25 Jul 2017

Sailing through the ocean of plastic

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 25 July 2017

What better way to highlight the issue of too much plastic in the ocean, than setting sail on the ocean in a boat made of more than 200,000 plastic bottles?  Marcus Eriksen did just that.

His boat, made of plastic soda bottles, an airplane fuselage and old fishing nets and straps set sail in 2008 from California to Hawaii to highlight the problem.

Dr Eriksen is co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute. He spent 88 days crossing 4,000kms of ocean on his raft to raise awareness of the massive plastic pollution problem. 

He tells the story of that journey, and his journey from soldier to environmental crusader in his new book, Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution.

A plastic patch larger than Greenland was recently discovered in the South Pacific, and much of the waste is believed to have originated in New Zealand.

The discovery was made by a team of researchers led by Captain Charles Moore who spent 180 days at sea, trawling with a fine mesh net in order to discover the edges of the 2.5 million square-kilometre plastic patch, which sat around Easter Island and Robinson Crusoe Island.

Dr Eriksen, who first reported the rising plastic problem in the South Pacific, says this newest survey by a different team confirms his warning and he says the situation has worsened since 2011.

Marcus Eriksen

Marcus Eriksen Photo: Marcus Eriksen

He believes the answer lies on land, in design and at our river mouths – once the rubbish is out at sea it’s too late he believes.

“Mid-ocean clean up doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Moving to a zero waste, circular system would stop the problem arising in the first place, he says.

“Plastic is a good material, but the single-use throwaway stuff designed to be used once and but made of a material that is cheap and lasts forever is kind of nonsensical - those are the straws, the bags the cups. You’ve got to make sure everything is designed to be recycled.”

He says these oceanic confluences of rubbish are not really patches.

“The best analogy is to get the word patch out of our minds and think more about a smog, billions of micro plastics like a smog of our seas.

"A kaleidoscope of multi-coloured grains of rice, that’s how it looks as far as the eye can see.”

Dr Eriksen says much of this oceanic rubbish is comprised of the escape artists of one-use plastic – bags cups and straws. They blow out of bins, off tables and make their way into storm drains, streams and then the oceans.

His advice? Think before you shop and don’t buy products with packaging that can’t be recycled or re-used.

“Zero waste your life, your home, your office, your school then support the policies that make those things happen and that can set a scalable example for the world to follow – the faster you can zero waste your life the better off the oceans will be.”

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