Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"We're Sailing Through a Quiet Sea of Plastic"

I wrote this post yesterday for the UK's Guardian Weekly, an awesome progressive journal of reports from around the world about everything newsworthy. Read it at this link or it's pasted below.

Monday June 8th 2009 - The Guardian Weekly:
Three years ago, environmental activist Josh Berry was on a sailing trip from California to Hawaii when he encountered the Pacific Trash Vortex – a huge patch of ocean-borne garbage thought to be twice the size of Texas. On UN World Oceans Day, he describes the sight of man-made garbage floating for miles on end and why he devotes his time to ocean conservation.

"2006. Day 14 at sea: this marks two weeks of nothing but blue waters, gusting winds, beautifully spooky white and grey albatrosses drifting across wave tops for hours on end. The horizon is always unbroken – nothing but ocean and sky – and we haven't seen another sign of human life for over a week. The last thing we saw was a supertanker near the California coast."

I'm on a tiny sailboat with two friends and we're sailing from San Francisco to the Hawaiian Islands, delivering a boat to its new owner. Then we start seeing it: plastic floating everywhere. Tiny, colourful, subtle, coin-sized chunks of plastic floating on the ocean surface all around the boat. For days on end the plastic does not stop. We're sailing through a quiet sea of plastic to Hawaii.

Today is World Oceans Day, an event celebrated all over the world by ocean conservation organisations to raise awareness and respect for the oceans. Kind of like how the card companies created Father's Day to sell more greeting cards, we've created this day to sell ocean conservation. This is the first time it is being recognised by the United Nations, which declares on its website: “The oceans are essential to food security and the health and survival of all life, power our climate and are a critical part of the biosphere.”
Our oceans are extremely fragile and in grave danger from industrial pollution, overfishing, runoff from megacities, floating plastic garbage and more. In many ways the ocean is our garbage dump, and it's evident in things like the Pacific Trash Vortex, a concentration of marine litter that's accumulated over the years from the convergence of currents and winds in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Located between two huge population and industrial centers – Asia and North America – this huge patch of ocean-borne garbage has been accumulating for years from currents and winds, depositing it mostly from land-based sources of plastic litter.
I've thought of myself as a surfer, fisherman, sailor, and a lover of the ocean ever since I could eat sand at the age of one. In 2006 I sailed to Hawaii with some friends to deliver a boat to its new owner – it was the voyage of a lifetime. One feels an intimate and overwhelming connection to the earth out there. There are no distractions of people, cement, or technology to help you forget what you are – just a tiny organism in a vast system of life. We sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean, delivering our fate to the whims of the world's mightiest ocean.

It's humbling and inspiring to spend weeks at sea under power of wind and sail and I was having a great time thousands of miles from shore, when I began to notice the plastic. At first it's indistinct and you don't really notice it because your eye isn't looking for it: tiny chunks of plastic floating everywhere. As if you were surrounded by millions of ants. But after a few days I began to take notice, and larger pieces of plastic junk – parts of lawn chairs, a wheel broken off from a long-lost toy, the cap to a tube of toothpaste, a broken hairbrush – all of it floating in the ocean, thousands of miles from human civilisation.

Researchers say that 80% of this garbage comes from sources on land. It simply gets carelessly discarded and ends up in the ocean, where waves and wind and sun break it into small pieces and ocean currents carry it out into this giant garbage patch.

I work in California and South America as a surfer activist protecting the surf and the coastal environment from pollution and development and these are interesting times indeed: industrial and consumer demands create ever-increasing loads of waste, pressuring ocean waters. There are more and more people living on the coast worldwide and, whlie the beach is a great place to live, and coastal real estate is more coveted than ever before, erosion and rising sea levels are becoming a reality.
Our civilisation is basically based on the one-time use of throw away plastics: instead of hunting and gathering, we now shop. And every time we shop, we accumulate plastic: a toothbrush; a vat of butter; a bag of chips; a candy bar wrapper; it's all made of plastic. All I can do is get the word out through my films, activist work, writing and campaigning to create this web of protection to conserve what surfers all over the world love: a pristine coast that supports the full web of life that the ocean gives us.