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October 2008

What about floating Plastic Waste in the Pacific

When I used the Internet at Kiritimati Island to check my emails, I found several asking if we were seeing a lot of plastic trash floating along our route down through the Pacific.  It seemed strange because both Larry and I had commented on how little flotsam and jetsam there seemed to be compared to previous passages through this area. By the time we anchored at Kiritimati, we’d counted five pieces of plastic spotted during 3100 miles of sailing. Due to unusual weather, and to diverting around the edge of Hurricane Boris, we’d gone farther towards the center of the Pacific High than we might otherwise have chosen. Remembering the collection of flotsam we’d seen in the Azorean high (fishing buoys, an industrial sized stainless refrigeration cabinet, wooden fish traps) we’d expected to see more here. When we reached our first destination, the 27 mile long coral atoll that is the largest single landmass in all of the country of Kiribati, we were befriended by Henry Genthe, a Marine biologist and writer who is married to a local woman, Teretia and has a 4 year old daughter Reaua who already speaks two languages fluently. Henry has been working and studying around these atolls for many years.  He and I took a detour to the windward side of the atoll one day to look at the reef there. He confirmed my impression that there is less plastic trash floating up onto the atoll then there was 20 years ago.  I meant to mention this pleasant lack of plastic junk in our last newsletter.  I didn’t and then in Apia, Samoa, I got three more emails on the same subject, but one of them included links to three articles that have appeared one website saying there is so much plastic floating in the Pacific that there is now an island the size of Texas with trash so thick even big ships are getting stuck in it. I feel this article is either a hoax or written by an alarmist who has not actually done his research. (Just one example of errors found on reading the source article - There is no part of the Pacific “as large as the state of Texas” that is completely free of ships traffic, nor un-traversed by airplanes or unseen by satellite surveillance as the web article states.) Perhaps photographic evidence might help the plastic island theory hold some water.

Yes, any plastic trash dumped at sea is too much; any plastic bag blown off shore will float around for quite a while and can pose a danger to sea life. But the majority of plastic items do eventually grow barnacles and other forms of sealife and sink and efforts worldwide to reduce plastic waste, including large fines lodged against ships that can not prove they have returned their non-biodegradable garbage to a proper shore station, seem to be paying off. Since leaving Kiritimati we have sailed another 1600 miles, and seen two more pieces of plastic floating at sea, one a grain sack floating just at the entrance to Apia Harbor.  What do we do with our plastic waste? We try to remove as much packaging as we can before putting provisions on board. Offshore, we stuff every small piece into larger plastic containers (it’s amazing how many plastic shopping bags or zip-lock bags will stuff into a jam jar) then carry them ashore when we reach our next port. In Kiritimati there is a mostly successful recycling program being carried out and youngsters are paid a few pennies a pound for plastics and aluminum cans. Samoa (Western Samoa that is) has a major clean up and recycle campaign going also. American Samoa is behind the eight-ball on this one at the moment.

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