A Plastic Ocean - Fiji

Fiji is absolute paradise! With its lush green mountains rising from a sapphire blue sea, Fiji seems to have it all; diving, surfing, hiking, waterfalls, and beautiful palm-lined white sand beaches. The people are the friendliest that I have encountered in all of my travels, and the culture is rich and beautiful. While Fiji is ripe with beauty and stunning landscapes, it is not immune from plastic pollution and beach trash. Unfortunately, Fiji's problem with plastic pollution not unique and are the same issues that face every beach-tourism based, oceanfront community around the globe. Back home we live in the tourist town of Santa Cruz, CA where flocks of visitors come to the beach every weekend. Sadly, we are used to seeing beaches littered with various packaging, plastics, and other discarded rubbish back home, but the issue is a bit more pervasive here in the islands. While Fiji is much better off than many other countries in this region, the beaches are littered with discarded garbage and plastic. In front of each and every resort, the beaches are maintained in a flawless condition with beautiful white sand that is raked daily to keep the the plastic and garbage off of the beachfront. But just around the corner, or on beaches facing away from the resorts, the plastic and garbage is not hard to find. Beach garbage is more prevalent on the beaches facing the larger cities and towns or where the currents and winds predominantly carry the discarded waste.



The most predominant plastic, by far, that we have found here in Fiji are single use plastic drink bottles (water/soda/etc) and plastic bags.  Many resorts and hotels in Fiji provides guests with bottled water and many of those bottles end up in the ocean.  We recently learned that in one area of Fiji, after a beach cleanup effort, all of the collected plastic was put into the local "dump" which unfortunately was in the mangroves! So after large weather event, rain and/or winds, the plastic mobilizes and ends up right back in the ocean and back on the beaches.

It is not just an issue on the shoreline, as we see it underwater in various formats. On the ocean floor or seabed we see discarded tires, cans and bottles, plastic bins and tubs, fishing line and other discarded boat debris, and plastic bags are just everywhere. We see the bags floating through the water, floating on the surface, and have even caught them with our fishing poles trolling behind the boat.


Part of the reason that we made this trip is that we wanted the girls to have more than just an awareness of the issues that their generation will face. I wanted them to see it, be in it, and to feel the urgency.  I spent much of my 20s traveling to tropical destinations to dive and surf. I saw so many pristine and untouched beaches and reefs. At that time, I was just starting to see the impact of discarded garbage and plastic in some of the area that I traveled to. Now it seems that it is everywhere, and only within 20 years!

Fiji knows it has a problem and has implemented a plastic bag fee to try to incentivize people to bring their own bag and limit the number of single use bags. Some places, but certainly not all places, charge a small fee for a single use plastic bag. My understanding is that Fiji is trying to ban single use plastic bags  altogether by 2020. While the effort to reduce single use plastic bags is a great idea, most people seen walking around town have their hands full of single use plastic bags.



A few of months ago we had an unforgettable experience with trash while we were out enjoying the waves at an island over 10 miles offshore from the nearest town. It was the day after a torrential rainfall and during the previous days' rain, the rivers in town were swollen to flood stage. Blissfully unaware of  what this meant, we headed offshore to catch some waves with the girls. The surf was super fun and we were all enjoying trading waves when we started to notice a line of debris approaching. Within a half an hour the lineup was full of garbage. Plastic bottles, bags of garbage, plastic bags, food wrappers, propane cylinders, diapers, aerosol canisters, and natural debris like tree branches and root wads. The lineup became too swamped with garbage for me to want to stay. I paddled over to the kayak with the girls and we all got our of the water. While we watched Brian catch a few more (he is a bit more hardcore than we are) we watched as the garbage and waste floated by. It was heartbreaking. I took the photo below and because it is a bit hard to see, I circled the trash in red.





So, as an environmentally conscious sailing family, what are we doing about it? We are already doing all of the typical Rs, we Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle to the best of our ability. We have integrated many non-plastic items into our everyday boat life. We use reusable water bottles and try to avoid purchasing single use drink bottles altogether. We have replaced our personal items with things like bamboo toothbrushes, non plastic bowls and cups (which is tricky on a boat that is constantly in motion. i.e. we have broken several glasses already) and we try limit the plastic that we purchase and bring onto the boat. It is not easy because everything comes in plastic packaging, literally everything! So we are talking and working as a family, to limit our purchase of things in excessive plastic packaging. We are not perfect but we are working towards being better every time we shop.

When we shop, we always go into towns with our "land backpack". In this backpack we bring a reusable water bottle and several reusable shopping bags. Before we left for our sailing trip, we (the girls and their friends) made several of these adorable reversible, reusable shopping bags. The bags roll up and have a velcro closure so that they are compact and easy to tuck into our land backpack (Pattern courtesy of Lisa Lam's book, A bag for all Reasons https://www.amazon.com/Bag-All-Reasons-all-new-occasion/dp/1446301850.) Even with our bags in hand, we have to constantly request no plastic or take items out of the plastic bags handed to us and return the bags to the shopkeepers. 




We also collect, pick up, and scoop out of the water! There is no limit to the amount of trash and plastic that can be picked off of the beaches here. It could be a full time 24/7/365 job for our family and, even then, we would not put a dent in the overall mass of garbage. But we do our part anyway, because we have to. We decided to target our efforts to make it a little more fun for our family. So we decided to target plastic single use bottles, flip flops, and other useful items. So when we go to a beach, which is most days, we don't leave without each collecting at least one plastic bottle, often times we collect more.


We also scoop items out of the sea when we can (meaning retrieving the item will not endanger us or the boat). We have scooped up all kinds of things from the water including plastic bottles, flip flops, and often mylar balloons.



We also collect flip flops of any size shape or style from the beaches. We typically try to score ones that are still usable. For some reason, we find that there are are unbalanced number of right flip flops, the lefts are a little harder to find. We collect the flip flops and when we get to shore we usually put the flip flops out with a "free sign" and watch as folks come by to take a single or pair. If we are talking to someone and they mention blowing out a flip flop we offer them our bag of options to see if we can find a suitable match. 



We have also been replacing our flip flops with reused beach flip flops as ours break. Since we have been here, almost 9 months now, Malia, Brian, and I have both blown out a pair of Reef flip flops. (Isla's Rainbow flip flops are still going strong.) I glued our flip flops back together until they were beyond repair. So now we are sporting an eclectic mix of reused beach flip flops. We are hoping that we can continue to use our recycled beach flip flops and not have to buy any new pairs while we are away.



We keep our collected plastic bottles and flip flops onboard and store them in our large aft lazarettes. When we get to shore, and only on the mainlands  (we have been told that outer islands do not have appropriate trash facilities), we put the plastic waste in the appropriate bin. Does that means that it gets recycled? Not necessarily. Fiji has set up a recycling program, Mission Pacific Recycling back in 1999 that was founded by some of the companies that were contributing to the plastic problems, such as CocaCola and Motibhai and Natural Waters of Fiji. Some of the plastics find their way to disposal by incineration and others find their way to the recycling facilities. Some of the plastic finds its way back into the ocean. Its frustrating! Recently, while hiking to a natural water slide, we noticed lots of trash along the trail. A couple of days later we returned with bags and collected over two bags of garbage while we hiked back to the main road. We caught a taxi back to town and disposed of the trash in the garbage bins and caught a bus back to our anchorage. While we were on the bus we saw passengers toss plastic wrappers and plastic bottles out of the window.


Sometimes the Ocean rewards us for our efforts.  I like to think of this as our ocean karma, like the universe giving back for our pick up efforts. We have found masks and snorkels, a (mostly) brand new straw hat, and most recently we found a single person kayak (the blue one) floating in the middle of the sea. 







I wish I held the solution to ocean plastic and garbage in my hands or that I could formulate a way to clean the ocean of our waste.  More importantly, I wish we, as a collective humanity, could change our paradigm, curb our demand for products, live within our means, and change the perspective that the ocean  is a vast garbage bin for our waste.

Recently I read an article that a friend posted about a forest restoration effort by a scientist named Cody Petterson located in San Diego.  Cody wrote about his sadness, fear, and desperation as he realized that the forest that he knew and loved, despite his extensive efforts, was not coming back...ever. His story hit home as I grew up in San Diego and went to 6th grade camp in the area that he was trying to restore. I felt a connection to the area that he was trying to restore and to his story resonated with me from the perspective of a scientist. As I read his story I walked through all of his emotions with him. I feel the same way about our oceans and reefs, an overwhelming sadness when I see how much degradation is all around us. In the end, Cody found resolve to go forward, uncompromising in doing all he could do as an individual and a scientist to make the world a better place for his kids and grand kids. And so I share in his resolve to do all that is possible, from my professional life as an Environmental Engineer, to my own personal responsibility to live a better less impactful life and to teach my girls to live gently on our planet.  I have hope that my daughters will be able to take their daughters to the places that we have been and that it will be better not worse, that they will not see the same plastic ocean.

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