‘Every day we see plastic’ — The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Is it real?

The Pacific Garbage Patch, or simply the Patch, is, by now, a household name, the climate bogeyman, a beast of biblical proportions — like an ark, but built (or so you think) from bottles and toothbrushes, and supporting mostly nebulous and parasitic life forms. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

History of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In 1997, on his way home from competing in the Transpacific Yacht Race, yachtsman Charles Moore sailed through a film of plastic debris on his way home to Los Angeles. The accumulation of human-made waste, infamously dubbed ‘twice the size of Texas’, was first named by an oceanographer from Seattle, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who previously tracked the course of a consignment of 29,000 Friendly Floatees — rubber ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs — as they drifted through the Pacific, having been thrown overboard in a squall.

For 15 years, the Patch’s multifarious identities proliferated. It took root in the public consciousness. Recently, Al Gore was given honorary citizenship of Trash Isles, a cumulus ‘emerging nation’, floating somewhere between California and Hawaii — i.e., the Patch.

[Note: the word ‘Patch’ is, I’m afraid, misleading. Patch connotes island, which is something we can picture, and destroy. More on this later. In short, they are not so much patches as nebulas. I will, however, keep referring to it as the Patch, because it’s convenient, non-acronymic shorthand, and sounds cool.]

The Ocean Cleanup project – a source of hope

Then, The Ocean Cleanup was born. Founded in 2013, the project aims to clean plastic debris from the world’s oceans, and minimise the release of plastic waste into the oceans via rivers, with methods ranging from the deployment of passive ocean cleanup systems to so-called Interceptors.

Rubbish from rivers, as well as battered container ships, accumulates in gyres, large circular currents that twine the oceans of the globe. Objects migrate to specific zones, the confluence of currents, or tip-off points, and get stuck there. While the Patch is arguably the most nefarious of these cul-de-sacs, there are in fact at least five in total, the results of gyres in the Indian (1), Atlantic (2) and Pacific (2) oceans.

The most commonly circulated images of the (Pacific) Patch — popular because they present something tangible, provocative and shareable — are of piles of bottles and fishing nets. But the reality is a little different.

What is the Patch actually made of?

Short answer: microplastics. Comprising 94% of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch is a smog of microplastic particles. The most delightful thing to not think about, these bits of eroded, softened plastic come in inconceivably large numbers, and are toxic to marine life.

Microplastics are the devil. You’ve heard of them. They’re small— smaller than a pencil eraser. They’re hard to pick up — especially without killing loads of fish. They also make patches such as this hard to quantify or measure.

The majority of the rest, or an estimated 46% of the overall mass, is fishing nets. Much of the remainder is fishing industry gear — traps, baskets, crates, etc. It is not the plastic bottles you read about in the headlines; nor is it bubble wrap, or toothbrushes. It’s fishing gear, abandoned and swept out to sea. Discarded nets strangle, suffocate and injure as many as 100,000 marine animals per year. They also transport species from one place to another. Non-native invasive species can disrupt fragile ecosystems by outcompeting or overcrowding native species.

So there are fishing objects and microplastics and nets and bottles and toothbrushes, and they inhabit an area that is or is not twice the size of Texas. But The Ocean Cleanup says they can reduce it by ½ every year, so what do we have to worry about?

It’s worse than that:

The reality of ocean pollution is more insidious. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that as much as 70% of marine litter sinks — which stinks. So the ocean bed is home to more than double that which is already largely invisible from the water’s surface.

Moreover, according to a study published in Nature, plastic pollution within the Patch is increasing exponentially, which means immediate action is essential.

To run with a relatable, domestic metaphor: the drain is blocked, the tap is on full, and the puddle on the floor is increasing in size, faster and faster every minute. What’s the first step when dealing with an overflowing sink?

Turn it off

Perhaps the most alarming statistics have to do with global plastic production. To take this as a starting point is to truly understand the scale of the problem. Globally, producers churn out 300 million tons of plastic every year. Of this, half is for single-use purposes.

8 million tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year. Already, the ocean contains up to 165 million tons of plastic — which, as Business Insider loves to point out, 25 times heavier than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

By contrast, the Patch contains an estimated 80,000 tons of plastic, a mere 1% of annual global ocean-bound plastic waste. So the puddle is getting bigger, bigger and bigger every minute, and the tap is spewing out one hundred times the volume of the puddle every year.

Conclusion: any measures put in place to filter plastics from the ocean should be multiplied a hundredfold, and redirected towards reducing the plastic that is bound for the oceans in the first place.

The Pacific Garbage Patch really is a bogeyman — a sort of amorphous, ugly, life-asphyxiating scapegoat-metaphor we use to effectively package the plastics issue into something digestible. By fixating ourselves on this titanic pile of netting, and shrouding it in mythos, we conceive of the problem as something both fixable and eternal, as if its presence is a requisite truth.

Hard truths

  • 2.5 billion people rely on fish for 20% of their animal protein. Polluted oceans means polluted fisheries, which means polluted us.
  • By 2050, scientists estimate, there could be as much plastic as there are fish in the ocean. Plastic is literally designed to defeat natural decay. It is both our trump card and our downfall.
  • 99% of ocean-dwelling plastic waste is unaccounted for. The island is unseen.
  • Plastic chokes the ocean’s ability to trap CO2, thereby exacerbating global heating.

Is there room for hope?

An estimated three quarters of the Patch’s mass is carried by debris larger than 5cm. This means it can be feasibly, mechanically removed. (Microplastics require more complex filtration systems, which are far more likely to result in collateral by-catch.)

More hope is to be found in the Ocean Cleanup’s interception systems which, when strategically placed in 1000 river locations around the world, should prevent a portion of ocean-bound plastics from ever reaching the sea.

What can we do as consumers/voters to help reduce the Pacific Garbage Patch?

  • Avoid high-density polyethylene. This stuff makes soap bottles, toothbrushes, many consumer goods that float in the ‘garbage patch’, and elsewhere. Choose Lush, or Ethique, or any of the proliferation of ethical cosmetics companies. Try shampoo bars, rock salt deodorant, bamboo toothbrushes, all that jazz — see if it works for you.
  • Shop at wet markets, or simply do not use single-use plastic bags some supermarkets use to wrap fruit and veg.
  • Buy local, Soil Association certified, organic, etc.
  • Carry a tote bag for food shopping/groceries, and a refillable, washable water bottle.
  • Vote for the party with the greenest policies.

“Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”

Unknown

*

This article also appears on Medium, along with several others to do with the environment and politics.

For more environment-based articles (including itineraries and restaurant recommendations), head over to the Sri Lanka and Philippines archives, or to Features to catch my latest research pieces.

Sources:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/03/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastics-environment/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_Floatees

https://theoceancleanup.com/about/

https://www.discovermagazine.com/environment/the-worlds-largest-dump-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch

http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/publications/default.asp

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22939-w

https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/patch.html

https://www.businessinsider.com/plastic-in-ocean-outweighs-fish-evidence-report-2017-1

Tel Aviv Airport, Israeli Immigration—On Being ‘Checked’

A step by step account of what it is like to be held by Israeli immigration at Tel Aviv Yafo for five hours.

A step by step account of what it was like to spend five hours in Israeli immigration in Tel Aviv Yafo airport, between 10pm and 3am, without explanation.

Airport Queue

Landing at Tel Aviv Yafo Airport, thinking about falafel, trying not to think about Israel immigration queues

We land at 10pm, keen to make up for lost time, hoping for a quick sweep through Israel immigration. Outside the plane, we’re smoothed with that cold heat, night-warmth of the Middle East. We are here, after much umming and ahing. I was dubious about our trip to Israel, as you can imagine, and made more so by the Lebanese girl, in Delhi, who said to me directly, ‘Do not go to Israel. You would not go to a zoo, so why would you go to Israel?’ Well, yes.

Our flight was delayed by a day because of a nuisance airline. That was fine because they put us in a 120EUR/night room in Lisbon and gave us lunchmoney, but it was still a bummer. So, when we do get to Tel Aviv Yafo, we want to hit the ground running, so to speak. It is 10pm and we want, probably more than anything, to eat hummus and falafel. We approach the immigration desk, passports in hand.

It is a strange thing, holding a UK passport. Travelling within Europe is so seamless it is possible to change country without even realising it. Passing in and out of Sri Lanka or India is typically painless, often smiley. Most countries, it seems, are happy to have us—our money, at least. We enjoy many of the same freedoms as our European friends. Only occasionally is our ‘special relationship’ with the US an active hindrance (as with Iran). We are used to being treated as trustworthy.

Having a Lebanese stamp is incredibly naughty

Perhaps I was lackadaisical in my approach, (I read that a Lebanese stamp might slow the whole Israel immigration process down), complacent in my expectation that if I tell the truth, and am polite, it would be a relatively smooth entry. This is what one is taught. I went on the internet; I prepared.

At first we are told to sit in a waiting area, penned off from the main immigration room. Well, no, not exactly. At first, we are actually told to go to the office, and waved away from the immigration queue. It takes some time, waiting at an empty reception desk, before we are told which waiting area we should sit in. The pen is lined with chairs. Perhaps five or six other seats are occupied.

Hipsters in charge at Israel immigration – devils in designer stubble

At its mouth stand a number of security guards. These are the hip vanguard of Israeli immigration officials. Young, bearded and jocular, they appear incongruent with the guards one imagines guarding Israeli outposts in, for example, Palestine. They laugh with each other and make jokes while watching the television. There is a football match on. Perhaps, I think, their good humour with each other is an indicator of how they might treat us, their wards.

Unfortunately this interview was not written by Seth Rogen

After an hour of waiting without any explanation, I am interviewed, alone, by a man with an American accent. A woman sits with him. She has curly hair and wears glasses. The man asks me about what I do—which can be difficult to explain. He asks me about my father and his job, about where I plan to go within Israel and why I am visiting. Then he asks me about Lebanon. He asks me why I went there, where exactly I went, if I went to the south of the country, why I didn’t go to the south of the country (this is a very political decision, from an Israeli perspective), if it was my first time, if I went alone, why, why, why, and so on.

This is known as an Israeli breakfast. Now I’ll switch to past tense.

It was written by Israel Immigration officials

In the end the mood was positive, a small bark and no bite. He gave me a chance to confess any other transgressions, should anything come to mind, “because our security checks are quite thorough”. I’m sure they are, Mr. Man. The woman spoke for the first time: “parking fines, that sort of thing”. What? Why would you need to know about parking fines? Are parking violations indicative of anti-Israel sentiment? Heaven forbid I should have an overdue TV license bill—they might have accused me of being a terrorist. Then I’d have Israel immigration on my back forever.

No, I’m being sarcastic. But that really was her only interjection.

Waiting for four hours in an immigration pen made for humans

I was excused from my interview and told my passport would be returned in due course. In due course… those three words. During the four hours which followed (approx 11pm to 3am), we saw two dozen people come and go—be interviewed, security checked and let in. At several points we remarked on the high percentage of single, young women among the people held. At one point, there were 13 women, most very young, three of them pregnant, four of them with infants or young children, five of them in tears.

Sat nearby was a French woman, heavily pregnant. She was distraught. She had spoken on the phone with a man we presumed to be her partner, and was sobbing loudly, inconsolably. We did what we could to comfort her but our words were useless. She then called her advisor, or lawyer, who required to speak with the Israeli immigration desk. The security personnel refused to even look at her, let alone talk to her—they would not tell her how to get the information her advisor required. When I suggested to one of them that it might be easiest if they just speak to the advisor directly, I was told, ‘It might be easiest if you sit down and be quiet’. It was shocking. It was a blatant display of collective disregard for this heavily pregnant woman’s emotional state. There was nothing. This went on for 45 minutes.

Trying to make it nicer; failing

There were times when, glancing cursorily around the room, my eye would sought out another’s. Women were upset, a man with broad shoulders spoke peremptorily into his phone, girls looked to the guards for hope. But no one looked at each other. I looked around and wanted to build some kind of clan—to express to the others, waiting there, that we were all clearly lumped in this thing together and should treat each other as teammates. But everyone was so subdued and defeated that eye contact was nearly impossible.

It was a bizarre experience. It wasn’t traumatising, but it secured a negative mindset towards a country rich in culinary and cultural history. Naturally, we came with preconceptions—we understand. But this was our very first experience on Israeli soil, and it concretised an already burgeoning sentiment of negativity and incomprehension.

And my guess is that it can happen to anyone—a big Saudi businessman, a petite Russian teen, a French mother-to-be, me. A four hour social media security check really does scrape the bucket dry.

*

A version of this article appears on Medium, here
Further reading can be found here and here.
Read about different countries here, and about Israel and Eurovision here.

Why we need to politicise Eurovision

Breaking point has been reached: the Israel-Palestine conflict has spilled over into the domain of mass entertainment.

Hatari display the Palestinian flag during Eurovision 2019

Displaying the Palestinian flag during the recap of the acts, Iceland’s Hatari ruffled more than a few feathers. Indeed, it prompted swathes of online commentators to demand that Eurovision remain apolitical. Should that be so—is it best—is it even possible not to politicise eurovision?

[C]onsider this: many normal values we cherish in Western society today – like same-sex marriage, right to due process, freedom of religion – people at one time had to fight for, through being indefatigable in protesting the establishment and demanding change.

—Laurence Watt, The Richest Magazine

“Don’t politicise Eurovision”? It already has been, it already is

There are those who insist that Eurovision remain simply about entertainment—that it remain apolitical. This position has as its foundation the notion that it is not yet political, that it has been, was—up until the point at which Iceland’s maverick quartet Hatari displayed the Palestinian flag to an audience of 180 million Europop lovers (or, at least, abiders)—not political.

But there is evidence to the contrary, decades of it. Luxembourg’s 1961 entry, about lovers facing prejudice, was about persecution on a personal level; Israel’s trans singer Dana International, who won in 1998, contributed to the discourse surrounding gender identity. Identity is political, whether you are oppressor or oppressed—whether you want it to be or not. In 2014, Conchita Wurst became a gay icon and, following this, Ireland’s 2018 performance featured two male dancers acting out a same-sex love story. This year, France’s trans performer sang about marginalisation. For years, Eurovision has served as a platform for highlighting social and political issues.

More overtly political acts have also featured prominently at Eurovision. In 2016, Ukrainian singer Jamala won with a song about the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union in WWII. The following year, Ukraine banned Russia from competing at all—politics, fairly deployed. (Russia’s way of undermining the political act was to dress it up as an amoral one: they sent a woman in a wheelchair to represent them, and spun the story so that Ukraine appeared as the tyrant, refusing access to the disabled) It might be easy to admonish Ukraine on grounds of not trying hard enough to rise above, but if the playground big-kid annexes your peninsula, what are you going to do? Politics is inevitable.

Australia’s induction in 2015 signified “a world where issues and beliefs, rather than borders, are important”—if beliefs and principles are to be the fundaments upon which a Eurovision family is born, is it not important to reaffirm and reform that ethical code? Such were the motives of Dana, Wurst, Jamala and Jean-Claude Pascal. Breaches of the code must be questioned.

The often cited purpose of Eurovision is to connect, transcend borders, subvert the myth that difference = conflict, that adjacent = opposit[e/ng]. It “gives visibility to identities and ways of being that you never see” (Dr Ruddock ,quoted above) – its aim, to harmonise, is a noble one, which it achieves through disruption of the status quo, challenging patchy ethical positions and unifying people by establishing a progressive ethos. It provides a platform for progressive notions and catalyses social change through exposure, focusing the world’s attention on social issues that need progress—LGBT perception and prejudice, body positivity (France 2019), the notion that milkmaids are chaste and prudish (Poland 2014), and so on.

It is my belief that a platform whereon countries, who would otherwise be in conflict with each other (or indeed currently are: Azerbaijan-Armenia, Turkey-Armenia, Georgia-Russia, Ukraine-Russia, etc.), can compete on a level playing field, is inherently political—if only because of the decision to give the combatants a chance to participate. When German and British soldiers played football in no-man’s-land during the World War, that was political. There are some things it is impossible not to politicise. Giving Saudi Arabia a slot on a show defined by its unifying moral codes would be incredibly political. It would be equivalent to saying ‘we, as a community, respect the way you conduct yourselves enough to join our contest’.

*

The rest of this article can be found on Medium, along with several others. Read about my experience of being held in Israeli immigration for five hours here.

Read more stories from the ground about police harassment in Sri Lanka, a research piece about the same, how to be a responsible tourist in Sri Lanka, or about where to eat vegetarian food on Sri Lanka’s southern coast (originally published on Travelista)