Swimming Against the Tide: Plastic Pollution

I got a not-so-happy email the other day 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 Straight, 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 half way 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 water man, 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 (about 90 percent) 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.

Plasitc in Ocean 

Photo taken by Doug Woodring while swimming in the Lombok Straight, Indonesia on New Year's Day 2011. Unfortunately, these images are not unique to Indonesia. You'll find plastic waste on nearly every beach and in all the world's oceans and seas.

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. No one knows for sure as modern plastics have only been around for about 60 years.

There's not an ocean on earth that is not 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 Asia or North America. There are six other known tropical oceanic gyres in the world. 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 and sea otters. 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 back in June 2008. We dispose of about 500 billion plastic bags annually worldwide.

As swimmers, triathletes and generally concerned citizens we can make a difference. If you're a race 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 cup. 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 type of nasty plastic trash you might encounter.

Bruce Rayner is Chief Green Officer of Athletes for a Fit Planet, a leading provider of environmental consulting services to event organizers and online news and information for athletes. Look for the FitPlanet Pledge of Sustainability on race websites and find green events in the FitPlanet Green Events Directory.

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