Plastic superhighway: the awful truth of our hidden ocean waste

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Solving the issue of waste in our seas turned out to be more complex than scrounging for bottles off the beach, Laura Trethewey found

We called the competition Who Found the Weirdest Thing? So far, the entries that day were a motorcycle helmet, a lithium battery covered with scary stickers asking that we return it to the military, and a toy dinosaur.

The dinosaur was warm from the sun and starting to degrade. The ocean had smoothed and worn down its edges. Rocks and sand had crosshatched its skin. It was missing a hind leg. On one side it was dark grey; the sun had bleached its opposite flank white.

It was the second morning of a trip with Ocean Legacy, a group in Canada that collects and recycles plastic pollution from the ocean. We’d spent the first day trudging along Mquqwin beach in British Columbia, plucking bottles and buoys from the driftwood and branches – and it seemed to me the pollution was not as devastating as expected.

Online, I had seen pictures of remote Polynesian atolls covered in plastic. I assumed I would break down crying at the sight of branches tangled with detergent bottles, like some apocalyptic Christmas tree. But it was not like that; it was more diffuse, more diluted by nature.

More than 50% of what Ocean Legacy collects along the west coast of North and Central America is foam, a puffed plastic made mostly of air and polystyrene – a liquid hydrocarbon that is likely carcinogenic. A lightweight, bulky piece of foam sits top heavy above the waterline and has a greater sail area that the wind can push to shore. Plastic bottles are one of the next most common finds. Made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic bottle is denser than seawater and sinks as soon as it’s punctured. In Ocean Legacy’s experience, people are strangely good at screwing caps back on, so more bottles float to land intact than you might expect.

What we were collecting on the beach that morning was the lightweight cream of the crop: single-use items such as straws, plastic bags, cups, bottles. Cities around the world are drafting plastic-bag bans and encouraging reusable cups instead of disposable ones; it is such single-use items that are visibly washing ashore or floating on the ocean’s surface. It made me wonder what else we might ban or regulate if we could see all the heavier plastics and materials that never make it to land.

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But the beach was by no means covered in plastic, and by midday the toy dinosaur was still the weirdest find.

It was possible, Chloé Dubois of Ocean Legacy told me, that the dinosaur belonged to a victim of the 20 metre-high tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. The retreating wave sucked 5m metric tons of debris into the water: more than half the annual amount of plastic debris that ends up in the ocean went into the Pacific in a single day.

A year passed, and that debris started to wash up along the west coast of North America: a football, a volleyball, then a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, still intact inside a styrofoam container. Miraculously, the owner of the motorcycle was found by tracing the rusted licence plate, and the Harley was shipped back to Japan. North American beachcombers have since travelled to Japan to meet other people who had lost everything but these prized possessions; the Japan Love Project posts pictures online of items in an attempt to return them to their owners. I wondered if Japan Love might reunite the dinosaur with its owner.

Ocean Legacy estimates that a third of what it collects is from Japan’s earthquake; a Japanese grant actually funded their expedition to Mquqwin. But to qualify as official tsunami debris, the material has to come with something traceable, such as serial numbers or place names – a tall order for something that has spent months or years at sea. “An almost judicial level of evidence,” as one volunteer put it.

Dubois felt that minimising the amount of “official” tsunami debris in this way also minimised the larger issue of ocean plastic – and fitted a larger narrative that developing countries far away caused plastic pollution. As many as 167,000 plastic fragments swirl in just one sq km of water, and a 2015 landmark study published in the journal Science showed that China, Indonesia and a few other south-east Asian countries are responsible for releasing the vast majority of it. The US, with its long coastline population and high plastic consumption, was the only developed country in the top 20.

Globally, however, our plastic is interconnected. Until recently, developed countries shipped most of their waste to China for recycling. Developing nations are only now starting to reach western levels of plastic demand.

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