Model of a napthalene molecule, a simple hydrocarbon.

I did one 10-day Marine Debris cleanup tour to the beaches of Shuyak in June, and I just returned from a second such adventure in Izhut Bay, Afognak Island. In June, we had a group of young people on their first work experience, a beautiful setting, and a lot of very hard manual labor. This time the setting was also beautiful, whales and bears were never very far away, and the pulling and cutting of nets and moving of logs had not become any easier. The group this time consisted of volunteers of all ages, who signed up for their love of nature, adventure, and like-minded people to work with or perhaps they just wanted to get out on the boat for a week and get served three great hot meals per day.  In any case, they worked hard for it. 

A large amount of the debris we encountered on those beaches were fishing nets and lines, knotted into big and heavy masses of plastic and usually hopelessly entangled with driftwood, beach vegetation and weighed down with sand and rocks. Some of the plastic had been there for so long that nature had tried in its own way to incorporate it into the beaches. It was an arduous task to separate the plastic from the natural environment. With a crew full of positive spirit, we came to call these difficult tasks “teamwork opportunities” and usually set to work with many hands and backs until the entangled debris was hauled out never more to endanger wildlife or leach its load of chemicals into the environment. When we finally stuffed a disentangled net into a super sack and hauled it onto the skiff, and then looked over our shoulders at a beach now free of such hazards, it felt really good.

For the sake of trying to convey the full scale of the problem, here are some numbers: The Island C is 80 feet long and has two decks and a hold. Each 10-day trip filled the ship twice to capacity. In June, we estimated over 13,000 pounds. In September, we weighed everything and added 14,769 pounds, 9,933 of which were entangling debris, such as nets and lines, the rest are light plastics, buckets, buoys, baskets, bottles, styrofoam (I hate picking that up!), and everything else we use in our modern lives. For a full story of the last trip please visit keepkodiak.com and read the story under “News”.

As we were removing plastic off the beaches, I often thought about the chemical nature of these hydrocarbons and how marine debris is another type of oil spill, since plastic is made in part from crude oil (in the US a lot of plastic is sourced from natural gas). In a funny twist on this sordid subject, I just read that the scientist who first made polyethylene, which is at the base of the majority of plastic polymers, discovered it by accident. His name was Hans von Pechmann, which translates as Hans of Bad-luck-man. His bad luck was that he was too early to realize the implications of his discovery and others made the big money off it much later in history. Or perhaps his discovery was bad luck for our beaches. Back to the point: I thought about cleaning up oil spills and about the videos and pictures I have seen from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. How much oil is used to make the plastic and how much energy does it take to make? Once it is made, we have no plan for its disposal, it stays in existence forever. So much of what is collected on our beaches has travelled the ocean currents for many years. As I was picking up plastic bottles and buckets and lines and thinking about the oil spill, sweat was running down my face, because it was such an unusually warm June.

As I mentioned in the last column, this summer with its high temperatures, droughts, wildfires, warm ocean temperatures, whale and bird die-offs, and far reaching environmental impacts has converted even long-standing nay-sayers to proclaim that our planet is in trouble and the words climate change could just be describing it. Let’s refresh for a moment what exactly we know about the warming of the planet. Climate is the long-term trend of weather patterns. One hot summer does not make climate change, but several warmer than average summers or the sum of temperatures over a year being higher than the previous long-term trend qualifies as a climate change. 

We can measure the concentration of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. This is done in many places around the world, including on the top of mountains in the middle of the ocean such as at the Moana Loa observatory in Hawaii, where nearby sources of pollution are not a factor. Every year, that atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is a little more than in the previous year; a trend that has been consistent since they started measuring over fifty years ago. We also know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas along with some other gases such as the methane that the meat cattle are burping out into the atmosphere, and several others that may be found in the exhaust of cars and planes, and other sources. These molecules are an important part of the atmospheric layer around our planet, because they retain the sun’s heat and keep it from reflecting back into space. By adding too many of these molecules into that layer we have stuffed more downs into the blanket and now we are getting too hot under it. The planet is heating up because the greenhouse gases are retaining too much heat and do not leave enough gaps in the atmosphere for the heat radiation to escape into space.

Thank you for staying with me this far: it is a long and difficult story and it started with three different strands: the marine debris, the oil spills and climate change. They all have one thing in common: they are problems that have originated in our use of hydrocarbons. Too much of a good thing has become a problem. As we tell our children not to play with fire or not to run with scissors, our children are beginning to tell us not to play with hydrocarbons. We need to be more careful how much we take from this planet. We also need to pay more attention to the magic land of “away”. Nothing goes away, and we must consider the complete life cycle of the goods and services we produce and use. What happens to the fuel we put into our car? It turns into carbon dioxide and puffs into the atmosphere. What happens to the soda bottle after it went into the trash bin or to the local recycling center? Where does it go? Even if it changes form, is made into plastic pellets, what then? What is the energy cost of all that? Hydrocarbons are fascinating molecules and without them there would not be life, but when we play with hydrocarbons we are playing with the building blocks of life on our amazing planet. Just something to think and talk about.

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