Properly Disposed

Emily Witt

  • Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea by Donovan Hohn
    Union, 402 pp, £8.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 908526 02 1

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.

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