Set­ting Sail

SAIL - - Contents -

The Ed ru­mi­nates...

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 be­came 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. s

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