Two decades ago a container ship travelling from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington, hit a winter storm and several shipping containers were washed overboard into the North Pacific. Among the lost cargo were 28,800 plastic bath toys: red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks. A year later, hundreds of the things began washing up on the islands around Sitka, Alaska, and amateur beachcombers practising the imperfect science of driftology started mapping the path of the toys as they floated the oceanic currents. Newspapers picked up the story. Eric Carle, the writer and illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, wrote a children’s book about the ducks. And 13 years after the spill, by way of a pupil’s essay, the story drifted towards Donovan Hohn, then a teacher in Manhattan.
Hohn quit his job to follow the ducks. His quest to trace the toys threads together a book – with a title and many conceits drawn from Melville – about globalisation, environmental havoc, climate change, fatherhood and the sea. What happens to our garbage in the ocean turns out to be upsetting. Most marine debris today is plastic, and most of it never sinks. Decades-old drift-nets float around, suffocating the occasional coral reef or sea mammal and forming ‘killer drift-net balls’. Wild shores look like city dumps. In one swath of the Pacific the water contains 46 times as much plastic as plankton. And albatrosses, ‘though less threatened than when feathered hats were in fashion’, accumulate plastic bottle caps and cigarette lighters in their guts. Hohn says he’s not an environmentalist, swashbuckler or scientist, that he never expected to navigate the Northwest Passage on a research vessel or concern himself with the bioaccumulation of toxins in the food chain. The result is a comprehensive book about how we’ve filled the seas with plastic by a man who writes as if he’s been swept up, like one of the spilled toys, in a gyre.
Hohn meets Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer from Seattle who edits Beachcombers’ Alert!, a quarterly newsletter that collects reports of flotsam from around the world and tries to map oceanic currents by connecting these discoveries to notorious shipping spills. Most of the toys follow an endless orbit until, eventually, they break down into tiny particles of plastic matter. Some of them have been carried south into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a system of currents that circles clockwise around Hawaii; at ‘the gyre’s becalmed heart’ is a plastic purgatory known as the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. Others have been carried east on the Alaskan current or west into the counter-clockwise orbit of the North Pacific Subpolar Gyre, and have then drifted to the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Panhandle and Siberia. On the evidence of one dubious sighting of a plastic duck on the coast of Maine, Ebbesmeyer thinks that some of the toys might even have been carried north into the Bering Sea, then northeast embedded in ice through the Arctic and finally south again into the North Atlantic.
In Alaska, where the animals first made landfall, Hohn travels with Chris Pallister, a lawyer recently separated from his wife, down on his luck, who has made it his mission to clean up a remote outpost called Gore Point. Situated on the windward shore of an isthmus, Gore Point is ‘one of the wildest places left on the American coastline and one of the last places on the planet you’d expect to have a garbage problem’. But it has become ‘a kind of postmodern midden heap’, with thousands of tons of ocean-borne trash reaching a hundred yards back into the trees. Here, 15 years after the spill, Hohn finds his first plastic animal. It’s a beaver, once a ‘lurid, maraschino red’ like a ‘mammalian interloper from somebody’s acid trip’, bleached by the waves to a pale ghost of its former self.
Hohn avoids romantic ideas about nature, so the incongruity of his find inspires greater awe than the wilderness around him. He says more than once that the scenery of Alaska, Hawaii or the Arctic is no more impressive first-hand than when mediated by painting, photography or literature. Nature writers’ hyperbole led him ‘to expect too much’. The trash heap, on the other hand, ‘sounded like a kind of wonder, akin to the Mammoth Caves or Stonehenge or the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, except that the Gore Point midden heap was the collaborative work of both nature and man, an unforeseen marvel that the ocean had wrought with the raw material we’d provided it’, and which will soon be added to when the Alaskan coast is visited by massive quantities of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Because it’s a marvel, some beachcombers object to the clean-up, and point out that the operation’s corporate sponsors include BP and cruise companies. Hohn agrees: he worries that a focus on nature’s purity enables what could be called greenwashing and that the Sisyphean task of bagging trash replaces more meaningful action. He sends his plastic beaver for chemical analysis and learns that it would take centuries to biodegrade and that toxins cling to the plastic, a process known as adsorption. The beaver was coated in 12 different polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, carcinogens banned in the US since 1979. ‘Some stories,’ Hohn writes, ‘only a mass spectrometer can tell.’
He next goes south to the subtropical gyre aboard the Alguita, ‘a kind of floating eco-friendly utopian experiment’ that trawls the waters around Hawaii with a sieve to determine the ratio of plastic particles to plankton. The boat is captained by Charles Moore, who ‘resembles the pioneers of oceanography, among the last of the natural sciences to professionalise for the simple reason that wealthy, swashbuckling, yacht-owning amateurs were often the only ones who could afford ship time at sea’. Although Hohn doesn’t find any toys here, the trip gives a sense of the scale of the plastic problem. Moore calculates that there has been an eightfold increase in the concentration of plastic particles since 1999 in the water of the Eastern Garbage Patch, off the coast of California. Hohn visits a local marvel, a plastic beach at the southernmost point of Hawaii Island, where he sifts multicoloured sand through his hands.
Hohn’s reverence for the polluted landscape grows as he goes along, as does his scepticism about the ways environmentalists have typically tried to win us over to their cause. ‘If I’m a taxpayer in Kansas,’ he asks a cetologist, ‘shouldn’t I be more concerned about investing in alternative energy, or reducing CO2 emissions from power plants, than about the suffering of whales?’ The cetologist starts to cry. But Hohn’s discomfort in the outdoors, his anti-explorer exploring and his insistently urban posture begin to coalesce into an argument: our ideas about nature are too magical, and as long as our environmental consciousness is tied to the idea of breathtaking scenery or David Attenborough’s ramblings about charismatic fauna, we will be satisfied with the preservation of beautiful symbols. Activists chain themselves to trees while Coca-Cola appeases guilty consciences by printing some arrows in a Möbius loop on the label of a plastic bottle.
‘Like all religions,’ Hohn writes, ‘American nature worship has since its inception undergone a series of schisms and reformations and inquisitions, prophecies of the Transcendentalists ossifying into sentimentalities and platitudes, only to give way to new prophecies (the Book of Muir, the Book of Teddy, the Book of Leopold, the Book of Carson, the Book of Hardin, the Books of Brower, Berry, Wilson, Dillard, Lopez, McKibben, Pollan).’ Americans have ‘come to equate beautification with salvation’. We believe in the importance of picking up a stray beer can on a beach. Instead of questioning the notion of disposable packaging, we insist on its ‘proper disposal’. Hohn’s ideas are more or less in tune with those of Edward Abbey: in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, a Vietnam vet called Hayduke wages guerrilla war on landscape-blighting public works projects but defiantly drops litter along the highways he hates. A few decades later it’s the polluter-sponsored beach-cleaning campaigns that bother Hohn. The lesson’s the same.
After the Eastern Garbage Patch, Hohn turns his attention to the toys themselves. ‘We are not meant to know where our possessions come from, we American consumers, or from what ingredients and by what mysterious processes they were spun and by whom.’ Marx is conspicuously absent from the discussion, but it isn’t difficult to tell what Hohn means when he writes of toys that ‘the real problem isn’t that childhood has been commercialised but that our economy has been infantilised’: not knowing how the ducks are produced, how they are carried across the ocean or what is meant by ‘made in China’ rankles him. So does the fact that the busy city wharves that Melville described are now covered in Astroturf and playgrounds while shipping containers arrive at industrial ports in unseen urban peripheries.
Hohn travels to Hong Kong for a toy manufacturing convention, then crosses to the mainland to visit the Po Sing factory in the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone city of Dongguan, where the animals were made. It’s the post-Christmas lull, but Hohn finds the workers busy making plastic handles for the Dr Brown baby-bottle brushes he has by the sink at home. When they give him a handle as a gift, ‘it’s as though some breach in my universe has been repaired, as if the arc between two oppositely charged poles has been jumped by an invisible surge. The air stills, the room grows quiet, even intensely ceremonial.’ The workers stare at him, baffled.
Then he reaches the machine in the factory that produces plastic ducks. The manager presents him with a special treat, the original die-cast mould for the ducks that fell into the sea. Hohn places a duck he’s brought with him into its concavity. It fits. ‘For a moment I half-expect some sort of cosmic magic to occur,’ he writes. ‘Instead, I just stand there muttering, idiotically, “Wow . . . Wow,” while behind me Po Sing’s perplexed managers look on and beside me an antiquated extrusion blow-moulding machine operated by a youthful proletarian drips out new ducks one by one: psssht, clamp; psssht, clamp; psssht, clamp.’ Just as nature is no more impressive than nature photography, Hohn’s visit to the factory doesn’t bring much more insight than looking at a picture of the factory would have provided. The meeting of producer and consumer shatters no illusions, and the workers’ lives remain unknowable. Rather than travelling into the future, to a world dominated by China, he feels he’s visited ‘some Twilight Zone version of America’s economic past’.
After crossing the Pacific in a cargo ship and investigating the underwater storms known as mesoscale eddies, Hohn makes a final journey to the Arctic Circle aboard an icebreaker. He earns his passage by volunteering to throw another sort of flotsam into the sea: old-fashioned glass bottles with messages in them, used by scientists to map currents. Although climate change has shrunk Arctic pack ice so that it is now easier for ships to traverse the Northwest Passage, the journey isn’t without the occasional icy impasse. They ‘might as soon attempt to transit the Gowanus Expressway’, Hohn writes of one attempt to penetrate an ice sheet. The traffic-jammed freeway takes its name from the Gowanus Canal, and the comparison is apt. Once lined with factories, the canal is now a symbol of post-industrial decay that cuts a malodorous channel through Brooklyn. The factories that make goods for New Yorkers are now in China or elsewhere. Their manufacturing gone, Americans commit themselves to cleaning up their waterways. Just before passing into the Arctic, Hohn sees a minke whale; reading this I recalled an episode a few years ago, when a disoriented juvenile minke whale was spotted splashing about the mouth of the Gowanus. ‘Frolicking Visitor Delights Hearts, Then Dies’ was the headline in the New York Times.
Moby-Dick and Moby-Duck both dwell on the Pacific Ocean and the problem of its abundance. Moby-Dick reconfigured the Pacific as an American West that would never be won, where ‘the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.’ Moby-Duck tries to rescue the Pacific from its usual role as a metaphor for all there is on Earth that man will never be able to pave over. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon wrote of ‘some unvoiced idea that no matter what you did to its edges the true Pacific stayed inviolate and integrated or assumed the ugliness at any edge into some more general truth.’ Hohn flips the notion: the edges will be cleaned up, and the ugliness concentrated in the garbage patches of the oceanic gyres. He focuses on the plastic duck, buoyant as Queequeg’s coffin in the immensity, not to emphasise the smallness of humans and their petty endeavours, but so that one might try to think of the Pacific as no more inviolate than a bathtub.
Hohn never suggests that plastic pollution is the worst threat facing the oceans: ‘that honour goes to global warming, or ocean acidification, or overfishing or agricultural runoff’. But plastic pollution could be curtailed. Nobody can deny that we produce plastic for purposes that don’t require it, from cradles that keep our fruit from bruising to tampon applicators that could just as well be cardboard. ‘As numerous conservationists have told me, compared with other environmental problems this one should be easy to solve,’ Hohn writes. ‘And yet we show no sign of solving it.’
Hohn apologetically returns to a familiar plea – this is the wilderness; isn’t it pretty; let’s save it by not buying so much useless crap and throwing it away – but he longs for people to find a different perspective on the situation, because the old strategies for urging change in consumer habits don’t seem to be imparting a sufficient sense of urgency. Plastic pollution is not just an American problem, but the US generates more waste than any other country, even if most of it is ‘properly disposed’. When Rwanda bans plastic bags, it’s a curiosity. But if the world’s biggest economies followed its lead, they might substantially change the plastic load of the oceans. It’s easier, though, to propose futuristic solutions: recycling, or biodegradable plastic bags made from vegetable oils. Hohn calls this ‘the American Comedy of Progress – the cherished notion that with time, technology, entrepreneurialism and, if need be, activism, all problems can be solved.’ In debates about everything from energy to transport to overpopulation, the myth of progress – solar-powered cars, carbon-neutral planes, genetically engineered rice, desalinated water and plastic-eating organisms – has won. The myth has always privileged economic growth, and it has sustained the hopes of the world’s largest producers of garbage. As an Italian visitor once said to me, after I’d showed her how to fold back the plastic tab on the lid of her coffee cup so that it snapped into place: ‘Americans! You invent these little things, and then you throw them away.’
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