Written by Matt Rutherford, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute
As the co-founder of 5 Gyres Institute, I’ve seen trash in the world’s oceans, but there are huge data gaps, like the Arctic. Our team decided to make a dozen copies of our research equipment and now loan this equipment to other scientists and sailors. One couple, Matt Rutherford and Nicole Trenholm, founders of the Ocean Research Project, have a trawl. They report here from the Arctic, with photos of trawling around Icebergs and the realities of waste management in the most remote human settlements on the planet.
I hear the leaves are starting to change color back in Annapolis. There are no trees in Greenland (except the far south) but it is starting to get dark at night. The darkness brings the cold and it’s not uncommon to wake up in the morning and have ice on the boat. Our heaters are all in a state of rebellion so we live with the cold, unless the engines on. My friend Micha told me to buy and install a car heater from Summit racing, which I did before we left. Just like your car, when our engine heats up we can heat our boat, but when the engine is off it gets cold again. Nikki told me “I’ve been colder spending the winter on a boat in Annapolis” so she’s fine with the situation. Next year we will have different heaters.
The darkness completely changes how we can operate in the Arctic. Normally sailing at night is nearly the same as sailing in the day, I’ve spent more nights at sea than I can remember. Mix the darkness with ice and now you have a very dangerous situation. So we get up before the sun and get underway as it rises, then we drop anchor before it sets. We have been reduced to doing day hops from one anchorage to another (I just make up the anchorages day to day depending on wind direction). At best we can only make 50-60 miles a day so it’s been slow.
We have also been getting stronger winds which makes it difficult to trawl for micro plastics.
Like most research when trawling for micro plastics you really want calm conditions. If there is a strong sea state the waves hit the trawl and splash water in front of its mouth pushing away the micro plastics which float on the surface. This will completely screw up your “how much micro plastics per square kilometer” average. We have had a little success. It’s impossible to say exactly what we have found at this point as the samples will need to be processed by Nicole in a lab back in the states, but we have found lots of bits of Styrofoam in the water.
Styrofoam is horrible stuff but it’s cheap to make and therefor cheap to buy. We love when things are cheap and convenient, hell we’re obsessed with it. I think we should ban Styrofoam, is it really that bad to spend a slightly larger amount of money on a less destructive material?
The bits of Styrofoam are not coming from Greenland but some of the floating trash is. They really struggle with waste in Greenland. Most of the trash gets burned locally and most of the trash dumps are right on the water. A strong gust of wind comes and there goes some trash in the water. They really are trying to deal with it but it’s such a difficult landscape and for thousands of years they didn’t produce any waste. In Greenland we only throw away our trash in the larger towns that have better trash burning facilities. To throw your trash away in a small town would be disrespectful.
The issue of waste is tied directly to one of the most difficult issues we have, over population. Over population is so difficult because there is no good strategy to deal with it. You can’t say “you can only have one child” to the entire world. There are twice as many people on earth as there was in 1960 when JFK was president. Every single person uses resources and produces waste. Some people are worse than others, but every person has some impact on this planet. In the end we might use so many resources and produce so much waste that billions of people die because of it, but that’s a terrible way of dealing with over population.
Over consumption is also a big problem. In the United States we consume so many resources and produce so much waste that if the entire world lived like we do it would take three planet earths to sustain the current population. We are the most influential country on earth, we could use that influence to teach the world to live in a state of equilibrium with our environment, but we don’t.
All of this has very little to do with us. It has to do with our children and grandchildren. What kind of world do you want to leave the future generations of your family? We have been lucky to live in a time when the earth is still relatively pristine but things are changing for the worst very quickly. I don’t have a bleeding heart and I don’t hug trees but I can understand the damage we are doing to our planet.
It wasn’t that long ago that I read in the news that there are 50% less mammals, birds, and fish on earth than there were in 1970. Things are already changing but it’s not about saving the planet. The planets not going anywhere, it will continue to turn. We need to save ourselves from ourselves. 99.9% of all life that has existed throughout the history of our planet is now extinct. If we don’t want to become a statistic we need to use that big brain of ours and figure out a way convince people to live more responsibly. If we don’t start making changes things are going to get very bad for our future generations.
(This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reprinted here with permission.)