As a visual metaphor, it was painfully apt: while Briton Dee Caffari skippered her Volvo Ocean Race crew through the Atlantic, they spotted a wheelie bin floating in the sea.
“It was crazy. We said, ‘there’s something in the water,’ and as we passed it we realised what it was. It was obviously submerged and you could just see the top but it would have caused a big problem if we’d hit it,” Caffari said.
For the young crew of the Turn the Tide on Plastic yacht, the wheelie bin was a sobering reminder of the urgency of their fight against marine plastic pollution -- a battle they brought to the high seas with their participation in this year’s gruelling round-the-clock Volvo Ocean Race, which ended in The Hague this week.
Backed by the Mirpuri Foundation, the Ocean Family Foundation and Sky Ocean Rescue, the team’s aim was to raise awareness of UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign while also carrying out scientific research into the presence of microplastics in our seas.
Not to mention the small matter of sailing 45,000 nautical miles -- the longest course in the race’s history -- over eight months, battling the elements in a true test of human endurance.
Caffari, who has now sailed around the world six times and who was the only female skipper in this year’s race, said her crew, mostly aged under 30, rose to the challenge -- both on the sea and on land where they worked tirelessly to encourage people to ditch the throwaway culture that is threatening the world’s waters with a toxic tide of plastics and microplastics.
“They’ve been amazing. We’ve been much more competitive than anyone thought we would be,” Caffari said during the Leg 10 stopover in Gothenburg in Sweden. “There is a very nice synergy with having an under-30 crew. There’s a genuine concern for ocean health and they are very aware that this is their problem and that they need to action change so that their children inherit a better place. They are passionate and genuine about the message we are conveying.”
This passion was stoked by what the team encountered on the high seas. For Caffari, who was the first woman to sail around the world single-handed and non-stop in both directions, these sights were particularly poignant.
“I wondered at one stage if I was just seeing plastic pollution because I was more aware of it. But when the others on the boat, who were doing this for the first time, commented on how much there was, I was suddenly aware that it had increased,” she said.
“You see bottles, polystyrene, helium balloons, crates, buckets, fishing nets. You see all sorts and my new bugbear is polystyrene packaging and helium balloons.”
Off the coast of South America, the crew saw a group of seals playing with a plastic bag.
“To see wildlife in its natural habitat, playing with something that shouldn’t be there, it’s heartbreaking,” Caffari said.
The plastic waste even affected the crew’s ability to sail safely and competitively.
“There’s constant risk of plastic or rubbish getting caught on our foils so whether it’s a daggerboard, a keel or a rudder, it affects our performance and our boat speed. It’s a constant concern. The guys check every couple of hours under the boat with an endoscope,” Caffari said.
“There’s so much stuff in the water and you can’t guarantee what’s going on.”
As they sailed, the team tested the water for microplastics, sending the filters back to the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel for analysis as part of the Volvo Ocean Race’s Science Program.
The results from the Southern Ocean were startling. Microplastic particles were found close to the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone and although the level was low compared to other oceans -- four microplastic particles per cubic metre -- the very presence of these tiny pieces of plastic was game-changing.
“When you get to Point Nemo which is the most remote place in the Southern Ocean, where the closest person to you is in the International Space Station, and you still find microplastics present, you realise that it is a really big problem,” Caffari said. “We obviously expect coastal areas and the Mediterranean or high-population areas or busy seaways to have a high concentration of microplastics. We never expected that in the remote Southern Ocean where there is no traffic or anything going on, there would be a presence.”
It is not yet clear how microplastics -- pieces of plastic under 5 millimetres in length -- might affect our long-term health but research has found that there are as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles -- 500 times more than stars in our galaxy -- in our oceans. Particles have also been found in fish and bottled water.
As well as working with GEOMAR, the Volvo Race teams have also been dropping drifter buoys from the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to collect ocean data. This should enable them to map currents and determine where the microplastics that were found in the Southern Ocean came from.
Despite the scale of the problem, Caffari remains upbeat because of her firm belief that change is possible if everyone works together.
“The harsh reality is that the problem is caused by us, by our throwaway culture and single-use plastic consumption. But what is heartening is that things can change and it’s very easy to make the change,” Caffari said.
“We’re encouraging everyone to sign the UN Environment pledge on Clean Seas … but also to practise what they preach. What we are trying to do is let people know that very simple changes in behaviour in everyday life would make a big difference if we all did it as a collective,” she said.
Education was a key focus of the team’s on-land campaign and they used the race’s mascot -- Wisdom the Albatross -- to reinforce their messages to children. They had to adapt their campaign for each of the 12 host cities where the race docked, to take account of each nation’s particular circumstances.
“In Asia, they are just noticing the problem and in Sweden they have got a very intensive recycling plan in place. But so long as we are all moving forward on the journey it doesn’t really matter where anyone is,” Caffari said.
The top five marine plastic polluting countries are in Southeast Asia -- China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. But as Caffari notes, that is not the whole story. She remembered how the crew were sailing through the region earlier this year when China was implementing its decision to no longer accept shipments of rubbish, such as waste plastic and paper, from Britain or other countries.
China is the main destination for more than half of plastic waste exported by Western nations, and Caffari believes the decision to halt these imports was a crucial one.
”We need to deal with our own rubbish ourselves instead of sending it to other countries. Asia does have a huge problem but we don’t help by sending our rubbish to them,” she said.
As the ocean race drew to a close, Caffari was hoping to give the crew a “moment of glory” on the run-in to the Hague. But their race against the destruction caused by plastic pollution would continue, she said, with each team member seeking to keep momentum going in their own way.
She believes that creating a virtuous circle is key. If the public demands more responsible policies, this will filter down to producers and force changes in manufacturing. Government legislation is also important to encourage people to think outside the box and accept the inevitability of change.
“We need plastic,” Caffari says. “But the type of plastic and what we do with it afterwards is the key thing here … Let’s think about a circular economy, let’s think of putting the infrastructure for recycling in place behind it and let’s make sure (plastic companies) are responsible for what they are producing and for where it goes beyond that.”
In a sense, the sheer scale and ubiquity of the problem may contain the seeds of a solution.
“For a while now, the issue has always been in someone else’s river, someone else’s beach, someone else’s ocean. Now, with the fact that it’s gone full circle, that microplastics are in the fish that we’re eating … I think people realise that it’s their problem, it’s everyone’s problem. It doesn’t matter where you live.”