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.

The Darker Side of New Zealand

 

No parking….. why on Earth not?! It’s a minor public road. No one and nothing is being negatively impacted by us being there. So why is it illegal?

 

It would be so easy to write light-hearted, happy blogs all the time. Palm trees and beaches. Or in the case of New Zealand mountains and rivers. But I think it’s important for us to take off the smile once in a while and write about some of the less savoury things. After all, life is about the bad as well as the good.

New Zealand is a spectacularly beautiful place. Some of the anchorages we have visited over the last year and a half have been very beautiful too, but none have been grand. That’s what New Zealand offers. But, when we envisaged what this place would be like (based largely on the reports of those who had come before us) we had also naively imagined a first-world country whose citizens were free.

Perhaps the most stifling aspect of so-called ‘developed’ countries that I struggle with is the lack of what I would call basic freedoms. At the top of this list is the freedom to take responsibility for oneself. To make decisions and live by the consequences, good or bad. That is how we learn, and how we grow as people. But most of us live in a world where we are denied this freedom, even in cases where our actions and decisions would have no impact on anyone else one way or the other. In my view, this is severely detrimental to the personal development of individuals and by extension society itself. Our world is moving day by day towards a situation where no-one is willing to accept responsibility for anything, especially themselves and especially where personal safety can be construed to be at risk. We even make big business out of buying and selling other people’s ‘risk’! For me the ability to get away from this is a major attraction of offshore sailing.

We had hoped that New Zealand would be a rare example of a first-world country whose citizens still had these basic freedoms. Where victimless crimes are not considered crimes at all. Alas, such is not the case. Unfortunately, like so many other countries, New Zealand is slowly suffocating itself with bureaucracy. It’s nowhere near as bad as the U.K. yet, but every day new laws and bylaws are being written restricting the freedoms of minorities while none are being rescinded and no laws guaranteeing freedoms are being written. The problem is that everyone belongs to some minority or other, so everyone gets hit in the end. Everywhere we go we see signs banning one thing or another and threatening huge fines for non-compliance. No parking. No dogs. No smoking. No camping. No access. No swimming. No walking. Trail closed. No boating. The list could go on for a very long time. No camping. Now that is one that we see many, many times a day and it’s such a shame because it’s going to destroy the freedom to do trips like the one we’re doing. With it will go a whole chunk of the tourism industry and whole communities will suffer. One inconsiderate camper leaves a bag of trash lying around and the next thing you know a ‘no camping’ sign appears. The result? More and more camper vans crammed into smaller and smaller spaces, looking unsightly and undesirable. One more bag of trash and whoops, there goes another camping site. But it all stems back to legislation.

New Zealand waste management really sucks, largely as a result of legislation. I had to drive 40km to drop off one gallon of waste oil at an ‘approved facility’ because nowhere else had the appropriate licenses for handling ‘hazardous materials’. Tell me – if a petrol station is not licensed to handle hazardous materials who is?! The result? People don’t bother. They dump it on the ground. No license required for that so long as nobody catches you. The same goes for batteries. In fact, the same goes for all trash. The reason that that inconsiderate camper dumped that bag of trash in the first place is because everything you buy in the shops is over-packaged and there is literally no-where else to put it. We routinely carry trash around for more than a week before we can find somewhere to dispose of it properly. There are very, very few public bins (none outside the three largest supermarkets in the town we were in yesterday) and the ones that are there have a deliberately tiny opening and a sign threatening a $400 fine for anyone caught using it for disposing of domestic waste.

Unfortunately all is not well in the land of camper vans. Especially in the South Island there is widespread and growing animosity towards people in camper vans not dissimilar to the way that gypsies in the U.K. are viewed, except that a good 30% of the vans here are flash motor homes with six-figure price tags and 40% are shiny rentals whose occupants are paying at least $150 per day for the privilege. We’ve had a man ride a scooter up and down the road past the camper vans screaming obscene abuse at us. People routinely honk their horns aggressively to wake us up if they spot us by the side of a road as they are driving to work, or go out of their way to visit the approved camping spots just so that they can abuse and harass the campers. As I write this we’re sitting in the van on the outskirts of Christchurch with 26 other vans because this is the only legal place to camp within 30 kilometres. It’s half past midnight and there’s been a local car treating the area as a racetrack and doing doughnuts for the last two hours. No-one will say anything because the last time someone confronted the angry locals here they had beer bottles hurled at them. One van even had fireworks lit underneath it as a not-very-gentle message that they were not welcome here. But we have no choice. We’re not allowed to camp anywhere else.

We had initially hoped to perhaps seek work here for a year before sailing on. Maybe we’d even fall in love with the place. Unfortunately it hasn’t happened. The South Pacific Cyclone Season is ending now. We have at least a month of work to do on Bob before she’ll be ready to sail and a long way to go next year. I’m antsy to get back up North and start work. Of course, that also means confronting the residents of Kerikeri once again, none of whom likes our campervan. We park it outside one person’s house until they complain and then park it outside someone else’s, trying to remain polite, compliant, sympathetic and friendly throughout in spite of the way that we are approached about it. The problem is there’s just nowhere to park that isn’t outside someone’s house (well, outside their wall/hedge really. All of them are bordered by impenetrable privacy barriers and the only time they need to see our van is when they turn in or out of their driveways). I’ve even thought of selling the van once we get up north and buying a car instead, just so that people would hate us a little less.

Good night.

Update the following morning: sure enough we received our wake-up call bright and early as a local motorist went out of their way to visit the camping area and thoroughly test their horn. At least we have the luxury of moving somewhere else when we’re not welcome. The town of Lyttleton will not be benefitting from our custom, nor, I suspect, the considerable custom of the occupants of all the other campers that are here.