June 7, 2010 – At Sea, 43º 44’N, 124º 51’W
By Herb McCormick
For many weeks now, at least since crossing the equator on our northbound run from South America back to Seattle, we’ve occasionally permitted ourselves a glance (and a wince) at the final stretch of the voyage from Northern California back to the Pacific Northwest. Let’s put it in perspective by posing the problem in a popular multiple-choice question format, so you, too, can play at home! When skipper Mark Schrader and his crew delivered Ocean Watch home from Mexico shortly after her purchase two years ago, was the hop from San Francisco to Cape Flattery at the mouth of the Straits of Juan de Fuca a) heinous, b) wretched, c) awful or d) all of the above?
Why, of course, the answer is “d!” You’ve won a case of Dramamine!
So, yes, we knew that this late, crucial trip could well be conducted in fierce headwinds and stacked seas (just like the last time) and might possibly be an exercise in pain and misery (ditto). We were ready for it, poised for it, steeled for it.
And guess what? We lucky fellows have seen none of it.
Today on Ocean Watch, sliding nicely up the coast of Oregon, the sun is shining, the ocean is a sparkling blue, and the potentially nasty Northwest waters are doing a fine imitation of tropical seas. By mid-afternoon on Monday, the crew had closed to within 150-nautical miles of the opening of the Columbia River, which we’ll enter sometime tomorrow before proceeding to our next port of call in downtown Portland.
Happily, with little drama to report, we have the time and space to write about other matters. Unhappily, we’ll use the opportunity to address an unpleasant but growing and ubiquitous problem: plastic in our seas. The bad news, naturally, is that plastic garbage is absolutely everywhere, along our coastlines, inside sea life, in spinning gyres covering uncountable miles offshore on the deep blue ocean. The good news is that people are starting to notice and care, and one of the leaders of that group is a San Francisco sailor, formerly from Spain, named Manuel Maqueda, the co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
The logo for the coalition is a fellow with a plastic bottle for a heart silhouetted inside an upside-down outline of another plastic bottle, which bears a remarkable resemblance to a clenched fist. Remember the old rallying cry of the 60s: Fight the power. The coalition’s message could well be very similar: Fight the bottle.
“The problem we have on our hands is that we’re using a material that is toxic and takes hundreds of years to disappear for single-use objects, objects that are designed to be used for seconds or minutes,” said Manuel during a visit to Ocean Watch last week. “Globally, that’s amounting to catastrophic consequences. Just in the U.S. alone, each week we discard 500 million plastic bottles, just for water. That’s enough to go around the planet five times. One week. Just in the United States. Just for water.”
Manuel formally launched the Plastic Pollution Coalition with three partners after a summit, of sorts, at the Google campus with a host of like-minded individuals and organizations. Today, the coalition is about a hundred strong. “I’d been looking at our inability as a sustainable society to deal with global problems,” said Manuel, who holds a masters degree in macroeconomics as well as a law degree, and has been working in social media and on the Internet for over five years (sailors should have a look at his clever, very useful iPhone App called Bloosee – an interactive Wikipedia-style information source for boaters).
“We’re just not able to do that. So I started to focus on emerging and future environmental issues to see if we could be quicker in identifying and solving problems.”
As we witnessed time and again in our travels, plastic is everywhere: we saw a few water bottles float past just this morning. It’s also insipid, and plastic particles are now part of the ecosystem, right down to the seafood we eat and the beaches we love. “It leaches chemicals into everything,” said Manuel. “It fragments into really tiny filaments and is encroaching everywhere, and yet it doesn’t stop being plastic. It’s still synthetic and it’s still toxic.”
Naturally, Manuel is routinely asked about the Pacific gyre, the “garbage patch” of plastic and debris that is spinning endlessly in a wide circle north of Hawaii. “It’s not an island, it’s an area of higher concentrations of plastic. But tiny fragments of plastic are circulating in every ocean; 93% are tiny, you can’t see it, but you can filter it out through nets. It’s on every beach. It’s everywhere.
“For me,” he continued, “the real garbage patch is when I go to the store. The gyre is an entry point to understanding the issue, it’s a manifestation of how bad the problem is. But it’s not the issue itself.”
No, the big problem is hidden in plain sight, in every American home. Open your fridge, urges Manuel. Look in your bathroom. “After people become more aware, they walk through their homes and are shocked. But more and more people are waking up from this plastic matrix and realizing how big the problem is.
“The solution is finding wise uses of plastic. We cannot continue to use it for disposable products. We have to move away from plastic water bottles, bags and straws. We need to cut down on single-use containers. It’s about changing habits and finding alternatives, like reusable shopping bags. The thing is, there’s a lot of satisfaction when people begin to give up on their need for plastic.”
Aboard Ocean Watch, we all have our own water bottles we’ve been refilling constantly and using for the last year (for fresh water we have a water maker that desalinates sea water), and when we provision, we have a big stack of cloth bags we lug to the grocery store. It’s a start. So what are you doing or can you do in your home? Maybe, when it comes to plastic, Mick Jagger was wrong. Maybe we can all get some satisfaction after all.
-Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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