Published – Asia-Pacific Boating
©2016 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert
From great yachts to small sailing dinghies, boat builders sell the idea of the beauty, freedom and adventure of the world’s oceans and bays with hulls slicing through electric blue waters and nearing exotic ports of call, but what is never shown in those ads or mentioned in sales pitches is how polluted many of these waters are. For mega-yacht owners, it may be harder to notice the detritus of 6-billion people floating by, but for sailors hiked out on the rail in Thailand’s Gold Cup or in the Sydney-Hobart Race, it’s easy to spot the lost flip-flop or empty water bottles surfing past on the bow’s wake.
At the site of the Olympic sailing events in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, many scouting parties and the international media immediately took notice of the floating refuse at the site of the sailing venue. A similar situation occurred in Qinngdao before the 2008 games, however the Chinese government made a concerted effort to clean the harbor and the sailing events were spectacular. However, it shouldn’t take a major global sporting event for governments and boaters to recognize that this is a serious issue, only to then forget about the problem once the gaze of the international media turns away.
288 million tons of plastic is produced each year and much of it ends up in our rivers, lakes and eventually the oceans in the form of product packaging, grocery bags or even micro-beads used in cosmetic soap products. Much of the plastic is collected in landfills and a certain small percentage is recycled, but by many estimates, 10% eventually makes its way into the ocean – that’s 28 million tons of plastic each year. A recent study conducted over six years has estimated nearly 5 trillion pieces of plastic are currently floating in the world’s oceans, with most coming from food and drink packaging.
The Pacific Ocean holds the most notorious collection of plastic refuse and it spans thousands of miles. Known as the Pacific Garbage Patch, currents and counter-currents carry floating plastic waste from Asia and the Americas which are then eventually trapped it in a giant “null” zone between Japan and the United States. Described by some as a “plastic soup,” these patches are common in all the world’s oceans, a simple analogy would be to the trapped garbage and plastic in the corners of quays and piers at marinas the world over.
Lost fishing nets and plastic bags are the most devastating garbage for marine creatures and wildlife. Dolphins, seabirds and even whales are regularly caught up and entangled in these knots of plastic that become deathtraps for these unsuspecting sea creatures. The damage isn’t limited to the top tiers of the food chain either. Plastic micro-beads used in many cosmetic cleansing products are coursing through the world’s sewers, into waterways and eventually the oceans and then the human food chain. Numbering in the trillions, these micro-beads are ingested by fish which are then eaten by other creatures and then, perhaps, by humans.
Five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, globs of raw oil are still being found by local fishermen in the meat of highly sought after redfish and trout in waterways nearly 100 miles away from the spill site. The realities of modern society with industrialization occurring across the globe has a very real expense and not all of it gets buried under landfills – our oceans are increasingly showing the strain and like the atmosphere – it doesn’t observe national boundaries.
Unique solutions to this problem are coming from multiple directions. A twenty-year old Dutch student, Boyan Slat, developed a system that uses the ocean’s currents to pull in floating plastic into a collection point. With floating garbage spread over millions of square kilometers and up to 13,000 individual pieces in one square kilometer, Slat realized that it was inefficient to use boats to “trawl” for plastic. He devised a system that would use booms to funnel floating plastic towards an anchored collection point for eventual recycling and crowdfunded $80,000 to build a prototype in only 15 days. In 2016, the first prototype will be anchored in the waters between Japan and South Korea and the collection booms will span 2000 meters with a mission period of two years.
Larger scale attempts at curbing the billions of plastic micro-beads in cosmetics and soaps are happening much more rapidly. Initiated by social media campaigns, legislation banning their use is already occurring in the United States and Europe and has led to a few major corporations to unilaterally phase out their use in their products and look for alternatives. A start-up in San Francisco is working on microbeads developed from a naturally occurring plastic produced by bacteria. This plastic is capable of dissolving in marine environments in less than a month and may become an ideal replacement.
With education and awareness the key to starting to seriously tackle this global issue, the Race for Water Foundation is seeking to do just that. Ambassadors for the organization are in the midst of a 40,000 nautical mile expedition in a MOD 70 trimaran to assess the extent of five trash vortexes in the world’s ocean and includes stopovers in 13 coastal nations. Upcoming stops include Shanghai and Tokyo as well as multiple islands throughout the Pacific. So far from the eyes of your average person, organizations such as Race for the Water are crucial in bringing their findings to students the world over.
After documenting a trash vortex in the South Pacific, the expedition’s scientific advisor, Frederic Sciacca described the conditions on Easter Island, “It is desperate to see the amounts of plastic waste washing up on these remote island paradises. The quantities of waste were incredible. These beaches were simply littered with plastic waste.”
In Australia, which has a sizeable environmental movement, the battle has been on protecting the expansive Great Barrier Reef. Stretching over 2,300 kilometers along the Australian coast and protected as a World Heritage Site, organizations such as Fight for the Reef are helping to keep these diverse biosystems and natural wonders free from pollution and are now battling massive dredging projects for a coal port only kilometers from the Whitsunday Islands.
This is a global issue and boaters, yacht owners and their crews all have a stake in protecting our waterways. The idea of boating through a plastic soup to beautiful destinations only to find coastlines covered in plastic is not the romantic adventure one has in mind when untying those docklines. But as awareness builds and yacht builders and owners begin to work in conjunction and team up with these dedicated organizations, the first steps in keeping our cruising grounds beautiful are within reach.