Situational Awareness

Sea turtles are often victims of ocean plastic entanglement and ingestion. Photo by Jonathan Waterman

Tonight, anchored along the western shore of Lanai Island, we’re reveling in the briny land smell beneath volcanic seamounts and mountain goat habitat.  Our scientific research is complete and all that remains is a final cleaning of the ship, a barbeque on deck, an alcohol-free swizzle party and another refreshing swim in the Pacific.  Strange indeed to spend a month at sea and only swim once we reach land again—but that’s all about safety, better known to sailors as “situational awareness.”  I’ll come back to that.

Tomorrow, Friday, we’ll dock in Honolulu and I’ll catch a plane home to Colorado.  Six miles above the Pacific, looking down over our vast ocean, I’ll be served food and drinks in single-use plastic containers that are designed to be thrown away.  Chances are that some of this plastic will make it back into the ocean because most ocean plastic likely comes from the land.

What can we do?  It would be a Sisyphean task to sweep the ocean clean of plastic.  Even if we somehow succeeded in sucking out the plastic this process would simultaneously eradicate the essential water-borne plankton and collapse the food chain.  So to clean up our oceans, it’s more probable to reform societal behavior and consumerism to slowly stop the flow of new plastic and allow the marine ecosystem to heal.

Back to situational awareness.  On a blue-water voyage like ours, we developed a keen situational awareness by paying attention to our surroundings and the consequences of our actions at all times.  While working atop the doghouse you stay crouched to avoid being clocked on the head in case the main boom swings.  While aloft, or throughout the ship, you reserve one hand for holding on.  While walking the deck at night you feel with your feet to avoid tripping and falling overboard.

Situational awareness at home is much more complex task. In particular, how do we assess the consequences of our actions as consumers?  How do we strike a balance between unnecessary throwaways versus those vital plastics in medical equipment, eyewear, or computers?  After all, plastics have made life on planet Earth safer, more convenient, and even pleasurable.

These are the kind of questions I have begun asking after a month out in the vast Pacific subtropical gyre, where we caught hundreds of tiny plastic pieces—often so small that we needed a microscope—every time we deployed a net.  The questions reflect my concern that we could be better stewards of the planet Earth.

Since we’re still at sea, with no Internet or other tools available to research potential solutions, I employed situational awareness and consulted my shipmates.  Situational awareness on board a tight ship also demands careful etiquette to avoid insulting or stepping on another sailor’s toes.  Consequently, I offer my shipmates’ suggestions gently, with the hopes that we can be perceived as role models rather than enviro-cops.

Also, the consensus among my fellow sailors is that plastic is too vital to be completely eliminated; rather it is the disposable and non-renewable plastics that we need to address.  And since plastics are petro-chemical products, our reliance upon fossil fuels further contributes to an economy of disposable plastic.

So here’s what the ship’s company plans to do to help make a difference as consumers and citizens:

  • Using alternatives to plastic trash bags and using canvas/cotton shopping bags;
  • Rethinking plastic recyclables rather than simply buying into the philosophy that it’s acceptable to be surrounded by and driving around so much plastic in our everyday lives;
  • Avoiding single-use, non-recyclable plastics (straws, plastic cutlery, plates, disposable plastic or Styrofoam cups, take-out food containers, etc.);
  • Rethinking every purchase as a consumer (e.g., throw-away bar codes, razors, gift cards);
  • Traveling with a permanent and metal coffee cup rather than constantly trashing plastic-lined paper or Styrofoam cups;
  • Patronizing restaurants and businesses that avoid single-use plastics (e.g., going to a farmer’s market rather than a big-box grocery store that gives away hundreds of produce and grocery bags daily);
  • Lecturing to audiences about the extent of ocean plastics;
  • Lobbying (e.g., letters to the editor, letters to the airlines, visits to chambers of commerce/rotaries to advocate for more plastic recycling and local ordinances to prevent waste plastic and one-time-use plastics);
  • Rethinking what kind of oceans our children should inherit.

But these ideas are merely a starting place.  As consumers, we can also demand legislation at a federal level, banning throw-away plastics, while pressing manufacturers for change—at least in paring down unnecessary wasteful plastic products that end up in the ocean.  It’s really a matter of scale, of situational awareness.  So Susan Freinkel concluded in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, when she emphasized that there’s nothing wrong with material things so much as how “our material possessions connect us to one another and to the planet that is the true source of all our wealth.”

Changing Planet