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Castle Kaneloon

Marine Debris: A Dilemma...

...of Planetary Proportions!

     An avid reader of Nat Geo I knew that whales ride planetary currents, much like commercial airliners ride the jet stream to save time and energy, as I knew Whales communicate using low-frequency emissions that cover great distances. I was also aware that one variety of planetary current, the tropical current, originating in the equator, flows north to the Arctic before cooling and then flowing southwards again to its point of origin before, continually but not perpetually, heading north again.

Ocean currents

     I also learned about the particularly explosive situation around the Pacific Ring of Fire and I accepted it as part of Nature's course. What I didn't know, and learned with surprise, was that the most isolated string of islands in the world, the Hawaiian archipelago, lost in the immensity of the pacific ocean and particularly sensitive to its ecological heritage, was victim of a distressing and alarming phenomena and one that is getting worse by the day: Marine debris!

I don't mean the organised, industry-scale, dumping of waste in the ocean by the countries ringing the Pacific. I'm not even talking about the nigh on million tourists that visit the Hawaiian archipelago every year. I am talking about something a lot less tangible and a lot harder to grasp and to combat, namely:

  1. The actions of ordinary people, you and me, in everyday situations, generating trash that finds its way into water systems, that flow into seas, that get carried away on gigantic planetary ocean currents, fuelled by tradewinds.

  2. The obscure and often misunderstood origin of Marine Debris. Non-recyclable, daily detritus from countries - as far apart from each other as Fukushima, Japan, continental America and Africa - is drifting ashore on the Hawaiian islands, literally decimating ecosystems, coral reefs, wildlife, indigenous species of albatross, seals, turtles and even Whales, through the intake of tyres, floaters, plastic combs, golf balls, plastic lighters and of course... plastic bags!

Did you know?

=> Turtles take plastic bags for their staple diet: jellyfish and that dolphins play with them by slipping them onto their back fins. Only the Dolphins know what they must be thinking of when they play with these plastic bags?

=> Did you also know that reputedly indestructible ocean-borne plastic trash actually does degrade? It does but that's not a good thing either because according to one study, degrading plastics release potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A into the seas!

What to do, what's being done

     According to reports, between 10 to 20 tonnes of debris comes ashore in certain places every year and after 4 years of work, one association alone collected 90 tonnes of refuse from 9 miles of shoreline on the Island of Hawaii. Between 2001 and 2004, sources report a total of almost 300 tonnes of debris was collected from the Pearl and Hermes Atoll. In 2006, NOAA removed approximately 126 tonnes of debris and are surveying some 711 sites, on different islands, where an estimated 250K tonnes of debris lies awaiting collection, notably on the windward side of the islands, where fishing equipment, nets, floater, etc., comprises the bulk of the debris.

The problem is that it just keeps on coming and apparently there's nothing that can be done to stop it. Even if we do convince the countries around the Pacific ring to stop throwing rubbish into the seas and oceans, there is so much debris in there. So many small things, like the microbeads in cosmetics, that escape all surveillance but that will continue finding its way into the stomachs of animals, such as the Laysan Albatross, for decades to come and while adult birds have the ability to regurgitate the debris, chicks die with their stomachs (their proventricular bolus to be exact) full of plastic objects.

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle...

...and "Kuleana", Hawaiian for "Responsibility". So do I feel responsible? Yes, I do! Even though Hawaii is 12 000 kilometres away, distance does not diminish, in anyway, the planetary dimension of the problem. Mass production for mass consumption with little or no concern of how to treat the waste generated by the drive to respond to global demands, the equation "increased production = increased consumption = a thriving economy!" being the de facto excuse when countries are asked, "Why?"

Trash Vortex
(courtesy of Greenpeace)

     So what does it mean to "Be responsible, reduce waste, reuse and recycle"? Unfortunately, today it's more like "Reduced responsibility, reduced reuse, and reduced recycling" because apart from certain isolated cases and some well-intentioned planetary gatherings, like Cancun, Montreal or Kyoto, nothing is being done on a global scale.

Today individual countries need to start working - and working seriously - on a local scale, following which their example may be used, regionally as an example for others and then maybe, just maybe shedding more light on stories such as the Hawaiian islands' Marine Debris initiatives may act as an catalyst for others in other regions affected by this disastrous phenomenon. Remember, someone once said, "We didn't get this planet from our parents, our children are lending it to us!" Do you want to leave this place in a worse state as you found it? If you are a businessman, does it make sense to leave a business in a worse condition than as you acquired it? That doesn't make corporate sense, so please don't say there's nothing any one individual person can do about it. There is! Start by thinking twice before dropping plastic wrappers, lighters - or that paper cup your favourite frappuccino came in - on the street... you never know where it will end up!

©N.Richards 11/2009