It’s in the Bag

22 Oct

Photo courtesy of Rozalia Project

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 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. 


  1. Boba

    This should be the biggest ALARM on the earth. It is a criminal that we are doing against all live, not just marine live. It must be regulated only by a law, very clearly, changing everything, from packaging to waste management. Why we do not have 12 containers for separating each of the plastic types like Japan is doing?!
    Australia concerns itself as a big deal of a modern country and is not recycling even 3 of them. It all goes to dump. The government needs to decide to replace plastic bags with the paper ones. Really?
    This is not just a lack of a management, nor a luck of understanding. This is an attitude of “I Do Not Want To Do It”. Once we killed all of the Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) as a lack of understanding and stupidity. Today we are killing all live species, meaning we are cutting the branch on which we are sitting. The same with fishing and whaling.
    Tomorrow we are going to have empty seas full of algae and jellyfish. This is what we are going to eat. This is where we are going to have a swim.
    Tomorrow is actually today. A BIG ALARM ON OUR STUPIDITY AND GREEDINESS.

  2. george L. hart

    when hears reports of fish eating this stuff, and we eat the fish, well…stupid is as stupid does…people think this place is huge, look at the endless sea, and vast oceans. When I was in the Navy…we just deep six it! Well…not long ago, i heard NPR aired a show, about how people actually BELIEVE, there is no climate change! Well, there may not be, I doubt that, but we are slowly killing the golden goose, aka, our only lifeboat, in a dark, cold, and oxygen less space. I mean climate change is…well, just drought, famine, disease, that sort of thing, but when we lose the ocean, Just remember, when everyone is gone, perhaps the rats, and coach roaches can do a better job, of taking care of their slice of Big blue marble

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