Don't Let a Trash Island Ruin Your Ocean Time

I recently got a not-so-happy email about yet another trash island from a friend of mine, Doug Woodring, who was writing from the beautiful Indonesian island of Lombok. Doug's a competitive open-water swimmer and event organizer. Here's a paragraph from his email:

I was out enjoying a swim in Lombok Strait, which separates the Indian Ocean and the Java Sea between the islands of Lombok and Bali. It's far from civilization in what should have been beautiful, pristine waters. But halfway through my swim I hit a flotilla of plastic trash, a rude reminder of our consumerist, disposable culture. It really makes you wonder what we are doing to ourselves.

Doug actually knows a thing or two about "what we are doing to ourselves." In addition to being a waterman, he's the cofounder of Project Kaisei and founder of Ocean Recovery Alliance, two organizations dedicated to research and education about the environmental consequences of throw-away plastics in our waterways and oceans.

They might be out of sight and out mind after we chuck them, but all that plastic doesn't just disappear. What doesn't get recycled either ends up in a landfill or blows around on land or sea. "When it hits the ocean, only about 30 percent of it floats. The other 70 percent sinks to the bottom," says Doug.

How long does it take plastics to biodegrade? Perhaps 1,000 years. On the bottom of the ocean, perhaps much longer as there's no light—maybe 100,000 years. The sad truth is that no one knows for sure as modern plastics have only been around for about 60 years.

There's not an ocean on earth that isn't impacted. The North Pacific Gyre between California and Hawaii has a huge floating garbage pile weighing over 3 million tons, according to one estimate. Most of the trash came from land—either from Asia or North America. There are six other known tropical oceanic gyres in the world. And researchers are finding plastics in marine life everywhere on the planet, from resin trapped inside the bodies of jellyfish and other filter-feeders to flotsam in the guts of whales, sea otters, turtles, and just about every other form of marine life. It's everywhere.

As awareness grows, countries are starting to take action. Italy just banned the use of disposable plastic bags nationwide. China did the same thing way back in June of 2008. We dispose of about 500 billion plastic bags annually worldwide.

As swimmers, triathletes, kayakers, surfers, ocean lovers and generally concerned citizens, we can make a difference. If you're a race or contest director, consider using something other than plastic water and sports-drink bottles. If you're an athlete, carry a reusable stainless bottle and reusable coffee mug. Use reusable bags for shopping. If you must use plastic, make sure you recycle it.

And the next time you're swimming in open water, stay alert. You don't know what kind of nasty manmade junk you'll run into out there.

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An avid triathlete, runner, surfer and hiker, Chief Green Officer Bruce Rayner launched FitPlanet in early 2008 to provide cost-effective consulting and eco-support to race directors and the companies that support them.

FitPlanet provides news and information to inspire you to make more environmentally responsible decisions in your daily life, about the events you participate in, and about the products and services you buy.

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