“Microplastic accumulations appear more like a diffuse plastic smog”
We had an early departure through the narrow winding pass leading out to the beckoning deep-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. We tidied up all the running rigging and deck furniture. Then Bob and I hoisted sails after clearing the barrier reef.
Kalea was heading in a southwesterly direction at her normal cruising speed of around ten knots. The seas were relatively calm and we enjoyed the slow, gentle rhythm from the light two-foot swells that would pass under our twin keels.
We had been underway less than an hour, when Tucker began showing classic signs of seasickness — mild nausea and a general uneasiness. Captain Bob suggested he stay on deck and in the breeze, eat some dry soda crackers, and keep his eyes focused on the horizon. And lay off the rum. Jan came over to sit next to him and keep him company. Clara orbited close by.
I was keeping watch out on the forward trampoline, always on the lookout for a friendly pod of dolphins playing in the twin bow wakes or for a wandering solitary sea turtle lazily making its way across the immense ocean. It wasn’t long before I began to notice a few small floating and semi-submerged objects of varying shapes and colors resembling no marine life that I’d ever seen before.
Jagged slivers of red and yellow, small orange tubes, green balls and sections of cylinders, blue disks — the objects came in all sizes, shapes, colors, and opacity. I called Jack over, who was immersed in the interplay between a whole host of tiny sea critters he had shaken loose from the large blob of seaweed he had plucked from the sea surface earlier in the day.
“Hey Jack, come check this out.”
Jack broke away from his omnipotent stance over the micro community of disoriented sea dwellers, swept them back into the ocean with a flick of his wrist, and walked over.
“Plastic. I thought we might see some on this trip, but I didn’t think it would be this much and this soon.”
Julie had overheard our conversation and came up onto the forward trampoline to take a closer look for herself,
“Wow, look at all that!”
Paul came up shortly after, followed by Lua.
Jack explained to the group that in the world's oceans there are eleven gyres — massive slow-motion whirlpools covering large open ocean areas. These gyres are formed by steady wind-driven surface currents that are steered in predictable patterns by the planet's rotation and frictional forces.
Floating trash from around the world tends to accumulate at the centers of five of these calm, stable high-pressure weather systems, the five subtropical gyres, where it's hot and dry and where wind and ocean currents die down.
Plastic pollution idles there and gradually gets weathered and broken down into tiny bits, like the ones we are seeing here. By some estimates, these accumulations may contain as much as six kilos of plastic for every kilo of plankton in some locations.
Many other chemical pollutants and waste products from industrial society find their way out here as well.
One of the most well-known gyres is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an enormous vortex of plastic debris in the central North Pacific Ocean. We were in the South Pacific Gyre now.
Jack painted a sickening picture of giant ocean toilet bowls rapidly filling up with all of our industrial waste. And the plastic contents in those bowls could be there for a very long time.
Petroleum plastics, made from the petrochemical feedstock by-product of an oil refinery, are designed to last a long, long time. In fact, plastic is so durable that the EPA says every bit of plastic ever made still exists. That is one of the reasons why plastic is considered such a wonder material.
Most items that used to be made from glass, metal, paper, and cotton have been replaced by plastic, rendering them much lighter, more durable, and far cheaper to produce and transport. That's good. But that means this tough, floating, free-range plastic trash we are seeing out here can remain in the ocean for decades or even longer. And that is very not good.”
He told us that out in the open ocean, ultraviolet light from direct sunlight makes the plastic more brittle over time. Mechanical crushing from waves and interactions with marine life then break up the plastic into increasingly smaller particles — microplastics, smaller than a grain of rice.
But these plastic particles don’t continue to break down, like natural materials do. They don't quickly biodegrade and just go away. Rather, they break up into many more, much smaller pieces.
A floating bottle breaks up into hundreds of tiny microplastic particles. These either get ingested by fish and other marine life or they very slowly settle to the sea floor over long periods of time.
Jack explained that a single one-liter bottle could break down into enough small fragments to deposit one on every mile of beach in the world — never fully biodegrading, never completely disappearing.
Given the enormous quantity of these 'free-range' tiny plastic particles now present in the world's subtropical gyres, these microplastic accumulations appear more like a diffuse plastic smog, rather than a concentrated 'great garbage patch' floating in the sea.
“Most ocean pollution starts out on land and is carried by wind and rain to the sea. Once in the water, it accumulates there. Due to its low density, plastic waste is readily transported long distances from source areas and concentrates in these ocean gyres.”
Paul pointed out a mesh-like glob containing seaweed, a torn plastic bag, and some fish remains tangled up in it,
“That looks like a fragment of a fishing net over there.”
“Being in the restaurant business, it really concerns me, because I know some of these ocean microplastics are making their way high up into our food chain and onto our plates.”
“And you are right to be concerned, Julie. As plastics float in the seawater, they act as chemical sponges, absorbing dangerous pollutants like PCBs and DDT. These chemicals are highly toxic. They can act as endocrine disruptors and cause cancerous mutations. Also, as plastics break apart in the ocean, potentially toxic chemicals are released, which can then enter the food web. When fish and other marine species mistake the plastic items for food, they ingest the particles and pass toxic chemicals right up through the food chain and ultimately to us.”
Jack said plastics in the sea concentrate many of the most damaging of the pollutants found in the world’s oceans.
Also, some of the larger objects are consumed by seabirds and other animals, which mistake them for prey. Many seabirds and their chicks have been found dead from stomachs filled with bottle tops, lighters, and balloons.
“It is very upsetting, a real tragedy.”
Bob joined in on the conversation,
He found the whole situation profoundly heartbreaking. He told us that fellow ocean sailors and friends of his from all over the world have told him about the plastic bags and bottles, containers, plastic drums, polystyrene packing, polyurethane foam pieces, pieces of polypropylene fishing net, discarded lengths of rope, disposable lighters, tires and toothbrushes they’ve seen washed up on beaches.
They claim it is plastic trash that has been carelessly discarded on land or at sea and has found its way ashore by wind, waves, and ocean currents.
Many of the world’s pristine beaches have been turned into disgusting open landfills. He had heard scientists claiming that in a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, if we don’t radically change our ways soon, there will be more plastics in the ocean, by weight, than fish by the year 2050!
“I suppose we should not be surprised at how this has turned out. After all, we live in a deliberately wasteful, throwaway society that produces mind-boggling amounts of plastic waste every year, along with other garbage. The majority of plastic produced each year is consumed as disposable packaging. And almost 10 percent of that seems to find its way to the sea.”
Plastic is, no doubt, the ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern throwaway economy — a key component of a larger global Convenience Industrial Complex. Probably 95 percent of plastic packaging material is lost to the economy after a short first-use cycle.
That’s insanely wasteful and stupid, Paul asserted. But it's a very bad habit that will be very hard to change, because as any business person will tell you, nobody ever lost money making things easier or more convenient for consumers!
Not surprisingly, Tucker viewed the situation rather differently,
“I think that comedian George Carlin got it right. Haven’t you heard his great comedy monolog about plastic being just another one of Earth’s children? It may be why Earth spawned us in the first place. To make plastic! And when the accumulation of toxins kills us off in a few generations, ‘Mother Earth’ will be happy. So chill out, people; all going according to plan!”
Upon hearing Tucker’s callous and cynical commentary, Lua grabbed his hand and said to him,
“I think it is very sad that so many like you, Mister Tucker, have lost their sensitivity to the mystery, sacredness, and profound beauty of the natural world. Perhaps you are just too far removed now, insulated and isolated away from it in your noisy, filthy, chaotic cities — endlessly distracted by trivial matters and in pursuit of a fictional advertised world promising you ever greater comforts, pleasures, and fulfillment. You say you are a ‘rich’ man, but you are truly impoverished when you cannot see the real treasure before you and are not deeply concerned that it is being befouled and forsaken. Your manic drive for excessive wealth, status, and novel pleasures has made you a dark and cynical man. I feel sorry for you, Mister Tucker.”
Tucker yanked his hand away from Lua’s grasp and opened his mouth, ready to fire back. He did not consider himself a pitiful man in any way. Defending his bloated ego had always been an automatic knee-jerk reaction for him.
But something stopped him short this time. He just stared into Lua’s eyes, frozen for a moment, with his mouth slightly opened in a very odd shape. I could not see the expression on Lua’s face, as she had her back to me.
The two stared at each other, locked in a silent, motionless trance. A few moments later, Lua slowly turned away, and the spell was broken. She walked by me towards her cabin.
Just as she passed by, she glanced my way for a moment and with a faint smile, she winked at me and said,
“It’s okay, Mister Rico.”
And then she disappeared quietly into her cabin for the night. Tucker did the same. I could just make out the faint, soothing sound of ukulele strums coming from Lua’s cabin for some time following the incident.
And then all was quiet again.