Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The salty dumping grounds: plasticized Part II

[Here is the second part of The Dumping Grounds, a history of ocean plastics.]

An Earlier Voyage

In 1971 over twenty years before the Alguita’s first voyage, nearly forty years before the recent Scripps voyage into the Gyre and roughly twenty years after his own voyage across the Pacific in Kon-Tiki, anthropologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl with a small international crew made his way across the Atlantic aboard the Ra I, a papyrus raft-vessel constructed as a modern day experiment using ancient technology. On that first voyage, as Ra made its way from across the Atlantic from Morocco to just east of Barbados, Heyerdahl, commenting on the preponderance of oil-clots and other flotsam wrote “pollution observations were forced upon all expedition members by its grave nature…” [1]

Encouraged by interest in their findings by members of United Nations, Heyerdahl set off in the Ra II a year later prepared to record observations, and to collect samples. With oil lumps washing aboard at one point, the Ra II’s log reported that “the pollution is terrible.” A couple of days later, after encountering a plastic bottle, some rope, a can and other items, a log entry expressed shock at the degree to which remote regions of the Atlantic had become polluted by man. From the day of departure, wrote Heyerdahl, to the day they landed in Barbados, the Ra II was accompanied not only by lumps of oil, but also by plastic containers, metal cans and glass bottles. In closing wrote Heyerdahl,

“The present report has no other object than to call attention to the alarming fact that the Atlantic Ocean is becoming seriously polluted and that a continued indiscriminate use of the world’s oceans as an international dumping ground for imperishable human refuse may have irreparable effects on the productivity and very survival of plant and animal species.”

Plastics Overboard!

Years before Heyerdahl’s journey, Stephen Rothstein, then a University of California biologist, had discovered small plastic particles in the stomachs of Leach’s Petrels and nestlings captured on Gull Island, Newfoundland in 1964. Wondering why the petrels might ingest plastics, Rothstein wrote, “Before the occurrence of plastic particles, it is probable that nearly all such objects were edible. Thus, natural selection would not have favored petrels which avoided nonedible floating objects…[2] It seems this was the case with other marine creatures as well, as researchers throughout the early 1970’s and ‘80s cataloged the impacts of plastics on marine mammals, birds, turtles and fish. While plastic fishing nets, ropes and packing bands ensnared Neptune’s creatures, small bits substituted for food. Seabirds mistook plastic bits for prey, inadvertently feeding them to their young, as green sea turtles gobbled down plastic banana bags tossed off the side of a dock. Wrote David Laist, then senior policy and program analyst at the Marine Mammal Commission, in his testimony at the 1986 hearing on Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, “Animals which become entangled may exhaust themselves and drown, be slowed to the point of becoming easy prey for other predators, or unable to catch fast moving prey, or develop wounds and infections from abrasion of attached debris. Animals which ingest plastics may be poisoned or have digestive tracts blocked or damaged by plastics that are difficult or impossible to excrete, regurgitate, break down, or otherwise eliminate once ingested.[3] As a 1970’s teenager, the “Keep America Beautiful” decade, it’s hard to forget the heart rending photos of fur seals girdled by discarded plastic strapping, or young turtles and seabirds caught up in six-pack rings. By some accounts, a 1988 cleanup along a 1.8 mile stretch of the Texas coast turned up almost 16,000 six-pack rings[4]. I have a vague recollection of pulling six-pack rings from my parent’s trash after chastising them for carelessly throwing them away without first slashing them apart. There was growing concern that endangered marine mammals and sea turtles alike were adversely impacted by their encounters with plastic waste, the likes of which the Alguita had stumbled upon in the North Pacific gyre. Only the hearing to prevent plastic pollution took place ten years earlier.

One of the first suggestions proposed by Laist to improve the situation was ratification and implementation of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships or MARPOL Annex V, introduced through the International Maritime Organization by the United States and other countries. MARPOL is the main international convention dealing with release of pollutants by ships. Before MARPOL, there was OILPOL, an international convention adopted to prevent ships from releasing waste oil, back in the 1950’s, strengthened over the years to include releases of oily bilge water and toxic chemicals. Not until 30 years later, as plastic lines and nets became integral to the fishing industry, and plastic strapping and packaging of food items and other consumables became common aboard all sea-going vessels from the merchant marines to the world’s Navy’s did the international community recognize the need to control the release of plastics from ships as well. Ratification of MARPOL Annex V would ban the dumping of plastics into the ocean from all vessels, in all locations. There is some unintended logic to the progression from the early OILPOL to MARPOL’s Annex V, for oil is the precursor to our modern day plastics.

The Marine Mammal Commission wasn’t alone in calling for the ratification of annex V. MARPOL’s annex V was supported by a rare combination of organizations and federal agencies, including those normally in opposition such as the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Society of Plastics Industry. In his testimony in favor of ratification at the Plastic Pollution hearing, C.E. O’Connell, sounded much like today’s National Rifle Association’s dictum that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” when he essentially stated that the plastics industry did not pollute the world’s oceans, plastics users, including beachgoers, municipalities and the marine, naval and fishing industry did[5]. And they did - legally. Back in 1982, when the merchant marine fleet registered around 71,000 ships, and plastics had worked their way on board in every conceivable role, from the packaging galley food to plastic strapping, it was estimated that some 639,000 plastic containers were tossed daily[6]. And that estimate didn’t even include all the plastics tossed overboard by navy ships, luxury cruise ships, like the QE2, which serve as a luxury playground for nearly 10 million Americans each year, or the tons of plastic fishing nets and gear lost to the sea.

I inadvertently contributed my share back in 1989. After collecting winter flounder from the Narrow River, a seemingly clean river that cut through Narragansett, RI on its way to the bay, and finding them distressingly contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls I was eager to collect winter flounder untainted by coastal contaminants. As it turned out, EPA’s ocean survey vessel the Anderson, a converted Vietnam era Naval Patrol gunner, had a few unscheduled days that fall. We booked four days at sea, hired Mike the Rebel fisherman (he kept a confederate flag in the rear window of his truck, had long blond hair and a good sized tattoo on his bicep) and headed 130 miles offshore to Georges Bank to trawl for flounder. When the Anderson nearly jerked to a halt mid-tow, and the winches spun a little too easily, the loss of our net, along with the heavy metal doors that dragged along the oceans bottom became all too clear. We had just made our contribution to the hundreds of miles of ghost fishing nets drifting about or laying upon the ocean floor. Though I never would have tossed my Styrofoam coffee cup overboard, the episode didn’t register as an environmental catastrophe. The ocean was big and the net was gone. “It happens,” was all Mike had to say, that was why we brought a spare.

The thousands of lost fishing nets and lines are only part of the ocean’s plastic problem. Like early twentieth century coastal cities, merchant marines, cruise ships, navy vessels and fishing boats have looked to the sea for disposal. And why not? Aircraft carriers with crews of 6,000 sailors generate over 3 million pounds of trash during their six months at sea[7]. By some estimates, plastics, before any major efforts by the navy to reduce plastic waste, accounted for over 12 % of all waste generated on board[8]. That means over 300,000 pounds of plastics dumped in a six month period by a single vessel, in just one of the world’s navies. Up until 1988, the Navy estimated it contributed more than 4.5 million pounds of plastic to the world’s oceans[9] [insert volume analogy, e.g. # of coke bottles]. For far too many years it was common practice to dump trash directly overboard.

In total, just the amount of plastics dumped at sea from say, the 1960’s when plastics entered our lives in a big way through the mid-1980s (when at least those adhering to MARPOL Annex V quit dumping) is mind boggling. Particularly because all of that plastic is still with us – somewhere – today. We’ve contaminated the largest of earth’s commons, the oceans, with our plastics.

Considering this enormous tonnage of plastic in addition to that which has floated down rivers and out with the tides or with the sewage, left on beaches, blown from the decks of hulking garbage scows on their way to mega landfills in New York and New Jersey like Fresh Kills, Meadowlands and Pelham Bay, the recent encounters with a gyre full of plastic is sadly not surprising. What is surprising is that until now, no one really knew the extent to which we’d contaminated our oceans, and how that contamination would eventually come back to haunt us.

[1] Heyerdahl, Biological Conservation Vol 3 April 1971, 164-168

[2] Plastic Particle Pollution of the Surface of the Atlantic Ocean: Evidence from a Seabird, The Condor 75:344-366, 1973.

[3] Statement of Mr. David Laist Senior Policy and Program Analyst Marine Mammal Commission, Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, 1986 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation, Washington, DC Serial No. 99-47. P. 21


[5] Statement of C.E. O’Connell, President of the Society of the Plastics Industry, Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment, 1986 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation, Washington, DC Serial No. 99-47 p. 108.

[6] Horsman, 1982, The Amount of Garbage Pollution from Merchant Ships, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 13:167-169. Wastes in the Marine Environment, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, DC, 1987.

[7] Navy’s Shipboard Solid Waste Management Program, Ye-Ling Wang, 1997.

[8] A Float Solid Waste Characterization Study, 2008

[9] Clean Ships, Clean Ports, Clean Oceans p. 23

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