.

Much of the garbage comes from small, remote communities that still follow the traditional practice of depositing their waste in the ocean, but that's not close to all of it. Some comes from being left on beaches, or dumped off boats, or from bad waste-removal policy or facilities. For many humans, out of sight is out of mind, so off in the middle of the ocean is not somewhere we think about much. That doesn't work with a system as complicated and interconnected as planet earth is, though. The harm we do to one part of the ecosystem will have effects across the world. We don't yet know what the full impacts of our plastic soup ocean will be, but it is unlikely to be anything good.

Last year Vancouver resident Taina Uitto decided that she wanted to cut plastic out of her life for a full twelve months. Though her singular actions won’t stop plastic from making its way to the garbage gyre, the media and word-of-mouth attention her blog has garnered has helped to spread the importance of her message and inspire others to reduce the plastic in their lives. Perhaps the attention will be enough to change corporate packaging policies, or perhaps not, but Uitto believes the effort it is worth a shot.

Sometimes refusing plastic meant giving up certain items, such as beverages in plastic bottles, clothing with plastic tags, and most convenience items. At first, Uitto focused a lot on what she would have to give up, but she insists that it was no deprivation. “My year quickly became about all the things I was gaining. There is great abundance in going without. And convenience is NOT what makes life colourful.”

When going without wasn't an option, Uitto found alternatives. She used a toothbrush made of bone and boar bristles, her deodorant came as an un-packaged bar, and her cleaning brushes have bamboo handles. Along with her own cup, Uitto carries her own set of cutlery and take-out containers for restaurants, and even has a metal straw for if she buys a drink. Finding alternatives, she says, has been especially rewarding. “I have had to wake that little sleeping beauty inside called ‘creativity,’ which the consumption coma previously silenced.”

North Vancouver brothers Ryan and Bryson Robertson and their friend Hugh Patterson make up a research and exploration team called Ocean Gybe who went sailing around the globe to document the state of the world’s oceans. They visited many uninhabited islands around the globe and recorded how much garbage had washed up on the beaches. They would also collect all the garbage and flotsam from an area of beach on the windward side of the island and record how much and what kind of things they found.

One beach on Cocos Keeling, part of the Cocos Island chain downwind of Indonesia, was so covered with garbage that by the time they had 10 meters of beach cleared of only plastic sandals and bottles, the waves had already carried in enough to replace what they had cleaned up.

The young men of Ocean Gybe say that the plastic pollution in the ocean is probably too big of a problem to clean up. However, they haven’t given up the cause. “A ‘gybe’ is a movement that brings about change – both in direction and energy,” they explain. “This expedition is about redirecting the energy of humankind towards a sustainable future for our oceans. To achieve this, we will create awareness in every country we visit and inspire action in every person we touch.”

Uitto's refusal of all plastic is one fairly extreme way of doing just that; by living as an example, she hopes to help educate others on how to reduce their own waste. Ocean Gybe hopes to do the same, visiting schools and giving presentations which emphasize the need to reduce the waste we produce. With any luck, their message of reducing and refusing plastic will continue to spread, though change on an individual level probably won’t have the sweeping results our oceans need. Corporate plastic manufacturing is where the real change needs to happen.

Individual consumers do have power, though: buying power. If we don't buy plastic, eventually the corporations using it will have to alter their practises. The more pressure we put on companies, the better chances we have of making our oceans healthy again. Maybe I’ll even be able to eat seaweed right off the beach again.

Taina Uitto’s blog: www.plasticmanners.wordpress.com
Ocean Gybe: www.oceangybe.com

// Yette Gram

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com