Reflections from a Two-Timer

ExclusiveThe final chapter in a voyage through the Atlantic gyre.

It’s not what you think, but it is true that I go both ways.

I’ve just finished an epic three-point, five-month voyage that had me sailing from Brazil to South Africa to Namibia to Uruguay. We crossed the Atlantic twice, traveling some 9,000 nautical miles by sea in a rugged sailboat. Along the way, I’ve recorded the adventure – and trials – here at EcoSalon, sending my dispatches to our editor at all hours via satellite. For those of you who are just joining the saga, in addition to journalism, I work with an NGO called The 5 Gyres Institute that hunts the world’s oceans for plastic pollution in areas that no one else studies. We maintain a constant presence at sea, and this expedition completed the first two research transects of The South Atlantic Gyre sampling the ocean surface for plastic every 60 nautical miles.

Here’s what I can tell you right now: There’s a lot of plastic between South America and Africa that no one has ever talked about, and I’ve just spent 63 days at sea staring at it firsthand.

At home in the States, I listen to politicians debate the importance of bag bans in my hometown of Portland. I watch science organizations and universities that study marine plastic pollution fight for supremacy on the issue, along with various NGOs vying to be the dominant voice of the movement. It makes me ill. Out there, in the wide blue frontier, ego is irrelevant. The west coast of the United States, where the vast majority of people who work on this issue reside (and where their research vessels are moored), is roughly 1,400 miles long. But there are millions of miles of beaches in this world with plastic on them and 315 million square kilometers of ocean surface with particles of plastic stratified to the depths. Despite what we hear, it has nothing to do with islands of plastic the size of Texas. It’s a soup, not a tarte.

And it’s crazy, isn’t it? That’s what this job impresses upon me everyday – that we are crazy to be so careless and inconsiderate with a material so resilient and toxic. Yet reflection inspires me, because I’ve also witnessed NGOs, scientists and politicians championing the cause in an ethical, selfless, passionate manner. These people matter, and we owe them our gratitude. They have mine.

All of us, humbly or arrogantly, started using plastic in earnest about 40 years ago. As a global society, we are head-over-heels in love with the stuff. Widespread utilization of plastic started, among several reasons, as a way to help women get out of the kitchen – believe it or not, single-use plastic adoption has roots in feminism – but the result has become a pernicious addiction to a wonder material that no one can figure out how to handle once it’s used. And so, in 40 years, we broke the ocean.

That’s a lot of space to break. In terms of pollution vectors, plastic is just another threat, but it’s a big one and as far as the amount of people working on the issue, it’s the underdog in terms of ocean advocacy.

What is big?

It is difficult to really convey how much space we’re talking about. Until you two-time (yes, I’m a sea slut; I’ve done the North Atlantic, too), crossing an ocean by ship, it’s almost impossible to grasp. Flying over the sea doesn’t exactly do it. You need the unique vantage of being that person on the bow of a ship chasing the horizon endlessly for months on end. You need to leave Africa and notice she’s out of view within six hours – and you won’t see anything but light blue on blue or dark grey on grey for a month. You might spot a couple of albatrosses or storm petrels, perhaps the occasional whale or dolphin. But for the most part, you don’t see anything other than a color pallet study for 30 days. Thirty days is a long time.

With the exception of windless days when we can dive and make repairs or conduct additional research, we’re constantly moving forward doing at least 155 nautical miles a day. 30 days, 24/7 moving, 8-9 miles an hour.  There is nothing to hit, nothing to see, no one to meet, with one exception: every hour, we saw plastic. You can get remote as you want to get, and you’re still going to find plastic.

It is no exaggeration to say that we know more as a species about outer space than we do about our own shared oceans. We know it’s really big, so consider the size in the context of an additional ocean reality we now know: on average, there is a pint glass-full of plastic particles scattered over something the size of a football field with the occasional bucket, toothbrush, water bottle or bleach bottle on the 50 yard line tossed in. Over 315 million square kilometers on this planet, this is an almost incomprehensible amount of pollution.

While the media love to run Texas Sized headlines about the North Pacific Garbage Patch, which confuses the public about the true nature of this problem (and some NGOs too), our team and others working with us everywhere in the world are finding the same plastic everywhere – without exception. Density varies, but frequency does not.

It doesn’t matter who owns the issue. A global problem needs a global solution, and this is absolutely a global problem. We need to go beyond the North Pacific, beyond the USA-centricity, beyond the ego and the get. We must start engaging each other as a species, worldwide, and stop this madness made real by something as absurd to our true needs as mere convenience.

Editor’s Note: This is part 14 in an exclusive series. Voyage with Stiv and catch the latest each week here at EcoSalon during his months-long journey into the heart of the South Atlantic Gyre and beyond.