Current position of the SSV Robert C. Seamans. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the tools, top right, to change the map style or view data layers. Dates and times use GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).
SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
November 27, 2017
Plastics in Our Oceans: We’re All in the Same Boat
30°42.3’ S x 178°13.0’ W
South of Cheeseman Island
Course & Speed
005° PSC at 3 knots
Sailing under the four lowers: Mainsail, Main stays’l, Fore stays’l, and Jib
Sunny with slow-moving tropical clouds
Hello, dear reader!
Up until now, daily blog posts have covered life onboard our floating home/lab and the cultural research, science deployments, and sail handling—with the occasional relay race or poetic interlude thrown in to boot-- that comprise our day-to-day on the Seamans. Today, however, S-276’s Conservation & Management class have the privilege of sharing some of the research we’ve been conducting in both Woods Hole and here in New Zealand (well, several hundred miles offshore, currently).
During the shore component, all of us in Conservation and Management applied our various skillsets in fields ranging from creative writing to robotics to biology to make some sense of the overwhelming proliferation of plastics in our oceans. Despite significant research into the issue, the global plastics industry is thriving at an all-time high and showing little sign of slowing; many geologists have described the latter half of our twentieth-century and our lifetime as the Age of Plastics. From everyday items like grocery bags and straws to much younger technology like 3D-printed plastic components, cultures around the world are increasingly coming to terms with the environmental impact of plastics. Back ashore, we worked with the Falmouth Water Stewards and Skip the Straw (a group of inspiring middle-schoolers) to collect and analyze current research on the behavioral science underlying plastics consumption, survey the public and restaurants in Woods Hole about the plastic use habits, and research existing plastic use reduction campaigns. Ultimately, this work will culminate in a solutions journalism article describing the problem and actionable steps that can be taken on an individual level to begin to reduce one’s own use of plastics, deciding to approach the problem from the age-old marriage of supply-and-demand.
While in New Zealand, we have continued our quest to better understand this plastic problem on a more global scale, interviewing locals in both Auckland and Russell and also observing the availability of single-use plastics in various restaurants and coffee shops. After comparing our new findings to the data we already had from Woods Hole, Analysis of data sets clearly illustrates that awareness of the issue is much higher here in New Zealand. Almost all interviewees described in-home recycling as absolutely standard, with recycling bins provided as part of the government trash collection services. The disparity of responses between New Zealand and Woods Hole interviewees can be seen in the graph below.
Although many Woods Hole interviewees said they recycled most of the time, it is not part of government trash collection services and, as such, is not standard in the same way that we found at home recycling is in New Zealand.
Similarly, the issue of straw usage also appeared to be settled here in New Zealand, with most people saying that they never used a straw and only do so begrudgingly when given one. Once again, the issue of awareness came into play in that most of our interviewees described some form of plastics usage education during their schooling days. One of the more curious impacts on straw usage here in New Zealand is the coffee industry. All coffee shops observed here in New Zealand use an espresso machine and focus on only a few select coffee drinks rather than a wide array of blended drinks like one would expect to find in the US. As a result, much of the coffee here is served without a straw. In the same vein, we’ve also observed little to no soft drink consumption publicly, which may cut down on straw usage as well. The visual comparison of straw usage between New Zealand interviewees and Woods Hole interviewees can be seen in the above graph.
The experience itself has also been at times rewarding, others frustrating, and revealed a good deal more about the issue than the data itself. Some of our favorite moments have included the husband and wife interviewees who vehemently disagreed with one another on their own plastic habits, the backpacker who was accidentally interviewed twice and answered the same questions differently (don’t worry Erin, we interviewed someone else as well), and the elderly gentleman who launched into a tirade against American exceptionalism at two interviewers. The differences in responses to our interview questions across demographic and global boundaries have only served to reinforce the notion that more awareness and research needs to be done on the plastics usage problem, with the understanding that plastic consumption and the effects plastics have on the environment is a truly global issue.
(While we have definitely begun to identify some trends in the data and some important differences in awareness and attitudes towards single use plastics usage between the US and New Zealand, these data are still very preliminary. It is also worth discussing the sampling bias inherent in this survey as some of the people interviewed in both Woods Hole and Auckland were tourists and/or may not be entirely representative of those areas.)
Lastly, a poem for our awesome leader Erin Bryant:
We’re thriving on solutions, we’re skipping all straws,
We’re all for dissolution of the plastic-strewn flaws,
We write you dear Bryant from the ends of the Earth,
Thanks beyond thanks for the knowledge and mirth.
Until next time,
The S-276 Conservation & Management Class