You may remember the one-word career advice actor Walter Brooke gave to Dustin Hoffman in the iconic 1967 Mike Nichols film, “The Graduate.”
“Exactly how do you mean?” a befuddled Hoffman asks.
“There’s a great future in plastics,” Brooke says.
Well, five decades downstream, that future doesn’t look so great, particularly where it intersects with the oceans. Who could imagine then that whales would wash up on our beaches with their guts full of the stuff in 2018, or that turtles would be caught strangling with six-pack rings around their necks, or that we’d be ingesting plastic in microscopic form in the seafood we consume?
I have a faded, late ’70s photo of me standing on Marconi Beach on Cape Cod with a disgusted look on my face, holding a plastic tampon applicator I’d just plucked out of the sand. At the time, I was most disturbed that I’d been swimming on a national seashore with items that likely had been flushed into the ocean with raw sewage. I didn’t know at the time that the little piece of sun-blanched trash was a harbinger of one of the more challenging environmental problems humankind faces and a major problem for the seas in which we all love to recreate.
The thing that got me going on this topic is the expanding coverage of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an otherworldly mess of floating debris, mostly plastic of all description, that gathers in rotating ocean currents—a gyre—in the waters between Hawaii and California. This thing is not 2, 3 or even 5 miles across. According to the latest estimates, it’s three times the size of France. And it’s just one of five known accumulations swirling in the world’s oceans.
Scientists and ocean advocacy groups are trying to figure out what, if anything, humankind can do about cleaning it up. Much of what is there comprises microplastics that get into the food chain through fish and onto our tables. But there are untold billions of larger pieces that have washed into the oceans from rivers and shorelines undoubtedly due, in large part, to our careless disposal of, and ever-increasing use of plastics over the decades. It’s high time to get serious.
Businesses are beginning to pick up on the notion that we’re burying ourselves in plastic. Packagers and manufacturers are innovating with designs and materials that produce less waste. Just this year, we’ve seen companies such as Starbucks and American Airlines move toward eliminating the use of plastic drink straws. The producers of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show announced recently that their concessions were moving to sustainable foods and biodegradable serviceware. Good on them.
Thanks to the Keep America Beautiful anti-litter campaigns of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, it’s rare these days to see people toss bottles and cans out of car windows. Such practices are almost unthinkable today. We, as yachting enthusiasts, can make the same mental shift on our own turf. For starters, we can get out of the single-use water bottle habit. Dutch builder Amels is designing new drinking water purification systems into its Limited Editions projects. The system on the recently launched Limited Editions 242 New Secret could save 10,000 plastic water bottles a year, the build captain estimates. Many small efforts can add up.
Like the anti-litter campaigns of earlier days, growing awareness and direct action can net tangible results. It’s high time we start thinking about keeping the oceans beautiful.