Active hope in a Plastic Era

This is a piece I wrote in 2017 when I was writing up my Masters Research in marine debris

When I say “I’m doing my dissertation in marine debris – I study the plastic in the ocean” a pretty common response is “Why don’t you give up? There’s no point trying to fix something that big.” This response comes from all walks of life – young lefties and environmental lobbyists have asked me this as well as my conservative Catholic family members. I can see why they react in this way. When confronted with environmental problems on the scale that we face, hopelessness is easy. For young people like me, we were born after the Rio Summit. We have grown up watching world leaders flounder and drag their heels as environmental problems worsen at an exponential rate. Now, it’s our job to deal with the problems of climate change, biodiversity loss and all the health impacts of our warmer, plastic world.

This year was the first year that I got to carry out an extended research project in marine debris. I tested methods to estimate the accumulation of marine debris and assessed where debris accumulated along the coast. I developed an algorithm to estimate the amount of debris that would have washed up and been washed away again in the time between my surveys. This is an important question, because it means that volunteers can assess how much debris is in the ocean not just what is present on the shore at the time of the survey.

I conducted my research in Murramarang NP on the south coast of NSW. I spent 74 days and 1500 km walking along, looking for debris. I found it too – hundreds of microplastic fragments through to large pieces of foam that had been weathered by the wind to resemble the boulders that had surrounded it. People pitied me. Walking along this beautiful coastline searching for evidence of the Anthropocene. I had to externalize the implications of my research. In order to get the data I needed, I blocked out the meaning of the rubbish washing up along the beach. Plastic was my subject and this approach needed to be tested, hopelessness was not an option.

I walked the same tracks to my study sites for five weeks in autumn and five weeks in winter. Over time, the environment got used to me. Lyrebirds stopped caring that I was there. White bellied sea eagles flew overhead every day and Australian fur seals followed me along the coast. On occasion, a brown snake or diamond python would cross the track. In winter the whales came with their calves, teaching the young ones to breathe and play. I found joy knowing that my research could make even a tiny contribution to their survival.

In July, the debris stopped. Day after day, nothing washed up. It was a bit of a shame for my experimental design, but the ongoing absence of debris intrigued me. I looked at the ocean currents and runoff and found some interesting factors at play. Rainfall in July 2017 was low across the east coast of Australia. Westerlies were the dominant wind direction when East Coast Lows usually drive winds from the southeast. The water that I was surfing and studying was cold and clear. An upwelling system was sitting off the coast. Upwellings are when cold, deep water is sucked to the surface as winds drive the warm surface waters away from the coast. I was sampling ancient sea; waters that had travelled at depth, slowly through the ocean. There wasn’t any debris in the water because the waters had not yet seen the plastic age. Low rainfall had prevented urban runoff from washing the usual cups, wrappers and bottles into these waters.

My experiences and my findings from this research has helped me figure out why I don’t give up. Believe me – sometimes it feels overwhelming. The scale of our environmental problems is too great for me to really imagine, but life on earth survives. The lyrebirds, snakes, eagles, seals and whales are still going. Upwellings continue to show that if we adopt rapid waste reduction and management strategies, there will still be clean oceans in some parts of the world. I’m not giving up because the ocean hasn’t given up. Considering how much I’ve contributed to the problem already, I owe it to the oceans to persist. 

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