Plastic has crapped all over pristine

I love the beach and have for as long as I can remember. As a child I was always painting pictures of desert islands with palm trees. And I feel so grateful to live in Australia which has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. So when I discovered that our oceans are now full of plastic it kind of ruined my day. The thought that no beach or island is pristine anymore, that most whales, turtles and albatrosses have plastic in their stomachs, just broke my heart. But it also launched me into action, picking up any plastic I saw on the ground when I was out in the street or on my morning runs. And I discovered it is EVERYWHERE. I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed it before. 18 months later I’m still doing this several times a week.

My childhood fantasies about pristine desert islands

Late last year I spent three weeks in Hawai’i, one of my favourite places on earth. On the way over an article in the inflight magazine caught my attention. It was about Ka Lae, otherwise known as South Point, a remote location at the southernmost point of the State, known for a 40 ft cliff where gutsy divers jump into the ocean. While this alone would make it worth a visit, there was a much darker side to this remote location that lured me in.

Nearby Kamilo Beach is the gateway to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which lies just 500 miles north-east. According to the article, a huge amount of plastic is constantly spewed up here and it was described as “the world’s dirtiest beach”. I knew immediately I had to go there. Thanks to Hawai’i Wildlife Fund and the University of Hawai’i, I accompanied some marine science students on a clean-up event (which unfortunately had to be moved to a nearby bay at the last minute as bushfires had made Kamilo inaccessible). Ka Lae and the vast, remote area beyond was hot and dry and dusty. There were no sandy beaches, just a shoreline covered in black volcanic rocks. And a lot of plastic.

The site of our plastic clean-up (a bay somewhere between Ka Lae and Kamilo Beach, Big Island)

From a distance there didn’t seem to be all that much plastic, but once up close I started to find it everywhere. Apart from all the larger items there were thousands of tiny particles, which really opened my eyes to the extent of the impact and made it much easier to understand how it is that microplastics have made their way into every corner of the world’s oceans.

Lift any rock along this shoreline east of Ka Lae and you’ll likely find countless tiny plastic fragments like these
More random plastic crap discovered on our clean-up (image: University of Hawai’i Marine Program)
Just 20 miles north-east at Punalu’u a Green Sea Turtle rests on the beach. Half of all turtles have plastic in their stomachs.

As part of its conservation efforts Hawai’i Wildlife Fund hosts numerous beach clean-ups each year removing tonnes of marine debris from the coast near Ka Lae. But it just keeps on washing ashore, about 15–20 tonnes a year. The thought that Hawai’i, a Pacific paradise, is now the recipient of tonnes of the world’s trash is just a little devastating.

Last week, and 6,000 miles south-west of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I wound up at a secluded beach in a national park on the NSW north coast, not far from where I lived my high school years. Yet somehow I’d never been to this particular spot before. It felt almost untouched and there was no one else around, apart from a few kangaroos.

North Smoky Beach, Arakoon National Park (NSW north coast)

But from a 300-metre stretch of beach I collected 74 pieces of plastic (with a little help from my partner). Luckily we had a lot of pockets. The main things we found were polystyrene and food/drink related items, including water bottles, bottle caps (one all the way from Indonesia!), fragments of take-away containers, part of a drink cask, foam mesh packaging (like off a coconut), the end of a plastic utensil, and a half-eaten straw (the other half likely in a marine animal’s stomach). There were also a couple of pens and broken plant pots as well as many unrecognisable pieces, including lots of small fragments (not unlike the ones in Hawai’i) that just keep breaking down further and further until they’re eventually invisible. I know it’s not a lot compared to the coast near Ka Lae, but it’s way more than I expected to find in such a natural, largely unpopulated location so far from any garbage patch.

74 pieces of plastic from my recent beach clean in Arakoon National Park

I am more motivated (excited even) when I can collect plastic from a beach. I guess it feels more significant when it’s on the beach because it’s in the actual zone of impact. Unfortunately for now I live just a stone’s throw from Sydney’s CBD, and I don’t get to the beach often. But I do what I can from here by trying to stop plastic getting into the stormwater system. Although I have to say, I’m getting a bit tired of picking up other people’s crap.

It would be nice if governments were taking more and faster action to address plastic pollution, although it doesn’t seem like we can count on them for any significant outcomes. But there’s so much we can achieve without them anyway. As consumers we have HUGE power, to refuse single-use plastics, to avoid polystyrene and other disposable plastics (yes even pens and plant pots!). There are reusable or natural/biodegradable alternatives to most of the plastic items we use, it’s just a matter of thinking twice before we buy things. If we can reduce demand for plastic and start asking for more sustainable alternatives then manufacturers will be forced to change.

I haven’t given up on the return of the pristine desert island, and oceans where marine life is no longer eating or getting tangled in plastic. And who knows? Maybe it will even happen in my lifetime. Hopefully it will, otherwise we can probably say goodbye to our marine ecosystems. We WILL clean up the crap we’ve dumped in the ocean (thanks to the Ocean Clean Up), and we CAN stop more from getting in there. But this is the hardest part and governments aren’t going to solve this problem.

To a large extent most of us seem to be denying the reality of the ocean plastic crisis. Because most of us are still buying single-use and disposable plastics. We have fallen into a very deep ‘convenience’ coma, which is killing our planet. We might know about plastic pollution but it’s too scary and overwhelming so we ignore it and hope it will go away and continue with our lives business as usual. But maybe what we don’t realise is that this is just making it worse.

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it” — Robert Swan

So what is the antidote? We need to remind ourselves that this planet is for our kids too. We need to open our eyes and look at the impacts of our purchasing decisions. But not just look at them, FEEL them. Feel the pain of the whale who carried her dead calf around for days in mourning. Of all the albatrosses dying from stomachs full of plastic — bottle caps and toothbrushes and other things that WE buy every week. WE are creating this problem and WE are the ones who have to turn it around. A mass awakening needs to occur and it needs to occur very soon. We need to remember that we actually rely on this planet for our survival and start making more conscious choices. This is the only way we can ever hope to experience ‘pristine’ again.

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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