by Tobias Thornes
I’m going in search of an island. It’s no ordinary island. You won’t find it on any map; it can’t be seen from space. Yet it’s the size of Texas. The only way to reach it is by sea, but you won’t see it coming. You’ll only know you’ve reached it when it already surrounds you. This is an aethereal island, one that didn’t exist a century ago. An island composed of spent dreams and ugly remnants: the refuse of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the flotsam and jetsam of the wreckage of the modern world. A whirlpool of waste; a giant reef of rubbish.
Getting there, it’s going to be a long journey – that I know for certain. The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, as my destination has come to be known since its not entirely unexpected discovery by a trans-Pacific sailor in 1999, lies at the nucleus of a swirling gyre of congregating ocean currents in the vast open ocean between Hawaii and Japan, which drags debris of all kinds from the coasts of Asia and North America into its poisoned plastic heart. Not many boats cross these waters – nearly four thousand miles separate the two archipelagos – and given that the huge tourist ocean liners that occasionally make the crossing are scarcely less harmful to the environment than aeroplanes, I’m seeking out a smaller ship that will take even longer than usual to traverse the distance. In 2008, a Japanese sailor managed this task on a boat powered entirely by waves. The journey lasted nearly one hundred days, but without any greenhouse gas emissions at all.
My slow travel across the Pacific will be slightly faster, but by the slightly murkier means of a new solar- and sail-powered ship. When the sun shines and the wind blows, these renewable resources will replace our dirty diesel generator to propel us across the waves. I’ve crossed from Korea to Japan, that other Asian centre of innovation, to join a fishing expedition with a difference, trawling for trash rather than trout from the deeps. It’s another irony to me that Japan, this crucible of science and research, this somewhat socialist society apparently content with economic stability rather than groping for growth, and the proponent and progenitor of rubbish-raking renewable transport, has facilitated and encouraged the production of so much of the cast-off clutter we’re trying to collect.
Where have all those billions of gadgets – from computers to cameras, ‘Walkmans’ to wireless telephones – that Japanese companies have created and Japanese factories have proudly forged for half a century ended up? How much needless electronic waste has been piled up on land and at sea in the drive to produce ever smaller, faster, ‘better’ devices and simply throw away and replace their perfectly workable but redundant predecessors? So many amazing feats of technology, taken for granted then tossed away.
Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo – all look the same to me, despite their respective countries’ very different histories, cultures and social systems. All of them have been colonised by a capitalist consumerism alien to their surroundings in space and time. It’s these putrid palaces of human pride that best epitomise the out-with-the-old culture that is ravishing our world’s resources and plasticising our own environment.
It’s a magical morning when I board the boat. With a gleaming sun and a healthy wind we’re set for a sustainable start to our voyage. Yet there’s no denying that I go with dread and fear. Ahead of us spans a stupefying stretch of swirling sea; once we’re hundreds of miles from shore, there’ll be no turning back. And watching the enchanting islands of Japan receding into the distance, a land-lover like myself cannot help but foster pangs of regret. Alas, the thoughts I flounder to find to distract myself from the long voyage ahead are far from comforting. Though this ocean flaunts serenity today, peering into its silvery ripples I can’t avoid musing on the wild waves that whipped up these waters into a force of such destruction that fateful March day in 2011. And who knows what noxious nuclear nasties now lurk beneath the surface, the remnants of a toxic soup concocted in that nightmare collision between the sloshing sea and an ill-prepared nuclear power station?
Not all human waste is visible, and it’s what can’t be seen that has the most frightful effects. Invisible particulates that line our lungs are the cruellest consequence of city air pollution; radiation poisoning may only make itself known days, weeks or years after exposure, in painful, grisly ways. Think of poor Marie Curie, who became so radioactive the cookery books she merely touched are still too dangerous to handle today. When at long last we reach our island of rubbish, it becomes clear that the same is true here. There are a few larger items bobbing here and there – fishing nets that can catch and kill passing marine mammals, though there’s nobody here to haul them in; bottle-top buoys and trashed toys flushed from rivers and beaches and swept out to sea. But most plastics soon disintegrate under the triple assault of salty spray, searing sun and unseen microorganisms, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces and leeching toxins into the blue.
So it is that we’re surrounded by mostly unidentifiable remnants suffusing the surface, and hence the analogy of the semi-submerged island. It’s difficult to believe just how vast this agglomeration is – mile after mile, hour after hour we plough our way through, picking up what pieces we can with a specially-designed scoop. But what we gather is all too literally a mere drop in the ocean. In fact, the most worrying thing of all is that the garbage patch isn’t visible growing any bigger, even as the industrialised world pumps out more and more waste. All that rubbish must be going somewhere, but we can’t see it.
Now we think we know the dirty truth. The pieces are becoming so small that they form an invisible plastic plankton, outnumbering real plankton in some parts of the ocean. These toxic trinkets are swallowed by plankton-eating fish, and slowly make their way up the food-chain. Pictures of sea-birds whose stomachs are stopped by indigestible pieces of their poisonous plastic feasts are the most horrifyingly visible evidence of the damage done by marine pollution. But the plastics and heavy metals that we dump may be wreaking still greater damage in a more insidious form, and if you eat fish they’re probably already infiltrating your own dinner-plate.
Flushing away our needlessly-produced, deadly toxic rubbish ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is really just another way in which humanity is slowly undermining our own survival. Again I stare down into the murky water, this time thinking of the dumped crates of computers, wrecked ships and scuttled nuclear submarines that reportedly line the ocean floor, rotting away. When will the unseen sludge oozing from this detritus begin to seep all too unstoppably into our lives? Will these spectres from a careless past come back to haunt humanity’s future? Or can we clean up our societies and clear up the time-capsules of calamity we’ve already planted before it’s too late? I fear that only time will tell.