Junk Rafting Across the Ocean
No doubt you have heard a lot about what is going on with the world’s oceans, especially all the junk floating around in them. Perhaps the most famous example in recent memory was the sea turtle with the straw sticking out of its nose. I’m also old enough to remember concern over fish and other ocean critters getting caught in the plastic six pack holders that were almost all over the place. Now you hardly see them anymore, showing that sometimes you can get something changed, even if it is something small.
Marcus Eriksen is one of those people trying to get a whole lot changed. Marcus is an environmental scientist who has been working for years to not just bring awareness, but actual change that will reduce the amount of plastics in our water. While there are many accomplishments we could list here, his most well-known endeavor was sailing from California to Hawaii back in 2008 on his homemade raft, lovingly named JUNK. Why? Because it was literally made out of junk, including 15,000 bottles and a Cessna fuselage for a cabin. He published a book about the experience named Junk Raft, published in 2017.
When asked why he does unusual things like that, the scientist points out that just the science, the raw data, doesn’t reach as large of an audience as art, or a good story like sailing across the ocean on a raft of junk. Those things have a much larger impact on people. There is a reason Plato wrote dialogues. Aesop wrote fables, and the Bible is full of parables instead of systematized theology, these things hold the attention better than numbers, graphs, and syllogisms.
Speaking of things that get attention, when asked about why he cares so much about the ocean, Marcus brings up a video he made during his Pacific voyage. Having fished a fish, he was getting ready to clean it and noticed the stomach was weird. He touched it with his fillet knife and the stomach popped open, revealing seventeen bits of plastic. Yes, that’s a bit gross. On the subject of plastic in stomachs, he has also examined camels with plastic bags in their guts just outside of Dubai. A local vet had a lot to say about the suffering of the camels. It doesn’t matter who you talk to, that is not a good thing.
What kind of plastics are getting found in the oceans? Where do they come from? Not surprisingly, they largely come from fishing activities. Buoys, nets, bottles, fishing line, and anything else associated with fishing is found in abundance in the ocean. Now, that doesn’t mean that those things are just carelessly tossed overboard, but lines break, a bleach bottle bounces out in rough seas, and things get lost. There are plenty of other things out there too, car tires, textiles, and more are currently littering the oceans of the world. How much of it is actually out there? Up to a quarter million tons according to a 2014 study. What is it now? Marcus doesn’t have another weight estimate but the trends are that the problem is getting much, much worse.
So, what do we do about it? The standard response has always been to just go clean it up. However, that is not necessarily the best use of resources. The best bang for the buck, and where the trend is finally heading is to focus on prevention. If we can convince people not to use so much plastic in the first place, or dispose of and reuse it in a responsible way, then we don’t have to worry so much about cleaning them up at all. That reflects a circular economy, one that has little waste, instead of our highly inefficient linear economy. Fortunately there is a lot of innovation and out of the box thinking going on that fits in the circular mindset. That is happening on the corporate and the individual level. Just think of the brisk second hand business that happens on Craigslist. Or I just saw a backpacking video where a company is repurposing gelato containers as cold soak jars. Make the space for some innovation and a little profit and it’s amazing the different solutions people will come up with.
Naturally, there isn’t any one silver bullet solution. Which is exactly why Marcus works so hard to let people know what is going on, sharing the solutions that people have found, and encouraging others to find even more. Perhaps together, we can actually work to get this done.
What’s your plastic worth?
Pollution and Death
Normally, when a story pops up about fossil fuels, it has to do with global warming. People are typically concerned with the greenhouse gasses that are emitted and how much that might contribute to altering the climate. However, there is another, more immediate issue at hand regarding fossil fuels – how pollution affects health.
Naturally, everyone sees those smokestacks coming out of coal, oil, and natural gas plants. All that smoke is left over particulates that are getting sent into the atmosphere. It would be nice to think that all of that gets sent up into the upper atmosphere, never to return but nothing really works that way. What goes up must come down and all those little particles float down and find their way from the smokestacks into our lungs. Not to mention getting into our food. Get a toxicology report done on yourself and you will probably find that your body is full of tons of things that shouldn’t be there. How much is this really affecting people? According to an article in Bloomberg, it might be up to 8.7 million globally every year. That is twice the amount of previous estimates. Now, given the disparity, someone’s method is very, very wrong. Which one? I’m not equipped to say. However, even 4.35 million annually is an awful lot of dead people.
This should provide great motivation to find alternatives to fossil fuels. Why not just shut them all down? Because they provide the vast majority of electricity in the world, something that has saved more lives than can be counted. Cutting off fossil fuels all at once with no plan just isn’t going to happen, it would plunge the world into chaos and kill a lot more people. So, we need a plan. We already have well developed nuclear technology that has been operating since the seventies with very little pollution. There are even newer, safer, and more efficient designs like thorium reactors that we could take advantage of if there were the political will to help people get over their visceral fear of the word ‘nuclear’. Additional research should also be done on other alternatives like geothermal and solar power. They can be very effective in certain applications, the initial investment just needs to get cheaper. I would mention wind power but I’ve known too many people who have worked in that field, from the engineers that design the blades to the guys climbing the ladders to fix them and they all agree that wind power isn’t viable.
We should also continue to develop better technologies to make fossil fuels cleaner in the meantime. Fortunately, this is something we have gotten much better at in recent years. Scrubbers on coal and oil plants have greatly reduced the amount of pollution emitted in the air. Natural gas burns a lot cleaner than both of them, making it a good transitional power source. We’ve gotten better with pollution in general, in the air and in the water. I clearly remember going through Gary, Indiana back in the day and the stench was…impressive, even with all the bus windows up. Now, I can drive through the heavily industrial town and barely even notice the smell. Though I still keep the windows up. We haven’t had a Great Lake or a river catch on fire in a very long time, and we aren’t currently filling up the Chicago River with literal garbage.
While all of that is great, there is clearly still a long way to go. Not just on the energy production end of things but on the consumption side as well. If we bought less stuff or used less electricity, we would be polluting less, which means less of that in the air and in our lungs and consequently fewer people dead. That seems a worthy goal, doesn’t it?
What’s your data worth?