Not so long ago, if ever I wanted to feel depressed all I had to do was leaf through my collection of boatyard bills. Now all I have to do is look over the side and count the bits of plastic floating by. Like a constantly unfolding traffic wreck, I can’t take my eyes off it: a plastic bag here, a drink bottle, a candy wrapper there. There is no end to it. Walk along the shore and even in a pristine New England town the highwater line is speckled with pieces of plastic.
Not that this is a new problem. I recall walking along the shore of an uninhabited Pacific island decades ago and marveling at the collection of plastic flotsam and jetsam that had washed up on its blinding-white sand beaches; I’ve seen similar things in many places since, to the extent that it has almost become unremarkable; so ubiquitous that you become desensitized. I’m not sure why there has been a sudden escalation in awareness of the awful things we are doing to the oceans and, by extension, the planet—perhaps the videos of animals and birds entrapped in our garbage?—but it’s certainly timely. And we sailors, with our passion for oceans, lakes and waterways in general, should be more concerned than most. It’s not just the fishing net around the prop or the plastic bag sucked into your engine water intake; it’s about the quality of life in an environment we should be cherishing.
If you need evidence as to how far this blight has spread, Volvo Ocean Race competitors took samples of water for scientific analysis from points around the globe. Of the 68 samples collected, only two—from the Indian Ocean south of Australia and the South Atlantic east of Argentina—showed no evidence of microplastics, the broken-down particles of plastic that are finding their way into the ocean food chain. We know that this cannot be a good thing, but we don’t yet know just how much of a bad thing it is, for science is running to catch up with this developing story and the longterm effects have yet to be discovered.
The plastic waste that finds its way into the ocean—up to 2.4 million tons each year—comes mostly from Asian countries. There is a quietly scary interactive map at oceancleanup.com that pinpoints the sources. No matter where it originates, the floating waste ends up in one of the five great ocean gyres, where it collects into vast “islands” of plastic. There it is degraded by sunlight and friction into the tiny particles that find their way to the deepest parts of the sea.
With plastic production accelerating by the year, it’s going to take a massive exercise of international will and cooperation to get any kind of action on this approaching calamity. Fortunately, unlike climate change, it’s a non-partisan issue with no political dogs in the hunt, so something may actually happen. In the meantime, we can all cut back on packaging and single-use plastics, support plastic bag bans, and lobby our yacht clubs and favorite waterside bars to do away with plastic straws, glasses and silverware. This is a growing movement, and each of us should do our part, however small.