Posts Tagged ‘Ocean plastic pollution’

The Plastics at SEA North Pacific Expedition is finally over, and Thom is back from sailing across the Pacific Ocean (he actually returned home on Nov. 13, but things have been busy here).

The dynamic duo, Thom and Alia, are back to work at Orizaba Farm’s new location in Portland, Oregon.  Stay tuned for updates on Orizaba Farm as Thom and Alia build their soil, connect with their community, and plant the seeds for a sustainable urban food forest.

But first, here are some dispatches from the Plastics at SEA expedition.

The website:

Thom’s writings from the expedition:

October 6 — “The Science of Caring for Our Ship”


October 9 — “Singing to the Stars”


October 19 — “When Fish Can Fly”


November 6 — “This Ship Never Sleeps”


Thom’s Bio:


He is in the Day 5 and Day 15 videos
http://www.sea.edu/plastics/video_galleryPhoto gallery:
Check out the galleries for Oct. 2, 6, 9, 17, 18, and Nov. 3 for photos of Thom

Thom on Helmoct14_header2oct26_header2


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(aka “Revenge of the SMURF”)

My family spent last Christmas at Gleneden Beach along the Oregon coast. The day after Christmas, my brother Ethan and I went for a run along the beach towards the sand spit to the north. As often happens during beach runs, we began collecting pieces of trash we encountered during the run. Although the Oregon coast has strong community participation in seasonal beach clean-ups and is kept relatively clean, it is still connected to the mid-Pacific garbage path via the North Pacific Gyre, and is perched along the margins of the world’s most wasteful consumer economy, the United States of America. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean basin, one long ocean current ride away, is the world’s most wasteful producer economy, China. Consequently, beach trash is unavoidable. It is really fascinating to see pieces of food packaging with Japanese and Chinese characters marking their point of origin, bringing into sharp relief the large-scale connectivity among the earth’s oceans and landmasses.

Whenever in the company of my younger brother, our conversations inevitably turn into philosophical debates. In this particular case, our habitual endeavor to collect beach trash provoked a discussion about the futility of this behavior within the context of our throw-away culture. We had some ingrained notion that we were “doing good” by collecting non-biodegradable plastics, batteries, and cigarette lighters from the beach and preventing them from killing or harming marine life. But now, all of the trash we collected will merely end up in a landfill, where it will continue to leach dioxins, BPA’s, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals into the surrounding soils and watersheds. These chemicals will eventually end up in the oceans in an altered form anyways. So what was the point? By picking up trash from “our” public beach, weren’t we just manifesting a “Not in my backyard” egotism? How is it acceptable to pollute everyone’s soils and terrestrial landscapes with massive landfills that are out of sight and out of mind, but somehow reprehensible to litter a public beach in plain view?

Nonetheless, there we were, merrily jogging along the scenic, “wild” Oregon coast, picking up trash, debating the meaning of life, feeling marginally good about ourselves (i.e., assuaging our consumer guilt) while despairing the trajectory of human civilization, and meditatively watching huge 20-foot waves curl and crash in chaotic break lines. Meanwhile, brown pelicans gracefully surfed the air rising from the wave crests, harbor seals poked their heads out of the surf to inspect the beach, and flocks of sandpipers chased the sea foam back and forth in pursuit of buried crustaceans.

Suddenly, I stopped. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Half buried in the sand, far up the beach above the high tide line, an unmistakable object caught my eye: a green cylinder of plastic mesh fencing held closed with black zip ties, about 1 meter long by 30 cm diameter. I couldn’t believe it (did I already say that?). I did a double take. Looked again. It was still there. I walked over, and with a hard, steady tug, I freed the object from the sand and shook it out, staring at it, my breath held, turning it over in my hands, inspecting it carefully. It was a SMURF1: a Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fish, in contemporary marine biologist vernacular. A SMURF is a device consisting of bundles of black plastic garden fencing stuffed inside a burrito-like cylinder of green plastic mesh and deployed on a mooring line in the ocean to mimic kelp and attract juvenile fish (i.e., “recruits”) in order to monitor their populations.

The hypocritical legacy of the marine ecologist.

A Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fish, filled with other plastic trash and debris found on the Oregon coast. This SMURF was deployed nearly a decade ago by yours truly, subsequently lost in a storm, and now ironically a conspicuous component of the plastic pollution littering the ocean.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2002, I spearheaded a research project at Oregon State University as part of my honors thesis. I was charged with monitoring the recruitment of young fish to reefs and kelp forests off the central Oregon coast. So I deployed a dozen or so of these SMURFs to mimic kelp fronds and attract young fish in order to monitor their activity. Within a week of setting the SMURFs out on their mooring lines, a large storm struck, tearing apart the mooring lines and scattering the SMURFs into the Pacific. In a misguided effort to understand how nature was working, I had inadvertently polluted the oceans with plastic flotsam, destined to scour the seas like abandoned “ghost” fishing gear for thousands of years.

Ten years later, the harsh and tragic hypocrisy of this reality was now staring me in the face from the surface of the very beach I was trying to clean. I suddenly realized that the oceans not only connect us to each other across vast distances of space; they also connect us to ourselves across time, echoing hollow reminders from our past washing ashore with the crashing waves. Whatever we put into the ocean will come back to us in time.

Alas, it was revealed that the Emperor has no clothes. And the environmentalist has been exposed as the polluter. In a twist of irony, I realized that I was as much a part of the problem as anybody else. Try as I might to create a solution by recovering trash and reducing my consumption, I am still deeply embedded within the materialistic throw-away culture that is responsible for creating the ocean garbage patches and ever expanding landfills. I could not cover my involvement in this problem with any invisible or imaginary fabric of environmental egotism, no matter how many pieces of trash I collect and divert from the oceans and rivers to a landfill (and thus ultimately to the soils and watersheds anyways).

When I was living in the mountains of Costa Rica, in the small coffee and dairy farming community of San Luis de Monteverde, I was at first appalled to discover that the people there dealt with their garbage by burning it. “Don’t they realize that burning plastics releases harmful toxins into the atmosphere?” I thought to myself in my hubris of perceived scientific enlightenment. But my academic elitism gradually gave way to a recognition that, in fact, theirs was a far more sustainable practice than the average American. For one, they produced an order of magnitude less trash than the average American. Second, they only burned the trash out of necessity due to a lack of municipal garbage collection services. And third, any garbage collection service, during the act of collecting and transporting the trash, would be spewing its own harmful toxins into the atmosphere, while merely moving the trash from location A, where it was “consumed”, to location B, where it could sit in a landfill for generations. Out of sight and out of mind unfortunately does not mean “rendered harmless.” Ultimately, the residents of San Luis were, inadvertently, making a decision of profound personal accountability by assuming some of the direct costs of their consumption (in the form of toxic gases released by burning plastics) rather than externalizing all of these costs and imposing them upon future generations or distant ecosystems and communities.

So, in honor of my dear friends and family in San Luis, I am writing to offer perhaps another solution to this problem. Let us end our “Not in my backyard” mentality. Let us cease throwing away our trash, forgetting or ignoring its fate the moment it leaves our private property in the back of an exhaust-spewing, taxpayer-subsidized, garbage collection truck.

For one year, anything that we cannot recycle2 or compost3, we will keep, in our house, in our own backyard, to fully recognize and acknowledge the costs of our consumption. This will be the Year of Atonement for Trash; the revenge of the SMURF. Since January 1, 2012, we have not thrown away a single item of trash, although we have regrettably recycled many. Thus far, four and a half months later, we have yet to fill a single compacted 6-Gallon garbage bin with the non-recyclable trash that we have accumulated.

1Marine biologists are very fond of their acronyms; at one point as a research diver, I was working for PISCO* on a CRANE project using BINCKEs and SMURFs.

2Recycling itself is not a perfect solution to the trash crisis and throw-away culture. Many experts correctly have relabeled recycling as “down-cycling” because it merely prolongs a product’s inevitable trip to the landfill by converting it to a lower grade product. Every recycled product will eventually end up either in the ocean or on the land as disposable trash. Another problem with recycling are the sheer quantities of energy and infrastructure required to power and run recycling facilities. Although the amount of fossil fuel energy required to recycle a product are generally substantially less than the amount used to manufacture the product de novo from newly mined materials, the fact that recycling demands considerable inputs of non-renewable resources should cause us all to question its long-term efficacy and sustainability. The sustainability mantra of the 1980’s – “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” – was written specifically in that order to emphasize the order of positive environmental impact for the three behaviors, from best to worst alternatives. Of the three, only reducing our resource consumption has a true lasting effect on global and intergenerational scales.

3The municipal composting of kitchen scraps and yard waste within the city is also a problematic issue, as the waste must be trucked miles away and managed in large piles using heavy, oil-powered machinery, with a commensurately large greenhouse gas footprint. It is then repackaged and sold back to the producer/consumer in plastic-wrapped bundles of compost. The only truly sustainable compost pile is the one sitting in your own backyard that you mix and turn by hand. At Orizaba Farm in Maine, we were able to recycle kitchen and yard waste from soil, to kitchen, to compost pile, and back to the soil all within a few hundred meters total distance. As renters in Seattle, this is not currently an option. Soon enough, we will once again have the privilege of tending the Holy Compost Pile.

*PISCO. Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans; a colorless or amber-yellow grape brandy produced in winemaking regions of Chile and Peru; a port city on the Pacific Ocean in southwest Peru.

CRANE. Cooperative Research and Assessment of Nearshore Ecosystems; a large, long-legged, long-necked, migratory bird of the family Gruidae.

BINCKE. Benthic Icthyofaunal Net for Coral and Kelp Environments; a small rubber nipple-shaped device, usually fitted with a plastic collar and handle, designed to pacify a young child by mimicking the feel of its mother’s teet; a colloquial term describing a baby’s pacifier.

SMURF. Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fishes; a diminutive, mythological, blue-skinned, forest-dwelling creature of popular animation culture.

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