The Age of Plastic
The calm days on the boat are the worst. On the surface of the smooth water, the bottles and bits of styrofoam are more obvious. I want to keep telling the driver to pick each one up but we don’t. I feel guilty for not insisting.
In the back of my head I’m thinking that I can only see so far, so if there are this many floating bottles within one mile of ocean, how many more are there of them out there. What of those thatdon’t float like corks? What of those that are mostly submerged or sunk? It’s depressing and my mind moves on to something I feel I can do something about. I prep my dive gear or check my camera.
We dive and then go to a beach in the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Palau’s southern Lagoon. It’s not one with a summer house on it filled with BBQing tourists and we are only oneof three boats there. I eat my lunch from a Bento, a reusable one I’m glad to point out, but the chopsticks are wrapped in a light plastic that threatens to blow away in the wind as soon as I unwrap them. I tuck it up my wetsuit sleeve and eat. Sometimes I forget about it until I get out of the wetsuit at the end of the day, sometimes it’s joined by plastic bags, crisp packets, monofilament or anything else I find on a dive. Sometimes the plastic has been floating so long it’s too fragile to move and it just breaks apart as soon as I touch it, spreading itself out into smaller and smaller bite sized pieces.
After eating my lunch I hop out of the boat and take a walk along the beach. I’ve only been to this particular one a handful of times and want to explore. Walking to the furthest extent of the beach I duck down and walk under the canopy of trees overhanging the sand. I’m met with a sight that a few years ago would have been splashed all over the worlds press in the ads of Green Peace or any other Environmental NGO. The high tide line is a mass of styrofoam pieces. That’s the obvious stuff as it’s still white and in fairly large chunks and blocks, I wonder about the delicate electronic goods once cradled in them. But as I look around I start to see what else is there and the number of items and the diversity is staggering. Without even trying I see bottles, clear drinks bottles mainly but the white opaque shampoo or bathroom cleaner types are everywhere too, some broken, most still intact, so many clean, still with their wrappers on as if they got there yesterday. Next are the flip flops, thongs, slippers or whatever you want to call them, and again I wonder about the tourists or the fisherman who wore them. There are lighters, bottle caps, roll-on deodorants, toothbrushes, razors, propane gas cans.
I know that for every bit of plastic sitting on top of the sand there’s another hidden out of sight. Walking back to the boat I wondered when the last time this beach was cleaned, or if it had ever been cleaned, this World Heritage Site.
I wondered about the money that people pay to come here and how people paying to visit other UNESCO sites—the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu or Stonehenge in England—would feel if they were similarly befouled. I’m sure the companies and governments that rely on tourism to those sites are making sure that their livelihoods are not being buried under a mountain of refuse.
So much of this trash on the beach I recognized as things that I buy, use once and throw away. It seems our economy is geared to this system. There is no incentive or ability to take your recycled glass bottle to a store and get it refilled with fabric softener or deodorant or anything else that we would otherwise buy, use once and then throw away.
The old adage of “out of sight out of mind” is already coming back to haunt us. We have been throwing our sh*t in the oceans for so long now that the oceans can no longer hide it. Now it’s washing up on our “Pristine Beaches” and we can no longer ignore it.
Richard Brooks owns Lightning Strike Production, which covers everything from underwater to aerials. See his work at www.lightningstrikeproductions.co.uk