Monthly Archives: July 2012

Guest Post #2 A Challenge for our times – Plastic Free July

by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, Western Earth Carers

When I mention to people that I am avoiding buying anything packaged in plastic during July the response ranges from “are you crazy?” to “that’s impossible!” and then there is a lot of “I could never do that!”.  On reflection I agree with all three sentiments at different times but being of the “glass half full” rather than the “glass half empty” philosophy I think that on the whole its better to try to avoid plastic and accept that we will acquire some plastic during the month than to not give it a try.  Its too important an issue not to.

Of course its obvious to anyone following the Two Hands Project why plastic is an important issue, we all know where it can end up and the devastating impact it can have on the ocean.  But it’s not my problem, right?  I hadn’t accepted a plastic bag for years, I hadn’t ever knowingly littered, I tried to be a conscious consumer and always carefully read my council recycling guide and sorted waste properly.  I always recycled and felt very virtuous putting my (well sorted) recycling bin out.  Then I found myself working in waste education and did a tour of a landfill site (much as I expected) and then a tour of a Materials Recovery Facility (the place where our recycling goes to get sorted into different materials and then sent for recycling).  The sheer volume of materials was overwhelming as was the energy involved in the sorting, transport and reprocessing.  In an instant my attitude towards recycling went from a feel-good moment to questioning “why do I have this in the first place and how could I have avoided it?”.  Glass, paper, aluminium and steel can all be recycled into the same material but whilst in theory all plastic is “recycleable” not all types are regularly recycled and at best a lot is “downcycled” for one more life.

So while it may not be my plastic bag wrapped around a sea turtle’s neck in those well publicised photos my plastic is out there somewhere, it doesn’t just go away.  I read recently that every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists somewhere.  Whilst not doubting for a moment that plastic is a useful, cost effective and diverse material that is an important part of our modern lives it still seems a waste to use it for packaging, water bottles, straws, bags etc that get used once or at best twice and then thrown away.  Of the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) it is reduce which is the most important element and plastic was the obvious place to start.

As a result Western Earth Carers started the Plastic Free July challenge in 2011 with about 40 households involved and has grown to around 300 households in 2012.  The aim is to avoid single-use disposable plastic packaging for a shopping trip, day week or the month of July.  Along the way participants are asked to share their ideas, recipes, inspirations and tips via the Plastic Free July facebook page (there is still time to sign up!).  Participants keep any plastic acquired in what we like to call the “dilemma bag”.  The challenge is a journey and by sharing our stories through social media and our weekly email we can learn from each other how to live lives a bit less plastic.

From the western Suburbs of Perth the challenge has been taken up by people in countries from New Zealand to Egypt, the Netherlands and the USA.  Questions are posed, answers given, recipes are shared, successes photographed, failures are described with sadness, alternatives are suggested and frustrations are vented.  Each week we come across new blogs where people are sharing their stories and promoting the challenge.  One lady wrote telling of her success in asking her butcher to put meat into her own container.  Constantly we hear stories of interesting discussions the challenge initiates in shops, cafes, family dinner tables and between friends.  To our surprise posting a photo of our rubbish bin lined with newspaper on facebook as an idea for a plastic bag free alternative was immediately liked and shared around the world!

Sometimes I think I am crazy and things have taken more work to source or make.  Other times it feels impossible and another item goes into the dilemma bag.  At times life seems simpler as there just aren’t as many options that are plastic-free (and I never really liked going to supermarkets anyway).  Kneading dough and making rosemary and olive oil crackers with my son was a time to chat and work together (and probably quicker than going to the shop to buy a packet).  It is easier than last year, this year my whole family is on board, we have reduced our plastic consumption significantly and I hope that again a few more new habits will remain after July.

On my way home from work the other day I stopped by an Italian delicatessan to buy some fresh pasta.  Rather sheepishly I produced a slightly shabby brown paper bag which originally contained potatoes.  The shop assistant said “Good on you, I reackon there should be more of this happening.”  Plastic Free July is a challenge which hopefully gives people inspiration that we can all do something in our own lives and together make a difference

.  On reflection the glass (not a plastic cup) is definitely half full.

Photo: Plastic Free July penance – carrying the shopping when you forget your bags (or getting a friendly 7 year old to do it, thanks Ronan)

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Land ho!

DAy 26   –  7th July 2012

21N 15.6” 157W 49.9
Finally we’ve sighted land, not the land we originally intended, it’s the peaks of Oahu we can see silhouetted in the clouds.
The prevailing winds and seas were slowing us on our course for Maui and our fuel situation was becoming critical.  After consulting the weather report our skipper Rodrigo made the decision to change course for Oahu. Giving us a more favourable wind angle this has allowed to sight land earlier and with fuel enough to enter the port.

The mood on board has shifted as expedition members anticipate landfall and meeting family and loved ones, or heading off to their next destination. It seems as if tonight we’ll be anchored off the coast ready to head in to the customs dock first thing Sunday morning to clear immigration.

Tracy, Lindsay and Shannon are baking a chocolate cake in celebration. It will be strange cooking on dry land, with kitchens that aren’t heeled over and constantly moving. Today while cooking lunch I had to hold the pots on the stove with brackets, as they kept trying to jump off!

It’s kind of sad that this will be our last night together as crew on the Sea Dragon and the voyage will be over. I am looking forward to being at sea again already, though I am anticipating seeing loved ones and enjoying some fresh food on land.

We have achieved our goals in recovering tsunami wreckage and bought back samples of plastic pollution from parts of the North Pacific not sampled before. We also dodged typhoons and saw some rough weather. Stiv says this was the longest time spent sailing into the wind on any of the 5 Gyres expeditions he’s been on.

Tomorrow Marcus and I will be of to do some beach combing, I’m curious to see if we find anything tsunami related, there shouldn’t be much on Oahu at this point.

Last Trawl- 5Gyres

It really has been cool being a part of this, the 5 Gyres/Algalita  Tsunami Debris Expedition, Thanks again to all those who helped put Two Hands Project and myself on board. Working with a diverse team from around the world has been fantastic and our conversations have given us all a greater understanding of plastic pollution on a global scale.

Getting to know Marcus and Stiv from 5 Gyres has been great, 5 Gyres and Two Hands Project are well aligned on the issue of plastic pollution and I am sure there will be future collaboration.

Well, back to Australia soon, I’ll have some plastic pollution samples to show and a few good stories to share. Anyone up for a cold beverage? I hear the ‘on-shore crew’ has lines up some Murray’s Whale Ale & Monteith’s Cider for the first presentation at the  newly reopened  Manly Sea Life Sanctuary on the 24th July

if you can’t make the 24th or are closer to BONDI on the 25th … please follow the link:
Tsunami Debris Presentation- Bucklers Canteen

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toothbrushes in the middle of the ocean

DAy 23   –  4th July 2012

Sea Dragon is now 24N 17” 164W 44” and slowly reaching towards Maui. This last stretch is taking time, beating against the wind and motor-sailing if the wind drops. Our course takes us close to Necker Island, a small rocky outcrop which supports hundreds of frigate birds.

We are looking to arrive five to six days later than schedule (perhaps on the 7th..) and have ceased trawling for plastic after the trawl was found to be acting as a sea anchor and slowing the boat by up to 20%! It is unfortunate to stop sampling, though expedition members have flights to catch and family to meet. I think I may be the only one content to keep sailing, each sunrise is beautiful, the North Pacific rollers forming the perfect foreground for the painted skies.

This expedition has planted the seed for Two Hands Project to sample for plastic at sea offshore around Australia, if you’d be interested in joining such an expedition drop us a line, particularly if you own a seaworthy yacht! ;-)

Last entry I asked for any questions about the expedition, and some great ones have come in, mostly concerning radioactivity from Fukushima.

-Is any of the debris radioactive? We have a Geiger counter on board and have been taking readings from the tsunami debris we’ve recovered, all have been within normal limits (I even took normal readings off my sneakers which I wore while volunteering within the exclusion zone around the reactor …I was kind of disappointed they weren’t a little bit hot;) So far we have not recovered anything our instruments have shown to be above normal radioactivity levels.

-Is the seawater in the North Pacific radioactive? Last year Woods Hole found unusual spikes in the levels of Cesium in the waters off Japan, the 5 Gyres/Algalita Tsunami Debris Expedition has been collecting water samples as a follow up study, we will have to wait on the results from the lab to see whether levels are still elevated.

-How much tsunami debris is out there? This is really hard to quantify, so I won’t even try. It is a substantial amount though. As for the ratio of tsunami debris to plastic pollution in the North Pacific I would be surprised if more than 2% of what is out here is tsunami related. ( Which means there is an enormous amount of  plastic out here!

-What do you miss most while at sea? Fresh fruit and vegetables, good cheese and rye bread. Beer.. That about sums it up. I hope I can find a good beer in Maui.. Next voyage I’d like to do with all the Two Hands Project team on board :)

-Are there really plastic toothbrushes in the middle of the ocean? Yes! We’ve recovered two and spotted more. ( not mine!  I have a Bamboo Toothbrush :-) We’ve also recovered a hair-comb and cotton bud (Q-tip)

Just heard our fuel is down to 550 litres, less than a third of our capacity, so we’ll cut back on the motor sailing for a few days and make way wholly under sail. To me that’s great news, as long as we get to Maui by the 7th, it’s so much nicer sailing rather than motoring.

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Trade winds& plastic head on-

2nd July 2012 – 29N21 171E 06

Sea Dragon sails on towards Hawaii… We are now in the trade winds which means we have to tack into the wind, making slow progress. We have around 900 nautical miles to go on a direct line, though the tacking will add much more distance.
Finally some respite from the rain! Laundry has been done, the railing was aflutter with our clothes and foul weather gear, it is almost dry below and the smell has almost gone. (or we have become accustomed)
This expedition certainly hasn’t been a pleasure cruise, as well as having to keep low to avoid the typhoons we’ve had gear failure and heavy sailing, and one of the doco makers has been laid low with seasickness. So much so we almost diverted to Midway Island to put him ashore, fortunately he has responded to a new medication, which allows him to take some food so he has decided to stay on board.
Our water maker has been failing, so now we are limited to salt water showers on deck, as well as salt water for laundry (which means our clothes stay damp, as the salt attracts moistures). Water is not being rationed yet and we should be good for the rest of the trip as long as we aren’t wasteful.

The high speed trawl was destroyed by the swell, so Marcus from 5 Gyres and I sat on deck and improvised a repair, we are now back in action.Sampling for plastics as we sail. We are finding large amounts of microplastic in our samples.

One visual survey, in which we sit on deck for an hour noting the plastic pollution we pass resulted in 64 pieces of large plastic objects and pieces in one hour! This was in a difficult sea state for observation as well..so the true number would be higher. It’s remarkable we can sail for so long without seeing another boat or plane, yet still be constantly sighting plastic in the sea.

Personal highlights thus far are being at the helm of Sea Dragon in 40 knot winds and on another occasion having Sea dragon cruising at 12 knots. Brilliant stuff. Sea Dragon was built for an ocean race circumnavigating the globe, and it is a privilege to get a small taste of what this boat is capable of.

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