Battling the plastic pollution problem with Team Out of Sight Out of Mind
By Conor Mihell
As professional sea kayakers and whitewater paddlers, Jason Self, Shay Bickley and Chris Bensch have seen more than their fair share of trash on the shores of rivers, lakes and oceans. Initially, Self says the collective reaction of the Portland, Ore.-based friends was to “get angry and say things like ‘What kind of asshole would do this?’ as we paddled past it, not actually picking it up.” But Self says that attitude quickly got tiring. A pledge to pick up “at least one piece of litter every time we paddled” quickly evolved into “removing everything we could find every time we paddled,” says Self.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was another impetus for change. “We felt an obligation as paddlers to do more,” says Self, “but with so many challenges facing oceans and rivers around the world, we had to be realistic about what we could actually do to change things.” And so they became Team Out of Sight Out of Mind and committed to document the plastic pollution and to battle the root of the problem—the ambivalence most people have for the environment—by promoting outdoor recreation. OSOM’s goal became, in Self’s words, “to give people a reason to care about the problem, and also to inspire them to get outside and take action to make things better.”
We contacted Self to learn more.
CanoeKayak.com: What inspired you to launch the Trashpedition last spring?
Jason Self: We discussed several ideas and exotic locations before we realized we have one of the largest watersheds in North America right in our backyards with plenty of problems. The Columbia River system drains an area of over 500,000 square miles and was the perfect waterway to tackle given our familiarity with it and budget constraints.
We decided we would do something idiotic like tow a canoe behind our sea kayaks for 100 miles from Portland, Ore., to the Pacific Ocean to collect all the trash we could find along the way and film it. We figured, if we could do something as ridiculous as that, then maybe someone would be inspired to pick up one or two pieces of litter they see while going about there daily lives. The Trashpedition footage is included in our current project, a film series titled The Search for the Perfect Day, set for completion in August 2013 (see the trailer above).
How much garbage did you pull from the shores of the Columbia?
We collected enough to fill the canoe four times. I’d guess in total we collected somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds—mostly single-use plastic water bottles.
What was the weirdest piece of trash you found?
There were hundreds of interesting finds. The ones that stick out the most to me are a USA Aid grain bag with Arabic writing on it, a Rocky DVD in the case and a plastic skull decorated with rhinestones.
Don’t you feel somewhat hopeless in the sheer scope of the ocean/waterway litter epidemic?
I don’t feel hopeless about it at all. There are literally thousands of people around the world working hard to educate the masses about the problem of plastic pollution and marine debris. The tide is turning and knowledge of the problems of single-use plastics is becoming commonplace. People are beginning to realize that using a material that’s designed to last forever in a product that’s made to be used for five minutes is incredibly stupid. It’s a slow ship but it’s turning around. When the market (consumers) demands alternatives to single-use plastic, industry will follow.
What makes you hopeful you can make a dent in the problem?
We are no different than most. We don’t want to see trash all over the place when we’re paddling pristine water or walking the sidewalk of a major city. Litter is not the issue, but consumerism is. The problem of plastic pollution in the world’s waterways is caused by people like us—people who care and try and do the right thing. We put our recycling on the curb just like everyone else but until a few years ago, we really had no idea what happened to it after that. It was out of sight, out of mind. Since then we’ve followed garbage trucks, visited transfer stations, dumps and recycling centers. What we’ve realized is that the process is imperfect. Much of our recycling is shipped to Asia. Less than a third of plastics in the U.S. actually gets recycled. In America we purchase 1,500 single-use plastic water bottles every second, and 80 percent are not recycled. If it floats or blows, it makes its way out of the dumpster, truck, or landfill and into a river, and out into the ocean, where it collects in ocean gyres. Plastics in the ocean breaks down into small particles and act like chemical sponges. These tiny toxic particles are ingested by filter feeders at the bottom of the food chain and eventually make their way to the top and onto your dinner table. We believe that the majority of people, if made aware of these issues, will likely make changes to lessen their impact. When it becomes the norm to have a Klean Kanteen and reusable grocery bags at the ready, we might actually gain the upper hand on plastic pollution.
Tell us about the Never-Ending Clean Up Contest.
We decided to take our message to Facebook in an effort to rally the paddling community to take an active role in the stewardship of the places we play, so we started a virtual cleanup contest online. People could take a photo of the litter they picked up while paddling and post it to our wall. At the end of each month we’d pick a winner at random from all entries to win a prize from one of our sponsors. We’ve been running the Never Ending Cleanup Contest for about three years now and have had thousands of entries and have seen spin-off contests popping up in paddling and other communities around the world.
How does this all dovetail with your current Perfect Day project?
After Trashpedition we realized we weren’t dealing with litter but rather consumerism. We realized that a large percentage of the population never engages in outdoor activity of any kind. It’s hard to care about something you’re not involved in. We wanted to show some of America’s most beautiful natural areas and the people there who are living the dream and making a difference in their own unique way. The Search for the Perfect Day is about other inspiring people, from paddlesports icons to everyday people off the street. Our goal is to motivate people to get off the couch and into nature by showing its beauty, adventure and fun.