A Big Ocean Plastics Problem… And The Huge Imagination to Overcome It

By Allison Cook, Community Engagement Director, The Story of Stuff Project

I’ve watched exactly two scary movies in my life – both within the same week when I was in seventh grade. Afterwards, while staying home one afternoon, I convinced myself someone had broken into the house, cut the phone lines, and was trying to kill me. I proceeded to then jump out the second story window and run up the street to my aunt and uncle’s to safety.

allisonsarah-and-caroline_sea-dragonAll of this to say I have a very vivid imagination. Give me just the littlest bit of information and I can see the contours of worlds and adventures far outside of my realm of experience. Over the last year, much of this imagining has built in anticipation of my current voyage; sailing from Bermuda to Iceland on a seventy-two-foot boat studying plastic pollution in our oceans.

I’ve never sailed before, and this expedition is everything and nothing like what I’ve imagined.

Sea-Dragon-SwellThe first failure of my imagination is polymer-based. There is far more plastic than I anticipated. I am surprised to find myself surprised. In the work that I do at The Story of Stuff Project, plastic and its many problems regularly surface in my day-to-day work. I’ve watched multiple documentaries on plastic and read countless articles. And still the amount of plastic out here is staggering.

Every sample of ocean water we’ve collected is riddled with plastic. I’ll admit that the tiny plastic pieces are not particularly impressive on their own. Yet, when I think about how vast this ocean is and how small a path we are traversing, the consequences of all of those tiny bits of plastic boggle the mind and deflate the spirit.

The sheer volume of plastic would induce a profound misery were I not in such bright company. I am in the constant company of over a dozen people who fuel my faith in a better world. On board we have a self-styled rapping eco-super hero, an indefatigable documentary filmmaker from Guatemala, and a spritely Texas activist who spends her free time stopping nasty fossil fuel development, just to name a few.

These people don’t just do good work- they are also good company. I’ve been brought mugs of hot ginger tea after bouts of seasickness without even asking for it. I’ve schemed hypothetical road trips with Martha Stewart and David Attenborough. I’ve hatched plans for new campaigns and future collaborations to put a stop to plastic pollution.

Allison-at-Helm-of-Sea-DragonLiving on this boat is itself an exercise in collaboration and a lesson in resilience. Need someone to wake up at 3 a.m. and steer the ship in blinding white fog? Sure! Sleep while pitched at a 45-degree angle on a cot slung from the ceiling and not even three feet wide? Not a problem. Over the last two weeks, the rest of my crew and I have adapted at rapid clip to the challenges of living on a boat amongst thirteen strangers with grace, grit, and panache. Get these people back on land and they will be unstoppable.

Adrift on the North Atlantic, I am able to imagine a better world: one with a lot less plastic and some damn good company.

 

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