When you’re a thousand miles from land, used to endless skies and endless seas, there can be few sights more jarring than a plastic bottle or mooring buoy floating on the waves.
But most of the plastic in the oceans is less visible to the naked eye. Generally, plastic doesn’t biodegrade, but rather photodegrades, becoming brittle through exposure to the elements so that it disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces. In a way these fragments are even more insidious, as they make their way into the food chain lower down, meaning that the toxins accumulate to higher and higher levels as they move up the food chain until they end up on the dinner plate of the apex predator – us.
Other forms of plastic are even tinier. The research that solo rower Daryl Farmer is doing with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is into microplastics, such as the plastic beads that are used in many body scrubs and facial scrubs, and the synthetic fibres that come out of our clothes when we launder them. These plastics are being found all over the world, even frozen into the ice of the Arctic ice cap.
Another solo rower, Elsa Hammond, is aiming to raise funds for the Plastic Oceans Foundation, which is making a film to raise awareness of plastic pollution. So our teams are doing their bit to spread the word.
While there are various schemes that claim to have a solution to the problem, none have yet proved their feasibility, the main problem being that different plastics have different buoyancies and are therefore distributed throughout the water column, not just floating on the surface. While critics present their objections that leaves us asking – so what CAN we do?
The first and most effective thing we can do is to stop using so much plastic. About 80% of ocean plastic originally comes from dry land, where annually we produce on average 70 kg of plastic for every man, woman and child on the planet. In North America, that average rises to 109 kg. Much of that plastic is what we call “disposable”, such as plastic bags, drinks bottles, plastic silverware etc, that have an average useful life of around 20 minutes but an afterlife of years, if not decades.
And if we must use plastic – as many of our intrepid rowers do, in order to protect vital food and medical supplies – then we must dispose of it carefully. The Great Pacific Race rules state that no trash may be dropped overboard – it must all be brought back to port, ideally to be recycled.
When you hear of turtles dying because they’ve ingested plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish, their favourite food, it really does make you wonder what we are doing to our oceans.