My attitude towards plastic has drastically shifted during my time on The Swim. I joined the expedition not knowing much about ocean plastic aside from rumors that there’s a great Pacific garbage patch somewhere. Every Captain and mate laughed and told me that they had never seen a “plastic patch” crossing the Pacific or other oceans. (Understandable as the debris are very difficult to see even from the air with a drone) I had no reason not to believe them so I went along with the belief that the sensationalized “island” of trash was nothing more than a myth. I also thought that new regulations banning plastic straws and requiring customers to pay for plastic bags in grocery stores were a bit ridiculous and laughable. I always wondered though… what happens to all the small wrappers and packaging that I toss out and assume is disposed of properly? I soon found out.
After The Swim, I can assure anyone who doubts the extent of plastic pollution that it is very real and evidence was seen or recovered daily on our crossing. Though there is no “island” of trash like sometimes portrayed, there are accumulation zones where the density of plastic debris increases. These areas resemble a “plastic soup” where small pieces of plastic called microplastics gather with current, wind and wave conditions. In these areas, our net tows produced hundreds of plastic pieces within half an hour. This was extremely alarming to me because along with the plastic debris were prey items of larger marine animals including blue shrimp, jellyfish, plankton and squid. Prey and plastic in the same area provide for the possibility of poisoning wildlife and the potential for bioaccumulation through the food chain. Bioaccumulation is when a particular chemical or substance is found in low-level prey items and builds up concentrations in larger predators. An example would be
small fish have low levels of mercury in their systems. A tuna that consumes much small fish will retain the small levels of mercury from each eaten fish and build up a large amount of mercury. The same could be true for plastic fibres or chemicals that attach to plastic. During a swim in this area, I captured a jellyfish and piece of plastic bag. When compared to one another in jars the two were identical and difficult to tell apart. During the same swim, I mistakenly reached out to grab a piece of plastic that was actually a damaged translucent jellyfish. If I can mistake a jellyfish for trash then a sea turtle could easily do the same and consume my leftover broken down shopping bag. While swimming with Ben approx. 1500 miles offshore of Japan I found a ketchup packet, a wheel from a mop bucket, plastic bottle and plastic lid in less than an hour of swimming. I thought to myself if this a “low density” area then what does a “high density” area look like? The opportunity came when Ty
and I were in the dinghy a few weeks later around 1700 miles offshore. Surrounding the dinghy were many large plastic debris including a large fishing net, car floorboard insert, two buckets and chunks of styrofoam. With amazement and disgust, we removed as much plastic as we could but it never feels like enough. That feeling and the moments where debris floated inches past our grasp as we failed to remove them has taught me something. It’s a heck of a lot easier to remove plastic from the ocean before it ends up in the ocean. Plastic breaks down from UV rays, wave action and exposure to salt water. If we can prevent the plastic from entering the ocean we can stop the production of microplastics and keep fish and turtles from having plastic lunch. It can also prevent us from having sushi with a garnish of polymer fibers along with our wasabi (it’s actually just horseradish mostly- surprise).
I’m a convert to the plastic cause. Small sacrifices like losing straws or having to remember to bring reusable bags are well worth the inconvenience. I know some of my friends will hate me for saying it but the tree huggers got this one right. So in honor of their commitment to the planet and service to the eco-warrior cause I’m going to get more bags and two straws one for the ocean one for me… (kidding). I’ll probably forget to bring a shopping bag and can’t say I’ll yell at the smoothie maker for giving me a straw but I’ll do what I can. I will now see plastic trash wherever I am as if it were a thousand miles offshore and about to be eaten by Albie the albatross. Aside from habit changes, it is going to take some serious ingenuity and a change from business as usual to curb this problem. Some ideas that I find interesting are biodegradable plastic packaging alternatives, plastic eating silkworms/fungus, edible cutlery, marina/ocean drainage plastic collection (first line of
defence), open ocean farming (reduce the load on natural fish populations) and more studies on the worst types of plastics (styrofoam alternatives). None of these alone will completely solve the issue but together it’s a start. The future health of our ocean ecosystems depends on us understanding our effects and finding creative solutions. In conclusion, Maks has diagnosed me and I have plastic stress disorder; so I’ve got that going for me…