Last night I returned from the 5th International Marine Debris Conference. The conference isn’t over yet, but I have an ocean to row (12 days and counting!) so I had to get back to Fremantle in Australia for final preparations. The conference was eye-opening, in the same uncomfortable and disillusioning way that Copenhagen/COP15 was.

Kamilo Beach, Hawaii

I had thought that plastic pollution was much less contentious than, say, climate change, but it seems that there is no limit to humankind’s ability to find grounds for division rather than cooperation. I was shocked to witness a hostile encounter between two individuals partaking in the conference, culminating in a rather personal attack on academic credentials. Come on, people, let’s focus on the issues!

“Disposable” plastics were also much in evidence at the conference, despite a statement that the use of such items had been minimised. I guess I have a different definition of “minimal”.

And the three main sponsors of the conference were Coca Cola, the American Chemistry Council, and the Ocean Conservancy. This made me raise my eyebrows, and a few questions too.

I don’t know what the final outcome will be, but the draft strategy was not a promising start. It focused mostly on cleanups and recycling, rather than reducing the supply of plastic at source. I had hoped that it would make some bold policy recommendations, but it looks like it will still be down to us, the average consumers, to show the way. If industry and government won’t do it, we will.

If you are interested to know the scale of the problem, here are some interesting figures (mostly gleaned from the Plastic Oceans website):

Artwork by Chris Jordan – a wave of trash

Chris Jordan states that 1.1 million kgs (2.4 million pounds) of plastic enter our worlds oceans every hour of every day. (This could be a conservative estimate. The Plastic Oceans site suggests that the figure could be closer to 5 million kgs.) In terms of sheer weight, that ends up equal to 3-5 times the hourly flow rate of the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (Thanks to Doug McLean of WWF-Australia for his calculations.)

Over the last 10 years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century.

Plastic production uses 8% of the world’s oil.  4% of this is actually used in energy consumption to make the plastic.

More than one million plastic bags are used, worldwide, every minute.

We are currently producing 300 million tonnes of plastic per year – about half of this will be used just once and thrown away.

To read about the tragic impact this is having on marine wildlife, see this article by Dr Wallace J Nicholls. Or if turtles aren’t your thing, how about the impact it is having on us?

So that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. With ever more plastic flowing into the oceans every day, we all have the opportunity to step up and take responsibility. For starters, I would take it as a huge personal favour if you would please never again use a “disposable” plastic item. I now have quite an arsenal of non-plastic items in my bag that enable me to avoid most “disposable” plastics:

Plastic reduction kit – water bottle, drinking straw, mug, and Chico bag

Stainless Steel Drinking Straw

Water bottle

Grocery bag

Coffee mug

Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your colleagues. Write to your supermarket and your city mayor and your state governor. Support city bans on plastic bags. If we all pull together, we can make a world of difference!

And if, after all of this, you need a smile, I highly recommend this short video on recycling – Flashmob style. You might not get this kind of reaction every time you do the right thing, but on the inside you’ll know you have done your bit to help save our planet.

Other Stuff:

Another smile: check out the Wipe Out Waste song.

Tomorrow it’s Earth Hour – please turn off your lights at 8pm for an hour, enjoy a candlelit dinner of organic yumminess, and thank your lucky stars that we live on such an amazing planet. You can see my Earth Hour video message here.

Fancy an adventure combined with an eco mission? You don’t have to spend 4 months alone in a rowboat. There are still a couple of crew spots available on OceansWatch sailing expeditions to Melanesia. Contact chris@oceanswatch.org to find out more details. I sailed with them in Papua New Guinea last year. Highly recommended!

43 Comments

  • Thanks Roz for this article about plastic. The oceans are filling up, turtles and sea birds ingest so much by accident they just die as they have no more space in their stomachs. OMG sponsored by Coca Cola, who must be one of the world’s biggest polluters and are moving at a snails pace to reduce their impact. That’s in-your-face corporate greenwash. Thanks for plug for crew. We just got sponsored by Eco-Tanka so lovely stainless steel water bottles for all the crew.
    Chris Bone, OceansWatch

    • CB, I am new to this Blog, and I agree with you, essentially everyone here, we have to be more careful with what we do with our plastics… The manufacturers can help – there are biodegradable plastics now, and in the volumes that companies like Coca Cola would buy them the purchase price difference would be minimal, and the disposal/recycling cost would be less, so it would actually cost LESS in the long run, so the Coca Colas, and their little brothers and sisters of the world can help too… BUT, BUT, somehow we have to get people, the “End Users” of everything to use common sense too – dispose of things, not just plastics, properly, or don’t buy them in the first place… Think Common Sense, Big Picture!

      • First off, most “biodegradable plastics” are hoaxes. I have a friend who puts one of each that comes his way into his (very active) compost system, and almost none of the items ever shows one whit of degradation, even months later.

        And I’ve read that some degrade into very small pieces of nonbiodegradable plastic, potentially making their way into the soup of irretrievable plastics in the oceans.

        I don’t doubt that man *can* engineer genuinely biodegradable plastics. Probably there are some on the market now–but I don’t know which they are. I feel sorry for any good actors in this field. It’s easier to avoid the frauds by avoiding all plastic packaging, when possible.

        • CS, I agree completely – most are hoaxes, and these “33% less plastic used” things are nonsense – 66% is still too much…

          But, as an aside – and this may be a hoax too – it just seemed “logical” to a point, I was just reading the other night about a “plastic” specifically designed to begin to break-down quickly when processed with glass recycling… That the standard glass recycling process – the water, chemicals and temperatures used in that process – began the process of breaking it down into its basic components – which it said were “over 95% plant based.” It said seaweed was one of the one of the plants used in this “plastic” manufacturing process, I don’t know if there were other “plants” – it didn’t say…

          BUT, aside from all this, Logically I have never understood the use of so much plastic anyway – especially in this day and age when We know of its long-term costs… In my Environmental non-profit, we are forced (because we like to think this way anyway) to look at the long-term cost and benefit of what we do – the initial cost being huge, but the long term cost being a tiny percentage of what people are paying now for our competition’s non-environmentally friendly services now, is a tough sale… No one, Including Governments, these days thinks long term – the world economy makes some afraid to think long-term… But the world economic situation IS EXACTLY WHY each of us individually MUST think long term… And Plastics are the same way… Plastics are NOT less expensive than Paper (Bags, Boxes and the like – which are also reusable for all sorts of things – We are the Ultimate Recyclers), Glass (Bottles, Jars and the like – and things taste so much better in glass) and Aluminum & Steel (Cans and the like) when all of these long-term costs of “Plastics” are figured in… But no one wants to think more than 15 minutes down the road, “So long as we get our groceries in the house easily when we get home – in these nice plastic bags, and have a nice cold drink in our lightweight plastic bottle – being too tired to lift glass or aluminum, Nothing else matters” type attitude… Scary – and narrow-minded, self-centered, small picture and STUPID to boot…

  • What a cool flashmob video 🙂
    Recycling- one step in the right direction! In Germany, you can even get recyclable plastic bottles with refundable deposit. But I still feel bad about buying such bottles…not to mention its production process. Sometimes, living a greener life seems like a ‘drop in the
    ocean’ …
    but Roz, thx for reminding and encouraging us over and over again
    that it’s NOT!
    Keep up the good work!
    All best, Cornelia

  • Is a steel bottle really that much more environmentally friendly? Sure it’s not a single use item (though at some time it will be discarded as well) but it probably needs a lot more energy to be produced and carried around. How does one analyse and compare the “total footprint”?

    • The steel bottle is refilled by the owner, using tap water or home-filtered water. So after first buying the bottle, the user is the one carrying it around. Compare this with using bottled water, which has to be resupplied on a daily basis, delivered by truck to the store.

      But the real point is not the CO2 emissions, but that it cannot be right to keep on manufacturing objects that have a useful life of minutes and yet have an afterlife of decades, during which they emit toxic substances.

    • The steel bottle is refilled by the owner, using tap water or home-filtered water. So after first buying the bottle, the user is the one carrying it around. Compare this with using bottled water, which has to be resupplied on a daily basis, delivered by truck to the store.

      But the real point is not the CO2 emissions, but that it cannot be right to keep on manufacturing objects that have a useful life of minutes and yet have an afterlife of decades, during which they emit toxic substances.

  • From American Samoa:

    Glad to share that American Samoa has banned the use of plastic bags. Local EPA has also refused to accept “biodegradable” plastic bags as a substitute. Stores now recycle cardboard shipping boxes for grocery containers. It works!

    From Pago Pago, John Wasko

    • Dianna, that is an amazing and beautiful plastic mural. I would like to “share” it on FB, but would first like to know to whom to give attribution … and is there a “story” published anywhere?
      Very Best,
      UncaDoug

  • Roz, You are an incredible advocate for change and I am honored to have you as a friend. Safe Rowing!
    xox <3 Dianna
    plasticpollutioncoalition.org

  • Slowly, I have come to the conclusion that it is a mistake to promote, or even speak of plastics recycling, as such.

    (1) Steel; aluminum; copper; glass; paper: These things can be recycled, and are.

    (2) In stark contrast, almost no plastic ever gets recycled in reality. At best, some gets repurposed as a feedstock for another (lower grade) of plastic item. And then we’re only talking about the subset of plastic types that is suitable; and then only the sub-subset for which there is a market.

    (3) To call it “plastic recycling” is to participate in the greenwashing of plastics; putting plastic on par with steel, aluminum, copper, glass, and paper.

    Note that I’m not as anti-plastic as this might sound. I love my Lego, and I do hold my nose and buy foods in plastic containers. (It all gets “recycled” or goes directly into a landfill where I live, and I think that’s marginally better than burning all oil as fuel.)

    I think if the idea is to fight plastic going into oceans, we should fight those plastics, and those pathways, specifically. This movement needs more focus.

    To summarize: If your goal is to discourage people from buying things in plastic bottles, stop spreading the myth that they can be recycled like aluminum cans.

    • I completely agree with you, Christopher. Recycling is flawed and inadequate. But (assuming that your comment is in response to the video) I was trying to lighten the tone a bit. I am sometimes in danger of despair, and the video gave me a much-needed smile.

      • Hey Roz,
        I was really interested to read your blog post your experience at the Marine Debris seminar. I’m completely in agreement with you that we need to work at the roots of creation that are shaping this plastic society we are now immersed in. Exchanging disposable products for “free from plastic ” reusable products is definitely the way to go, but educating people is where it starts and your doing a great job with your blog. We can also do this by working with the already established plastics that contaminate our oceans and lands and working with its inhabitants to recycle it, in so communicating the problem and how we can deal with and prevent it.
        I work for Uniqueco designs based in Nairobi Kenya, I hope you were able to see our work exhibited at the Marine Debris Seminar. We work to raise global awareness about the problem of waste plastics within the Marine world by creating products by recycling flip-flops! The project was founded by Marine biologist Julie Church whilst working on the Kenyan coast. Her focus was on working with Marine debris to create income, empower, and educate the local community and in parallel clean up the environment they live and the Ocean that surrounds them. All this achieved untilising the thousands of flip-flops that wash up from all over the world!
        The flip-flops collected are sorted, cleaned then created into products from jewellery, furniture, to towering animal sculptures being shipped all over the world. Just a month ago we were in the midst of a flip-flop Zoo with 30 life size safari animals in production heading to Canada’s TJ Max, and we are now creating a selection heading out to your part of the world to the UKs TK Max. It’s a really exciting time and the more we make the cleaner our environment becomes and the more awareness we create!
        Its unfair that the worlds rubbish becomes their responsibility of people living on these once unspoilt coastlines, but we hope through he work we do people globally will start taking responsibility for their own waste and recognise its global impact.
        Check out our website and facebook page
        http://www.uniqueco-designs.com/
        http://www.facebook.com/pages/Marula-Studios-UniquEco/138031272889241?sk=info
        You’re a great inspiration and I wish you lots of success with your travels and look forward to following your movements.
        Jennie Debenham

  • Dear Ms. Roz

    I read your article in Newsweek and frankly I do not recall anyone as self-absorbed; self-indulgent; and self-centered.

    I do not champion your treks across the oceans and see them as little more than your concerns and focus on yourself.

    Enough of the banal banter. You’re a grown up. Act like one.

    Grady Taylor

    • GT, Food for thought… It is very difficult to find OTHERS “self-absorbed”, “self-indulgent”, and “self-centered” without being each to an even greater extent than those you are finding these faults with, let alone to then take the time to write about it… You must think VERY highly of yourself… Remember “The Seven Deadly Vices/Sins” – Self Pride is one of them. You are doomed as a result…

      • Dear Richard
        Now you’re way off on some tangent that has nothing to do with the price of tea in China. For example, I see a bad person doing bad things to an animal or a child. I don’t have to be bad to see what is there for many to see.

    • GT, you are of course entitled to your opinion.

      I am not in this as a popularity contest. I am doing this because I want to do what I can to make the world a better place. I don’t expect that everyone will understand my motives, but that is not my problem. I am much more concerned with the precarious state of our ecosystem than I am with what people think of me.

      • Hey Roz, As soon as I came to your defense, dare I say rescue, above, I felt foolish… If there is anyone who does not need to be “Rescued” from a post-comatose “Forrest” or “Morrie” (Inside Joke, Folks) guy like me, It is you… Sorry for the knee-jerk reaction to the jerk who should have been kneed…

        • Oops, Post-comatose typo corrected here, “If there is anyone who does not need to be “Rescued” BY a post-comatose “Forrest” or “Morrie” (Inside Joke, Folks) guy like me, It is you… Sorry for the knee-jerk reaction to the jerk who should have been kneed…”

          • “Joy”, C.S. Lewis’ American, Divorcee, Wife, said it best when one of Lewis’ friends questioned her significant accomplishments rudely… She smiled, Looked him in the eye (At an Oxford Party) and said, “Was that intended as an insult, Or are you simply stupid?” I LOVE that line… GT you may take your choice of answers to that question of Joy’s. And Taylor was my mother’s maiden name – which is worrisome to me at all sorts of levels, but she would have been shocked at your public rudeness too!

      • Dear Roz
        I really appreciate your reply and I understand the reactions of your fans.

        I am just not sure I really see empirical evidence tied to saving the ecosystem by your dropping out and rowing across the oceans. The linkage is lost on me and possibly your non-zealots out there.

        GT

        • Then GT, Walks to raise money for Breast Cancer and other diseases, Marathons – where part or all of the monies go to a deserving charity or cause, Raffles and the like have no “Link” to the cause they are highlighting? Not a very Big Picture view it would seem…

          • Richard in DFW – to the contrary. No one is compelled at Breast Cancer walk-a-thons for example, to put their lives at risk. There is no linkage to someone’s personal quest for an endorphin rush by putting their life in peril and somehow that becomes a charity.

          • As someone who has had Cancer for 37 years, and hundreds of surgeries for it, I disagree… The challenges we choose to take on can be inspirations to others at all sorts of levels – which IS an endorphin rush for those of us with such challenges, doing something, anything we can to inspire others to take on a worthy challenge… It is one of the only “Gifts” that we can share. And as far as being compelled, it sounds like Roz is self-compelled to do something – as we all should be, and as far as putting her life at risk, please check out how many people (with cancer and the like) die in the process of doing something for others – such as walk-a-thons… They did it in spite of the risks to them, because they too wanted to highlight the cause important to them – regardless of the risks… No Greater Gift – Thinking of others first.

          • Dear Richard in DFW
            YOU are a hero because you have faced your challenges – challenges that we not voluntary but born of necessity because of your cancer.

            If I decided that I wanted to climb Mt Everest or row an ocean – that is totally different. It is a personal goal but at the end of the day – a choice. You are hero because you didn’t have a choice AND you persisted and are winning.

        • GT, since you admittedly are new here, apparently having only read the Newsweek piece, I’d like to invite you to spend some time coming up to speed on the community that has formed as a result of Roz’s efforts to spread ripples of awareness, inspiration and personal action.

          Start here http://bit.ly/RozBlogs, open May 2010 and read the comments on any of those posts. Or jump down to June 2009, July 2009 and August 2009 and see with your own eyes that there is a connection. What Roz does and says has impact.

          Perhaps we are self-selecting, but the fact of the matter is there are several thousand of us who agree with Roz. I believe there are not just a few of us who agreed with Roz before we discovered her.

          Enjoy the reading, and hopefully you will have a change of heart

          For the earth
          For humanity

          UncaDoug

    • Dude, seriously, you need to ask yourself why you even bothered to post that. Why be mean just to be mean?

      • Dear Margo
        You have misinterpreted understandably my posting. We all have experiences and I frankly feel that my breast-cancer-survivor wife after chemo and mastectomy is a true heroine. She didn’t ask for the figurative hand she was dealt, but quietly battled her disease with dignity and with friends and family.

        I just don’t happen to classify wanderlust at the same level . . .

        Sorry
        GT

        • GT, As I said above, I have had Cancer for 37 years and over 400 surgeries for it in those 37 years… As Morrie, in Tuesdays With Morrie, suggests, these horrible hands that we are dealt are Gifts to us – they show us what is important and what isn’t… Nothing heroic about it – we meet challenges because we choose to meet them, and if strong enough we can do amazing things – Beat Cancer like your wife, Keep it in check as I have done for 37 years, Row the 3 major Oceans of the world solo as Roz is doing, And make the planet better for our fellow man and future generations – as all of us here are doing, or should be doing. Roz, The order I just put that in was strictly random – Your physical challenge is beyond my wildest admiration and imagination. I could never do it – but I can do what I have to do to do what I want in life too… I just meant that we each have different challenges we must meet in life – some of our choosing, some not.

  • Aloha Roz! My mom LOVED your article in Newsweek, I’m gonna nab her copy as I haven’t read it yet. I think I remember seeing the sponsors of the plastic convention in HI. You are tough as nails for pointing that out. That’s the power of the individual, for sure-seems too many groups get married to the money which in the end turns into “hush” money. There are a variety of plastics that we just don’t need–we think we do, but we really don’t. That’s totally what we need to stop using. Unfortunately, though, in some areas of even the US we need to make sure folks have access to clean drinking water. THere are schools in Camden, NJ, where aging pipes mean the schools have to buy water for their faculty and students.

    So stoked you are doing what you are doing, and you’re doing it so well! Can’t wait to be reading about the Indian Ocean Row!!

    -margo

  • Dear Roz,
    As a circumnavigator on my 47 foot UNLIKELY I can only imagine the grit that it took to make that first landfall. Stay out of the Indian during typhoon season. Our time on that ocean was calm and row-able. Congratulations
    Reese Palley
    reesepally@aol.com

    • You’re right, Reese – the first one was the toughest one!

      Love the name of your boat! Often describe myself as an “unlikely adventurer” (short, unathletic, not so young) so can relate!

  • Roz attracts some strange trolls sometimes. I take heart in seeing the ignorance and spite out in the open. It is itself a form of pollution. A byproduct of a lazy era.

    I really think clean water and clean air are worthy crusades. Ones we all can generally agree on. When people see with their own eyes or, failing that, see in photos the pollution in our seas, there isn’t a lot to argue. I think almost nobody is deeply PRO pollution.

    I’m very happy to see Roz avoid AGW /climate change as a topic as I think that’s been far too politicized and full of self-serving and dubious science. Clean oceans on the other hand? Sign me up.

    I went virtually free of disposable plastics a couple years ago and was inspired to do so by Roz in part. In turn dozens of others have been inspired to make simple changes away from disposable plastics.

    It all sounds pretty rational and simple. We have quietly created a “new normal.”

  • Hi Roz. Much respect for what you do. The challenge we face is our culture is so addicted to plastic. It is like our addiction to oil, and to wean ourselves of this is no easy task. Good luck with ya row, and be great to catch up one day.
    Cheers
    Pete Bethune

Leave a Reply to Letsbenice2003 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *