How a misdirected love story speaks to the crisis in the Pacific.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Late last month, as the sun set on the beach at Spanish Bay, Trish Landon cried. Her love life was in ruins, and she had just lost a job she loved.
Landon figured new love was the antidote to her heartache. She decided to skip newspaper personals and online dating to go the castaway route instead.
On the outside of her red plastic wallet, she drew a smiley face and wrote in permanent pen, “Please open me.” On the other side she added, “Call me! 50¢ enclosed. I hope this has reached Hawaii. Open. Open.” A heart formed part of the exclamation point.
Inside its hard shell she placed pearls: contact info, two quarters, and a note that read, “Tues 6/15/2010. Hi, I am Trish DWF likes men 45-60 age. I just turned ‘50.’ I miss… LIFE. I am outgoing blond nice two grown kids. Love the beach/ocean.”
She also added half of a Star Wars flyer with half a message on the back that looked as if the full thing would read, “I am a Star Wars fan. Call me.”
“I just put that ‘Hawaiian lei’ in there and thought Romeo would be on the other side of the ocean,” Landon said later, still sounding sullen. “I tossed it in the ocean. I saw it float, and then a wave caught it. I watched for about 10 minutes, and it disappeared.”
Landon did not realize that there was a watery titan waiting to crush her fantasy, a mass that makes the Titanic’s iceberg look microscopic in comparison.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a sprawling froth of garbage twice the size of Texas, laid in wait, ready to aborb it. Mostly plastic blown or washed off from land, it has two main arms. One of them spirals east of Hawaii, the other west. It’s no coincidence it lies between China, the largest manufacturer of plastic products, and the U.S., the largest plastic consumer.
“I had no idea about that,” she says, her voice shuddering a little.
Only her message didn’t circle for a thousand years in the plasticized Bermuda Triangle. A call came quickly.
Two days after Landon threw the wallet, Ximena Waissbluth and a friend stumbled on it while walking along the rocks and tidepools that border Spanish Bay and Asilomar State Beach. The ink on the outside of the wallet had nearly faded; its metal rims were already rusted. This was not exactly the transpacific voyage Landon anticipated.
Waissbluth runs a newly minted marine debris training program, sponsored by the Surfrider Foundation and funded by NOAA, that trains participants to teach the community about plastic pollution.
“The quantities of plastic [ending up in the ocean] are astronomical in the last couple of decades,” she says, “without people either realizing or thinking about it.”
Studies show plastic kills countless amounts of at least 267 species, including fish, mammals, seabirds, and reptiles, every year. For some, Landon’s floaty red plastic wallet looks just like a yummy fish.
“Whether it’s a whale, dolphin, shark, or any large fish, it could easily eat the wallet, mistaking it for prey,” Waissbluth says.
When sunlight and wave action eventually break the wallet apart, fragments will look just like krill and squid.
“Close to 40 percent of all chicks born each year die of plastics ingestion,” Waissbluth said of albatrosses studied on islands near these giant floating dumps. “And that to me is heartbreaking. The parents feed them what they’re finding in the ocean, which should be squid and krill that they normally eat, but turns out to be lighters and parts of plastic bottles and any other plastic consumer items that you could think of.”
Scientists agree these birds are the canaries in the coal mines. Studies have shown floating plastic debris can accumulate toxins 1 million times more concentrated than surrounding seawater.
Small fish eat this plastic, big fish eat the small fish, and toxins move up the food chain until they hit us.
“If you have a fish on your plate, there are probably some nasty chemicals in it that you and your children will eat,” she says. “It’s not good for our health and should not be getting into our bodies.”
Landon, whose name has been changed at her request, didn’t find her match, but she did discover a heightened awareness of herself and her surroundings. She turned regret for her amorous piece of pollution into recommitment to things dear to her heart.
“I’m the one who is really nuts about animals,” she says, “and I am conscious about my plastics.”