Tag Archives: South Atlantic Gyre

Uruguay Natural!

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Early in the morning we decide to drive to La Paloma, a three hour marathon in a virgin rental Chevy (we tripled the amount of KM on the counter) through pouring rain. Just as I’m getting discouraged by the prospect of having to pick plastic trash from the beach in the rain without raincoat, the sun appears. Today Manuel decided to bring Mate, a traditional South American drink, made of steeping dried leaves of yerba maté. Hot water is pored over the leaves and through a metal straw the energizing liquid is sucked up. Now I know why so many people walk around on the street with this weird bowl and a huge reservoir of hot water supply; it works! The foggy feeling is fading away and thanks to the mate I make it through the day.

We go to the area with has rocks rather than just sand, so cleaning machines can’t get to that place. Result: more plastic. The most shocking discovery however remains the amount of virgin plastic, the first stage of any plastic product (see also previous post). Later we drive to an area were humans rarely pass by. Water erodes the soil and creates beautiful canyons and mountains. Close to the ocean you see the polluted flood line very clearly. Also here there is an abundance of plastic pellets. It is hard to see in the sand but between the dark rubble of the floodline it is clearly visible; highly poisonous particles permanently presenting a new possible definition of the sustainable mantra People Planet Profit.

It starts to rain again and we follow the sun towards Brasil. A game we keep playing until we decide to return (again through pouring rain).

On the way back I keep thinking about the plastic nurdles: why does no one do something about it? Why is it not regulated? Why is the oil industry allowed to litter so much virgin plastic during their production and transportation process? Why do so little people know about its existence, let alone it’s growing lethal force. Manuel, who is coming to these beaches his whole life never noticed the nurdles, neither did his friends. He will never look at the pristine beach in the same way (my fault), but hopefully when he finishes his law studies he will be a future fighter or influential regulator of a better and healthier (ocean) life and definitely promoting a more representing slogan of his home country which is currently Uruguay Natural!

José Mujica, may the (courage to) force (change) be with you!

Persistant Pollutants on Plastic Pellets

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The weather prediction is bad for Tuesday with fierce winds so we change our plan and try to rent a boat today to go to the close by Isla de Gorriti. It is located in front of Punta Del Este, a beach town and resort in the process of getting ready for mass tourism coming mainly from Argentina during the Christmas holidays. We get on a small motorboat that brings us to the island and will pick us up no later than 4pm. There is no one living on the island where we can spend the night in case we miss the boat. I’m doubting which scenario I prefer because the island is like a Bounty commercial… We decide to circumnavigate the island to have an idea of the overall pollution degree. In the course of several hours we fill up two big bags.

On the windy side of the island facing the ocean, we check the last flood line and I’m shocked about the amount of plastic pellets or nurdles we find. Without any effort I can pick up 10 or more pieces in an area of just 10 x 10 cm. Most of them are quite new (no cracks or color changes) so I think they come from a local (South American) plastic company.

Plastic resin pellets are small granules generally in the shape of a cylinder or a disk with a diameter of a few mm. These plastic particles are industrial raw material (also called virgin plastic) transported to manufacturing sites where “user plastics” are made by re-melting and molding it into the final products. Resin pellets can be unintentionally released to the environment, both during manufacturing and transport.

Dr Hideshige Takada, professor of organic geochemistry at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, has been examining these pellets for the pollutants they carry. Anyone who finds nurdles on the beach is encouraged to send them to him for analysis. The pellets, which are made from crude oil, work as magnets on oil based ‘persistent organic pollutants’ or POPs, which previously were dumped in the oceans. They ‘store’ the pollutants and become chemical mini bombs, which fish take for food and which inevitably end up on our plate. Dr Takada creates graphs which show the amount of the different POPs that are found in the pellets worldwide.

One of the most common chemicals in plastics is Bisphenol A. This compound is an endocrine disruptor which can mimic oestrogen and has been linked with an array of afflictions as diverse as diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, thyroid disorders, ADHD, infertility, erectile dysfunction, early-onset menstruation and obesity. Bisphenol A and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) can pass through the placental wall and also enter infants through breast milk. Is it a coincidence that all the before mentioned diseases exploded in the last decades?

We make it to the boat in time and continue to drive up the coast to see whether it makes sense to come back the next day. The further we drive towards Brazil and an open connection to the ocean, the more plastic we find that is not directly relating to land pollution or which shows more traces of a long life at sea.

We collect two more bags and then I realize that I’m as red as a lobster. My white trash winter skin was not prepared well for the Uruguayan summer and on top of that I learn now (better late than never), that exactly above this area there is a huge hole in the ozone layer. Talking about one problem… Doctors advise to keep away from the sun between 11AM and 7PM or ware extreme solar protection. I buy anti UV ray solar cream and put more cream on than I can handle, but it is to late. I feel a tickling sensation wherever the sun got to me and contrary to ‘normal sunburns’ which turn my skin fashionable brown the next day, this one keeps itching and burning for three days. It even hurts when I take a shower in the morning, trying in vain to wake up from this surrealistic adventure. Where am I? What am I doing here? Please give my soul a green card!

Beach Bashing

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After 33 hours of traveling I arrive in the hotel in Montevideo, Uruguay for the start of the next plastic picking party. As I’m checking in, Manuel arrives in the lobby. He is a fellow ‘Sea Dragon’ compadre and will be my guide an friend for the coming days for which I will be forever grateful. Mi casa e tu casa! I drop my bags and my body walks to the beach for a first inspection. My spirit or soul or whatever makes you feel like a complete human is still underway, stuck at an eternal border control in Miami, or was it New York? Damn, please make it to my flesh suit before I get run over crossing the Rambla Republica del Peru.  I make it to the beach and find the floodline full of plastic debris. It looks mostly land based and the location of Montevideo, in the mouth of Rio de La Plata confirms this assumption. Since there is no big pieces of plastic around I wonder outloud if they clean the beach regularly. Manuel sais weekly but when we ask the guards on the beach we discover that it is being cleaned TWICE a day (24 hours)! So the debris we see in the floodline is only from a few hours of trash bashing… In the waves you can see the next generation of waste, ready to land on the plastic planet.

Local Beach Trash

Trash wave

Beach cleaning traces