Know your ocean. Love your ocean.

Author:Penn, Emily

I was woken in the middle of the night by a thud on the hull of our boat. We rushed up on deck to find we were surrounded by pieces of plastic floating in the ocean. It didn't make any sense. We were over 1000 miles from land. The closest people to us were in the International Space Station, in orbit above our heads. And yet here was evidence of human life, and waste, all around us in one of the most remote parts of our planet.

I was just out of university and working my passage to Australia when this incident sparked a new career direction for me: sailing the world on a mission to connect people--scientists and communicators--with the ocean, exploring marine issues from the Equator to the Poles.

At sea I saw first-hand the collapse of fisheries, toxic chemicals accumulating in marine organisms, island communities relying on imported packaged food and the extent of plastic pollution. We would stop at small islands and find that the locals could no longer catch fish to feed their families because commercial vessels had caused their fisheries to collapse. They could no longer grow crops in the ground as the rising sea levels had made their soil too salty. The consequence of this was a new reliance on imported food that comes wrapped and packaged in this strange new material--plastic.

With no system in place to deal with this trash, it ends up getting thrown on the beach and in the ocean, and is often burned. That stench of burning plastic kept getting in my nose. When I started researching what the smell was, I learned about certain chemicals--dioxins--that are formed during incomplete combustion of waste, and how they are carcinogens that can get absorbed into our bodies.

And so this became my first mission: to eliminate the burning of plastic across a group of islands in Tonga.


First it was about shifting thinking. As I started learning the Tongan language, I realized there wasn't a word for 'rubbish bin' on these South Pacific islands. The concept of throwing something away into a managed system didn't exist in that culture, as it hadn't needed to exist until very recently--organics can be thrown on the ground without problem. It wasn't only infrastructure that was needed; it was a whole new way of thinking about this new inorganic material.

Six months of working and teaching with the local community culminated in a colossal clean up. Together with 3,000 local volunteers we picked up 56 tons of trash in just 5 hours.


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