A blog set out to explore, archive & relate plastic pollution happening world-wide, while learning about on-going efforts and solutions to help break free of our addiction to single-use plastics & sharing this awareness with a community of clean water lovers everywhere!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Disturbing drift on a duck trail

published July 30th by Judith Ireland in the Canberra Times

Dangerous: Little ducks like this one look super cute, but they can be ingested by marine animals - and then, possibly, by all of us.
Dangerous: Little ducks like this one look super cute, but they can be ingested by marine animals - and then, possibly, by all of us. 
 
In January 1992 in a part of the North Pacific Ocean known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, a Greek-owned, Taiwanese-operated ship hit rough weather. Exactly how rough is not known. But what we do know is that the wind and waves were wild enough to free two columns of containers from the decks of the Ever Laurel and send them crashing into the ocean below.

Among the liberated cargo were 28,800 Chinese-made plastic bath toys, destined for the United States: 7200 red beavers, 7200 green frogs, 7200 blue turtles and 7200 yellow ducks.

No one was supposed to know, but 10 months later, Alaskan beachcombers discovered several dozen of the plastic toys washed up along Chichagof Island. Then, in 1993, a local journalist placed a few phone calls put two and 28,800 together.

As New York author Donovan Hohn writes in his new book, Moby-Duck, this is where the story of the toys should have ended. The case was closed. ''But then something else unexpected happened. The story kept going.''

The ducks kept showing up on north American beaches and people (mostly beachcombers) kept finding them. Like the mysterious travelling ducks, the story also travelled through the pages and airwaves of the world's media.

They leapt into popular culture as children's author Eric Carle published a book Ten Little Rubber Ducks about toy ducks who go missing at sea and the ducks (by now the toys had morphed into one creature) were used in a high-profile advertising campaign for a mobile phone.

Hohn then a high school teacher first heard of the ducks in 2005, when one of his students wrote an essay about their supposed journey as far as the Arctic. Also a writer in his spare time, Hohn wondered what had happened to the toys. What was their journey like? Where were they now?

As soon as he started thinking about the runaway ducks, he realised how ubiquitous toy ducks are in modern culture. They adorn people's bathrooms and work cubicles. And you can't move in a children's ware shop without seeing them on pyjamas, clothing, towels and toys.

''The more I thought about its golden, graven image, the more it seemed to me a kind of animistic god but of what?'' he writes.

Initially, Hohn thought he'd interview a few oceanographers and beachcombers and just write a feature for a magazine. But after he received a map from a Seattle oceanographer, outlining the likely route the ducks had taken, Hohn realised he might have enough for a book. ''That map seemed to me almost like a kind of trail,'' Hohn recalls.

His magazine article turned into a five-year odyssey, which saw him quit his job and leave his pregnant wife (and what then turned into his young family) for weeks at a time, while he chased the ducks around the northern hemisphere.

He talked to beachcombers who collected the ducks and environmentalists who went on crazy coastal clean-up missions. He interviewed oceanographers about the power and whimsy of currents and Chinese manufacturers about cheap, soulless plastic toy production.

The author also spent hours reading textbooks and cornering scientists for ad-hoc tutorials. ''I feel like I completed a degree in oceanography even if I don't have a piece of paper to prove it,'' he says.

Hohn was joyously able to find a duck in the Alaskan wilds, but sadly, didn't find any duck evidence in the Arctic. But as he tracked the toys from their beginnings in a Chinese factory in Dongguan to their possible end point somewhere in the Canadian Arctic, Moby-Duck became as much a story of environmental degradation and plastic waste, as childhood fantasy.

Even though it is illegal in most of the developed world, dumping rubbish in the sea is still a widespread practice in parts of the developing world, he says. And while hard figures don't exist (blame the secrecy of the shipping industry) Hohn says that cargo falls off the back of ships ''all the time''.

The little ducks look super cute, but at a time when we know plastic pollutes our oceans, is ingested by marine animals and then possibly by us, Hohn reasons, they should be handled with care.

Off the coast of Hawaii, the author travelled with renowned oceanographer Charles Moore, who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997 a gyre (system of rotating currents) of marine rubbish in the North Pacific Ocean, spread out across millions of kilometres. While the extent of the Garbage Patch is contested, Hohn writes, ''on one thing scientists, plastics executives, and environmentalists agree: the amount of plastic in the ocean is increasing.''

As Susan Freinkel notes in her recent book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, the Garbage Patch is one of at least five gyres around the world. While no one knows how much plastic is in the ocean, estimates range from between 1300 to 3.5million pieces per square kilometre.

''Before the age of plastics, the trash consisted of materials that marine microorganisms could quickly break down. Now the gyres are swirling with stuff that, at best, breaks up into small morsels that are too tough for nature to chew,'' Freinkel writes.

Hohn acknowledges that plastic waste in the ocean is not the most serious environmental problem facing the world today or even the most serious environmental issue facing our oceans.

Climate change, industrial and agricultural waste and overfishing arguably pose more dire threats. But, he says, these serious problems can be difficult to detect without sophisticated equipment and tests. ''I feel like one of the themes through much for the book is about trying to see what's invisible,'' he says. Stories of great, toxic, unsightly amounts of plastic waste circulating in our oceans or washing up on beaches is something that everyone can understand and relate to. ''There is evidence you can see with the naked eye,'' Hohn says.

In turn, getting people enthused about rubbish, or a lack of it, in our oceans, may be a means to get them interested in more complex issues, such as consumption. Although, Hohn notes there's no easy solution to the health of our oceans. ''The sources of the pollution are so numerous,'' he says.

As all good marine lawyers will tell you, it's almost impossible to make individuals, businesses or countries accountable for the middle of the ocean. ''We treat the atmosphere and the ocean as a sort of a global commons,'' Hohn says.

Despite having started work on a new, land-based book, Hohn still thinks about the ducks that first captured his imagination in 2005 and about the thousands that have never been found. ''I suspect that by now most of them have begun to disintegrate,'' he says.

But for him, the ducks have always only been part fact. ''I had this idea that I was chasing both the actual toys that fell off the ship and the mythic duck,'' he says. Ultimately, the author was most enchanted by the incongruity of the childlike duckies lost on the big bad sea. ''It's about as far from a bathtub as you could get.''

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. By Donovan Hohn. Scribe. Published August 1, 2011. $35.

Judith Ireland is a staff reporter

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