We’re on a six-month voyage across the Pacific to test for microplastics in remote archipelagos where this type of data has never been formally recorded, in partnership with the 5 Gyres Trawl Share Program.
Eighty-five miles to the west of Tahiti, Tim was the one who spotted it first: plastic — or rather microplastic — intermixed with bits of natural debris that had made their way into the “manta trawl" deployed off the stern of our sailboat.
Even out here in the wide open blue - where Raratonga lay two days ahead and Tahiti two days behind - humanity’s bits of commercial convenience have made the ocean sick.
When our six-month voyage - dubbed Eat Less Plastic - set out in May from California, on a path toward Auckland, New Zealand, the goal was to not only test for plastics encountered along the journey, but also gain insight into ways that plastics are affecting South Pacific communities in some of the world’s smallest corners.
Though weeks still remain before our sailboat, Today, secures its dock lines in Auckland, the results thus far have been potent and humbling:
We need to make changes. Now.
On idyllic beaches through Tonga and Fiji, plastic waste from industrialised nations is washing up on the shorelines.
This was largely expected when we departed Los Angeles, considering the same problem is plaguing Hawaii, where our non-profit sponsor Love The Sea is based on the island of Maui.
Perhaps the largest surprise has been realizing how much of the plastic threat isn’t foreign, but rather homegrown.
Tim Lara, whose company Hawaiian Paddle Sports runs eco-tours in Hawaii, said “For years villagers in places like Raratonga have been burying or burning their garbage. Then all this stuff started showing up in packaging and suddenly that doesn’t work anymore.”
In Raratonga, where we toured a landfill, we were told the ground was pretty much full and there’s nowhere to put the trash. We spoke with elders in the Tuamotos, and offered all the different alternatives to simply gathering and burning their plastic, which is the current means of disposal.
Lara said: “A lot of these indigenous cultures really got blindsided by this stuff. Really, everyone did.”
In Western nations like the UK and US, where there’s still more space than people who live there, the ability to move waste to somewhere out of sight is a geographic luxury.
Considering the waste isn’t right in our face, or literally outside our door, it’s easier to also push it out of mind and kick the can toward the future.
As we’re rapidly starting to realize, however, that future is getting closer.
Microplastics are entering our food chain and have infiltrated our tap water. It’s in everything from beer to our very own bowels, and there’s a growing fear that the next generation will live on a plastic planet.
For Phil Somerville, the captain of this voyage, that’s something he just can’t accept.
A lifelong surfer and sailor from New Zealand, Somerville said that the ocean is “life force”. The thought that his children and future generations won’t be able to enjoy it as he has is what’s led him to spearhead this mission.
Since casting the bowlines off in Los Angeles, he’s petitioned the French Polynesian government for a ban on plastic bags, and met with non-profits from Niue to Nadi to help clean the beaches, lobby for change, and educate school groups on alternatives to plastic, so it never shows up in the first place.
While the world is finally starting to wake up to the real severity of this crisis, our crew agrees there’s been enough alarm, and it’s time to start finding solutions.
That search for real, actionable progress led us to seek out Adrian Midwood as we brought the boat into Tonga. Midwood’s organization, Ocean Ambassadors, has been taking bold, innovative steps to take the plastics plaguing these waters and put them back to good use.
In one of their most successful campaigns, the group worked in Fiji to install a commercial grade processor, which can take 1kg of mixed plastics and convert it to 1 liter of oil.
The process consumes about 1 kWh of electricity, but Midwood notes that with 1 liter of oil you can generate up to 10 kWh, so you gain about ten units of energy.
In another move meant to power individuals, they’ve also launched a Pirate Pack program where members get boxes of zero waste products delivered right to their door step.
We’ve also partnered with conservation groups like Bags Not and Algalita South Pacific, and received word while sailing across the Pacific that the New Zealand government passed a ruling in August against single use plastic bags.
While there’s no doubt that plastic pollution is a threat of global proportions, this sail has taught us that progress is born not solely from legislation, but action on a small, individual level to the point where together we really can make a difference.
It’s empowering and exciting to see how many people have been galvanized, inspired, and committed to change over the course of our six-month voyage.
A school we visited in Raratonga has agreed to eliminate single use plastics from all operations on campus, and hundreds of people have joined us in cleanups across the South Pacific.
As we prepare to leave Fiji for the crossing to Auckland, plans have been drawn for a landing event to take place in Auckland Harbor, where government officials and local non-profits will welcome the crew, take part in a cleanup, and discuss the growing importance of keeping plastic out of our seas.
A journey of a thousand miles, they say, begins with a single step, or in our case a single breath of wind that propels us closer to the next set of people we can teach about making a change.
Kyle Ellison is a freelance writer who lives in Maui, Hawaii. He’s a recipient of the Hawaii Ecotourism Association Travel Writer of the Year award, and you can follow on Twitter @eatlessplastic for more info on the voyage.