By The Ocean We Unite: sailing through the plastic soup
I awoke at 1:55am, rising and falling with the ship like a roller coaster, for my 2-5am watch on the Fantastiko, a 97-foot sailboat sailing westward across the Wadden Sea, north of Germany. Someone once told me that if you can sail the Wadden, you can handle anything else. After hitting my head on the door frame to my cabin (a daily occurrence somewhere below deck), I grabbed a cup of coffee from the thermos in the kitchen and climbed up into the Pilot cabin. Captain Huub and mate Sigrid were in the midst of changing shifts at the helm, and I could see white lights in the darkness all around in the distance.
While gripping the railing as the ship crashed over another wave, I noticed that Katie and Sofia were sleeping on the nearby benches, likely trying to ward off sea sickness. The ship’s engine hummed in the background as we plowed westward through the roiling sea. Donned in full-body weather gear, I climbed outside onto the deck and exchanged smiles with Louwrens, who’s watch I was relieving. For the next three hours, as Sigrid monitored the radar and communicated with other boats, I scanned the horizon with binoculars, a second set of eyes to ensure our safe passage. I have experienced a myriad of adventurous situations in my life, but nothing prepared me for how much I would enjoy night watch, especially with one of my favorite sailors at the helm.
I first heard about By the Ocean We Unite’s expedition when I ran into the group’s Executive Director, Thomas van Thiel, at the Economist World Ocean Summit in Playa del Carmen, Mexico earlier this year. BTOWU is a Netherlands based nonprofit created to raise awareness about the challenge of plastic pollution, and regularly leads sailing expeditions in northern Europe to do daily field monitoring of the ocean to assess microplastic levels. Thomas invited me to join their July expedition, which would be testing for microplastic concentrations in northern European seas and raising awareness about the issue.
For the trip through Denmark, BTOWU teamed up with Danish Plastic Change, and had appointments scheduled along its route with a number of media outlets, including Danish national television. We would also be blessed to have Hanna Verboom and Niels Gross from Nat Geo Netherlands on board, who developed a five-part series of our time on the ship. “Going to Denmark, it was a logical step for us to get in touch with our brothers and sisters at Danish Plastic Change,” said Karl Beerenfenger, BTOWU’s expedition leader. “We extensively collaborated on this expedition, which I think strengthened both our organizations and our message to the world.”
As I have traveled around the world to learn about coral reef conservation, ocean plastic had been a indelible visual reminder of our human impact on planet Earth. Everywhere I traveled, from Malaysia to Zanzibar, local people remarked about how plastic pollution was a growing problem. Many of the field stations I visited cleaned their beaches every day only to find fresh litter awaiting them at sunrise. If I saw plastic in the water column or hung up on reefs while diving, I would stuff it in my suit to throw out later. Sometimes there was just too much floating in the ocean and too widely dispersed, making me feel powerless.
In contrast, my experience in Copenhagen, Denmark, before boarding the Fantastiko, reinforced my perception that Europe was way ahead of the rest of the world in reducing plastic pollution. I was to learn over the next ten days that, even with visual improvements, microplastics - which are hard to see with the naked eye - are pervasive in all our seas, very difficult to clean up, and a bigger problem than I realized.
“It is now being found in so many organisms living in and from the sea,” said Karl. “All those plastics out there fragmenting, being dispersed, are super hard to remove. This plastic may never break down again completely, but will fall apart in tiny particles. There are so many lives on this planet that ingest plastic and we don’t [know] what that does to our bodies. A lot of research is needed still, but I have to say it’s not really healthy for us.”
Indeed, microscopic plastic ingestion is responsible for the premature deaths of countless whales, seabirds, and sea turtles among others. It has been found in plastic water bottles, beer, sea salt, the fish we eat and women’s breast milk. I wouldn’t drink gas from the station pump because it’s toxic, so why are we ok with consuming it in a different form?
BTOWU uses a testing protocol developed by the 5 Gyres Institute, which is amassing data from ships around the world to develop a benchmark for global microplastic pollution. Each day as we sailed, Fantastiko team members placed a small manta trawl in the ocean for a specified period of time, then painstakingly sifted through the seagrass and other ocean debris for signs of microplastic. Using a standardized formula, our science officer, Roos Swart, and her assistant, Katie Stevens, could then estimate the amount of microplastic per square miles of the local sea.
Speaking of the 5 Gyres Institute, Roos explained, “They have a lot of worldwide data on surface water and the plastic that are in there. You as a sailor can buy a manta trawl and participate in their research. We take our samples, find out how many plastics are in there and categorize them as smaller or larger than 5mm. We put it into categories like fishing line, a pellet, a nurdle, some foil or fragments that broke off. By making these categories and easily defining them…we get a pretty solid base of what’s in the ocean and what kinds of particles are in there. We send them into them [5 Gyres] and they make a map from it.”
“I've spent a lot of time researching and learning about plastic pollution on my own from books and the internet,” said Katie, “so it was amazing to actually be a part of the physical trawling and data collection, and to contribute to research at such a wonderful organization as Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ). We took the first piece of plastic out to send to NIOZ so they can look at the ‘plastisphere’ - the microorganisms that live on pieces of microplastics.”
In addition to the dedicated BTOWU staff, I was joined by an inspiring cast of fellow volunteers for my voyage on the Fantastiko. Kiko Matthews recently broke the world record for kayaking solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Louwrens Boonstra, has been driving plastic reduction efforts at his office in Amsterdam, Netherlands and is collaborating on an Artificial Intelligence system that could photographically identify the corporate origins of litter. Fosca Poltronieri, who works for Waste Transformers in Netherlands, is working to finalize the first ever agreement in a European commercial port to transform vessel food waste into green energy, nutrients and re-usable water.
“What I really liked about the trip was I got to meet a lot of other people like you and like Roos who has her own plastic recycling project going on, and talking to Meike about Greenpeace,” Louwrens said. “It was the networking with like-minded people that was for me the greatest takeaway. For instance, with Fosca, the whole discussion about waste management - that was also super interesting - and I am going to meet with her also. I think networking was the most valuable quality.”
Despite her focus on food waste, Fosca hadn’t focused much on the plastic part of the waste problem before the trip, but our ocean monitoring made her realize what an important part plastics plays in the creation of waste solutions. “I think Roos should get a lot more credit for what she’s doing. It’s kind of revolutionary how she’s doing it. Giving science a new face and a new channel in a way, because we are really used to science coming from an institution, through a journal, being approved by ten different people. A lot of traditional research is not even published. [BTOWU] is doing real research and able to publish it through channels that are closer, maybe more important and more urgent.”
Plastics, which are derived from petroleum and its by products, are created by modern scientific methods that nature never intended. As such, they do not decompose in the environment like natural carbon-based substances like wood, stone and plants. Instead they break up into smaller and smaller pieces. At his point most of us already have the remnants of disposal plastic in our bodies. While some governments, especially in Europe, have worked to reduce disposable plastic use and maintain strong garbage management systems, many parts of the world lack the funding or education. The United States became so accustomed to paying China to recycle much of its plastic waste that when it started to refuse further shipments, the U.S. had little alternative but to throw much of it in the landfill. Some countries, notably Malaysia, have taken up some of the slack and are currently burning the United States’ plastic rather than recycle it. Poorer countries in the process of massive population growth, many with poor or nonexistent refuse management systems have become garbage factories, exporting their by-products via tides and currents.
The world is at a reckoning. We can either learn how to take responsibility for cleaning up our own messes or be prepared for the painful consequences. Even if we stopped new plastic from entering the marine world the effects of what we have already created have yet to be fully realized, which is all the more reason to stop now.
But what can each of us do to assist in this effort? Karl’s offered some good advice: “Bring your bag. Bring your water bottle. Bring all kinds of bags to the supermarket for your food and veggies. Refuse straws. Watch out with synthetic clothing. Replace your plastic sponges and household wipes in the kitchen, and check your cosmetics for the presence of plastics.”
While personal responsibility and self-awareness is vital, we all need to begin to hold corporations and our elected officials accountable for the plastic pollution they create, just as we do for air and water pollution. We all share a responsibility for protecting our planet and this should extend beyond the home and the workplace. Karl’s advice about personal habits is a first solid step, but until corporations stop creating the mess at the source and governments take a firmer lead in reigning them in, the ocean will increasingly resemble a plastic soup that the Earth may never recover from.