I’ve been sparked by a couple recent events to vow to change one thing in my life in this still new year.
As I’ve wandered the globe during the past decade, studying its ocean and coastlines, one of the biggest problems I see everywhere – from the Adriatic to the Scotia seas, the coastlines of Vietnam to Chile – is plastic pollution. You’ve seen it too, I’m sure. Detritus washed or thrown off fishing boats and tankers, cruise boats and yachts. Garbage washed up from waste dumps situated too near the sea. Cities and resorts overbuilding right on the edge of the coast. But it doesn’t have to be a crowded place to result in beach trash; one of the most plasticked beaches I’ve ever seen was on remote Carcass Island in the Falklands just the other day.
While talking about the mess that plastic pollution makes of the world’s beaches is a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily do much to help. Often I’m asked what individuals can do to help in regard to the handful of things killing our ocean and coastlines: over fishing, climate change … and plastic pollution.
That’s a tough question to answer. Education and enforcement of existing laws are big needs, but tough for the man-on-the-street to impact. There are things you can do around the house, your neighborhood, in your daily life that can make a difference. though And I do believe that millions of small efforts can affect real change (See: Election/Barack Obama/November 2008.)
For example, I’ve been contemplating a cold turkey approach to plastic and paper bags for a long time. In the U.S. alone, more than 100 billion cheap plastic bags are distributed every year, bags which never really go away, many of which end up in our waterways. Less than one percent are recycled. Many countries (Bangladesh, South Africa, Uganda, even parts of China) and cities (San Francisco, London, Mumbai) have already banned plastic bags; others – like Ireland – have instituted a plastic-tax. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg is still hoping for a six cent per bag tax.
For me, the combination of having walked along that plastic-trashed beach in the Falklands, the new President’s call to individual action and having seen flimsy plastic bags scattered all over the world in trees, coral reefs, nests and along highways and coastlines … from here on out I’m refusing all plastic (and paper) bags … which means valiantly trying to remember to stuff one of the dozen cloth bags I’ve got in my truck into my pocket whenever applicable.
As I’ve figured out during the past ten days, when it comes to islands few can compete with South Georgia for its fantastic wildlife, landscape and sense of mystery. So when Barren Island – one of the Falklands 740 smallish isles – appeared out the fog this morning it both lived up to its name and reminded me we were no longer in magic land.
Flat and not surprisingly devoid of any foliage taller than my boots, Barren Island is nonetheless distinct for its burrowing penguins, a solitary snipe, a beach covered with bleached-out whale bones and something I hadn’t seen for awhile: Beach trash.
That there was a smattering of plastic and detritus washed (tossed?) off commercial fishing boats on the far side of Banner is not the fault of the island, or of the Falklands. Most of what I saw on this beach, as I’ve seen on virtually every coastline I’ve visited during the past decade, comes from boats of all kinds, many of which still treat the ocean like a limitless dump.
A sheep farmer named Mike, who happens by in his Zodiac just as I land ashore, leases Banner Island. I ask about prevailing currents and where the washed-up stuff most likely comes from. “Boats,” is his simple answer. Mainland Argentina is several hundred miles away.
Along with its brother island George, which I can make out in the near distance, Barren are the southernmost working farms in the Falklands. They are successful at sheep and cows and re-growing tussock grasses in part because they are rat-free, a problem impacting many of the near islands. Seals, giant petrels and gentoo and Magellanic penguins share the beaches happily, but the islands are best known for the amazing bird life … everywhere.
We spend the morning walking the length of Banner and then sail to the somewhat unfortunately named Carcass Island (named after a sailing ship, not a cadaver). Just a trio of families has lived on Carcass over the past century and the island itself is well looked after and boasts another thing I haven’t seen for many weeks: A bed and breakfast.
Carcass is hilly, dipped in late day mist, beautiful … but the plastic and trash on the beach is even worse than on Banner; in fact, it may be among the worst example of man’s mistreatment of the ocean I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot, since I’ve spent the past decade studying beaches and coastlines around the globe. During the last ten years we identified a trio of environmental issues impacting everyone who lives on or near a beach: Climate change, over fishing and plastic pollution. Sadly, Carcass Island could become the poster boy for the latter. A few of its beaches are so thick in man’s plastic waste that its rocks and sand and shoreline disappear beneath my feet.