Oceans of Plastic

This is a blog that I’ve been thinking of writing for a while. Indeed, some of our past blogs have briefly mentioned the problems we’ve seen with plastics and waste management in general, but I feel this is a topic that deserves a bit more focus.

We’re all aware of the problems associated with plastics, particularly single-use plastics, and that a large proportion of them end up in our oceans and wreak havoc with the wildlife. We’ve heard of the Great Pacific Gyre and are probably aware that there are similar gyres in all the other oceans of the world. There are also some pretty neat ideas about cleaning it up. The Ocean Cleanup Project has received a particularly large amount of sensationalist press, not least because the guy who came up with the idea and presented it at a TEDx talk was 17 at the time. In fact, the whole idea was spawned from a school project. Things like this have great potential to put a good dent in the amount of plastics that are already in the oceans, but I wonder how many people appreciate how easy it could be to tackle the problem from the other end – where the plastics first go into the environment.

Just twenty countries are responsible for 80% of total plastic waste that ends up in the sea. See the graph below for who they are:

 

Waste estimates from the top 20 countries in 2010 by mismanaged plastic waste (million metric tonnes per year). Data is taken from Jambeck, J. R. et al. (2015) “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Oceans.” Science, vol. 347. No 6223, pp. 768-771.

But it gets better than that! The vast majority of these plastics are carried to the sea via rivers, each of which may pass through several countries. In fact, a whopping 90% of the total global plastic waste that ends up in the sea comes out of just ten rivers, and eight of them are in Asia. This is great news, because it means the solution doesn’t need to be global. All is not lost! We just need to focus efforts on those rivers, which, conveniently, aren’t even all that widely-separated on the planet.

The plastic waste that litters the seas around Indonesia is, quite frankly, disgusting. We can’t run our water-maker in port. We tried, and it sucked up a plastic bag and blew out the gasket on the boost pump (I replaced the pump with an old domestic water pressure pump so we’re back in action now!). We know when we’re approaching a town or village because we literally start sailing through plastic. At around the time that we arrived here and were confronted with this sad situation I happened to glance at Facebook and came across a series of posts written in relation to someone who had thrown some beer bottles overboard from a boat during cup match in Bermuda. The kick-back from the community was huge. That person was shamed, his father was shamed, his friends were shamed and a great deal of anger was generated over this one incident. Rightly so, perhaps, but for me, reading about this incident really impressed upon me just how good we are in the Western world at waste management and how great the general anti-pollution mentality of the populations is. Plastic waste in Bermuda doesn’t last long, because someone will pick it up. My grandfather used to have a nail in the bottom of his walking stick so that he could pick up the odd bit of trash that he encountered on his morning walk. Many times when out in my boat in Bermuda I have picked up a bit of floating plastic that I’ve spotted bobbing around, and most other boaters can say the same. If I did the same thing here, I would never do anything else and the inflow of plastics is so great that my efforts would count for absolutely nothing. My point is that we in the Western world deserve a massive pat on the back for how we manage our waste. It’s not perfect of course, but it’s very, very good.

Another point I’d like to make is that it is not necessarily the fault of the people who live in these places. We were appalled in the islands of Polynesia to see widespread mismanagement of trash and extensive littering. But think about it – how long have the people living in these places had to deal with plastic waste? Perhaps a couple of decades at the most. Prior to that people ate foods that were packaged by Mother Nature. You eat a banana and you leave the skin on the ground. The same goes for coconuts, papaya, breadfruit and whatever else you are eating. There was no such thing as waste management because there never needed to be. How, then, can the populations of these places be expected to miraculously effect a paradigm shift and spontaneously develop effective waste management strategies just because their food now comes wrapped in a different material? Of course they can’t. They never leave their islands. They don’t see how it could be done, they have no-one to teach them otherwise and many don’t have the resources or infrastructure for proper management in the first place.

I read a book recently that contained an account of a government-sponsored beach cleanup day in El Salvador. The government approached the villagers along a stretch of coastline and said “we’d like to clean up your shoreline and we’d like you to help”. The villagers were really keen. They all went off and spent a day collecting ‘trash’. When the government trash truck turned up at the end of the day they were dismayed to discover that the villagers had picked up all the palm fronds, all the dead branches of trees, and left the plastic waste right where it was. They simply didn’t view it as being ‘trash’. The government educated the people and told them that it was the plastic that they wanted, not the palm fronds. The villagers went off again and they transformed the coastline, removing every bit of trash. The government officials were so impressed that they decided to reward the villagers. They sent trucks with food. Unfortunately the food was wrapped in plastic……………

We’ve seen a very similar mentality here in Indonesia. Below is a photo of an idyllic-looking waterfront:

The people clearly take pride in their living spaces. The houses and boats are beautifully-painted. The people are clean, and clothed well. We even saw evidence of trash disposal in the form of no less than three fire pits. But this is a very dry island. They can’t grow crops and they don’t have enough water. When the majority of your food and all of your drinking water is packaged in plastic, and you have 1,700 people living in a close-knit village perched at the base of a mountain and hemmed-in by the sea, you can’t burn it all. If you tried you’d have people getting ill from the fumes. So this is the inevitable result:

We are nearing the end of the dry season now, so this river is very low and the plastics debris nearing its worst. As soon as the monsoon rains start some time in November all of this will be washed into the sea. For me, the thought of that is horrible. For the villagers, though, it must be a huge relief. But the truly shocking thing is that this is Komodo Village, right at the heart of Komodo National Park. It is considered a global conservation priority area due to the unparalleled biodiversity of its terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

 

Even if the countries in this part of the world all had waste management plans on par with those in the Western world it wouldn’t solve the problem. When I talk about plastic packaging you are no doubt thinking of the over-packaged food you buy at your standard Western supermarket. A bag of frozen peas wrapped in plastic. A pre-cooked microwave meal in a plastic tray, covered in plastic film and wrapped in a plastic-coated cardboard container. It’s pretty terrible, but that’s in countries where the producers know that people are, at least to some extent, sensitised to the evils of plastics. What the producers do in Asian countries, where people don’t view the plastics as a problem, or at best see them as a necessary nuisance, is far, far worse. The pictures below were taken back in January when we were in Thailand. This is TYPICAL of packaging not just in Thailand, but all over Asia.

There’s also one more aspect to this. Population. I don’t think most people realise that 60% of the population of the planet lives in Asia. That’s over 4.5 billion consumers all jammed into 30% of the world’s land area. No wonder this is where the heart of the problem is! But it’s also convenient. All of the people whose mentalities regarding plastics and waste need to change are all in the same place.

So, all is not lost. Well done Western world! Now let’s focus on changing the practices of those Asian countries and really make a difference at the source.

Celebrity status in Indonesia

Would you believe that we’ve spent over a month at sea in total since leaving New Zealand back in July and we still aren’t even at the half way point of this voyage. In fact, the half way point is still another 500 miles away! After which we have just 9 months to navigate the other half of the world back to Bermuda. Are we crazy?… Most likely!

As many of you know I have battled with sea sickness for most of this voyage since moving onto Bob back in February 2016. The prospect of this final year and spending so long at sea has sent worrying chills down my spine. I’ve literally had nightmares that I’m living inside a washing machine only to wake up and find that my nightmare is a close approximation to reality. The good news is that I think I might, finally, be getting over it. We’ve had some bumpy passages since leaving New Zealand. During the first one to Vanuatu I felt the usual pukey twinges, but that was expected after 6 months on land. Since then though, I’ve felt ill only once and that was in the few days coming into Papua New Guinea. We were heading dead downwind in 30 knots with steep swells that made Bob violently roll back and forth through what felt like an angle of well over 90 degrees! Since leaving Papua New Guinea (about 15 sea-days ago) I haven’t felt a single twinge of sea sickness. Not even a little one! Yay, go me! I must admit, I haven’t taken into account that since arriving in Indonesian waters we’ve been blessed with super calm seas and never more than a zephyr. We’ve had just enough wind to keep us sailing, which has kept the seas lovely and flat, and while Alex has been disappointed with our less-than-speedy progress, I’ve actually been enjoying ocean sailing, finally! It only took two and a half years!

The photos above are a few shots of the sunrise I was enjoying during one of my watches on the sail to Indonesia. I don’t why, but in this part of the world the sunrises and sunsets are some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen!

In other good news…. the Indonesian authorities let us into their country. Even though the whole procedure took 4 days to finalise, we managed it without any unforeseen problems and without paying too much money in fees or bribes. Checking out in Bali might be a different story, but certainly checking-in in Saumlaki appears to be one of the easier ports for cruisers to complete the immigration formalities.

We expected Indonesia to be very different from the other islands we’ve previously visited and our first impressions proved this to be correct, at least superficially. The town has a large bustling population; the buildings are ornate and colourful, as are the local long boats. One downside is the huge amount of single-use plastics, many of which have found their way to the ocean. In many ways this place reminds me a little of Thailand, for the good reasons as well as the bad.

Even 10 miles away from the nearest town I counted 6 pieces of plastic in the water in less than 3 minutes.

Almost everything is sold in single-use plastics, including the local moonshine. This is a drink called sopi. It tastes like rosé wine but is twice the alcoholic strength! And I bet you thought drinking boxed wine was un-classy!

Saumlaki is one of the busiest towns in Indonesia and even though there is a port here and the island has an airport, it is seldom visited by tourists. Alex and I stood out from the crowd like a glass of milk in a cola stand. Most people would stare as we walked past them, many would follow us down the street, some would talk to us and some would even ask for our photo to be taken with them. I suppose this is what it must feel like to be famous. If it is, I’m very happy that my childhood dream of becoming a famous singer never materialised. I don’t cope at all well with excessive attention and even if I did, you would rather listen to a dying cat than to my singing, trust me! That’s not to say that all this attention didn’t have its perks – a few locals who spoke a little English were happy to show us round the town and barter at the local market on our behalf. The market here is superb.  Full of locally grown fresh fruit and veg and piles of fish caught that very morning. They’re similar to the markets we’ve visited in other islands but with even more choice and at a fraction of the price!

Here are some of the local children having fun swimming by some colourful long boats in the town. The one on the left (which the children are standing on) has recently sunk.

We were lucky enough to meet 4 Aussie guys and one ‘sheila’ who had sailed from Darwin for a few weeks holiday. It was interesting to meet sailors who weren’t ‘live-aboard cruisers’. Although we had plenty in common from a sailing perspective, the conversation was able to divert away from the usual subject into something a little more refreshing. There were two groups – the first was a lovely couple who live in a house in Darwin but decided to sail their 34-foot boat the 250 miles to Saumlaki for a well deserved break from their respective jobs. The second was a group of 3 retired friends who sailed a 32-foot monohull across for a week away. Between them they have a collective age of about 225 years! But their energy levels were comparable to an age of at least half of that! It really goes to show that age is in the mind and really you are as young as you feel.  I was grateful to make friends with these wonderful people who knew the area well, this being their regular sailing-getaway spot. In a town as busy and overwhelming as Saumlaki, I was happy for them to take the lead and show us some of the sites.

Above are a few shots of an ancient stone ‘boat’, supposedly it signifies where their local ancestors first landed the island – but no one really knows for sure.

Steps from the stone boat lead down to the water beneath.

Our reward for climbing down all those steps… a stunning beach which appeared (thankfully) to be plastic-free.

We stayed in Saumlaki for almost a week before heading west with the intention of stopping at Flores and Komodo before ending our Indonesian visit in Bali. On the forth day at sea the winds died out completely so we decided to stop in at an island called Pantar, anchored outside the village of Kabir. Not because we’d heard great things about the tourist/cruising grounds here, but because it simply happened to be in a convenient position for us to spend a night or two. This island is visited even less frequently by tourists than Saumlaki and is much less built up. In fact, everything about this island is so similar to those islands of the Tropical Pacific that we could be back in Vanuatu or another such archipelago. Basic shelters made from woven bamboo or simple concrete blocks make up the bulk of the houses. Children can be seen fishing, canoeing and playing in the sea and the community in general help each other with various jobs from building works to growing and foraging food. As is typical of our adventures so far, the people here are enormously generous and friendly. Having spent just 5 minutes on shore the other day we got talking to a group of ladies who invited us to sit with them for a while. With the help of Google Translate and a poor cellular internet connection we were able to communicate that we were trying to find the local hot springs which we’d recently read about online. A few moments later the locals were whisking us away on their scooters, excited to show us the sights of their homeland. They expected nothing from us in return, they simply wanted to make us feel welcome and for us to enjoy their island. Despite knowing us for less than half an hour, one lady even offered us a bed in her house for the night. What a lovely offer.

This is the beautiful view of the sunset from our anchorage in Pantar. It’s not a bad life.

This is Alex at the local hot springs. A warm river runs into the sea and it’s the local hangout for the village kids. They loved posing for photos and enjoyed borrowing our mask and snorkel to see the interesting sea life.

The kids enjoyed fishing and paddling round in locally dug-out canoes.

Even on this remote island we were treated like celebrities. A man in this group asked if he could take a photo with us and half the village ended up getting in the shot! What a great photo 🙂

We’re now underway once more and motoring to a small island just off the northern coast of Pantar, to a spot which apparently has world-class snorkelling and diving. The locals tell us that salt water crocodiles are not a threat here – I hope they’re right!

Hopefully this will NOT be the last thing I see. I can’t image it would be a nice way to go. The photo of this salty was taken at the Nature Centre in PNG and well out of biting range.