L.A. and Beijing have their considerable, chronic smog, but area-wise, the five oceans have a much bigger problem; clouds of plastic that permeate the water columns, complicating clean-up. The Pacific's plastic gyre is the size of Texas, times two. Some of the plastic was dumped into the oceans. Some was blown from land and some came from cargo ships, but much of it came via rivers. A water bottle here. A food container there. Today, pieces of plastic beyond counting.
Alyssum Pohl, 35, who is currently paddling the Mississippi River from source to sea, encountered a personalized child's Crocs shoe at the start of her trip. Since her trip is centered around plastic, she lay it on the deck of her 17' 3" Sea Lion Perception to properly dispose of it, but it was washed overboard. She figured that was the last she'd see of it, but she found it a month later in some reeds.
"It was traveling faster than me because it was not taking breaks to rest. A plastic shoe stays in the current and would have made it to the ocean."
It isn't just that the Crocs would have joined some gyre.
"As the plastic breaks down, fish eat it. They think that it's plankton, but it never digests and stays stuck in their gut because it's too big to pass through. There's only anecdotal evidence, but it can starve them because their bellies are full of indigestible plastic. If starvation doesn't happen, the smaller fish can get eaten by the bigger fish which can eaten by albatross or some other big predator, so it piles up in bigger and bigger creatures."
Humans are some of those bigger creatures.
"You also have leaching of the materials. One is PCBs, which are used for fire retardants. They photodegrade when the Sun hits them and release chemicals that act as hormones. If you're male and eat fish, those hormones can feminize you, possibly compromising reproduction, as it's doing in some fish too."
Pohl has a background in environmental sciences, with a bachelor’s in biology and master’s in international environmental policy, but the folks she meets on the river share her concerns.
"I've been interviewing people I meet along the way: lockmasters, fishermen, boaters, and people on the riverbanks. You might think that they wouldn't care, but they do. They see the plastic waste increasing incrementally over the last ten years. I had a lockmaster saying he wishes plastic were outlawed: behind his dam is a solid swatch of water bottles. Plastic water bottles and cigarette butts are what I see the most. Those cigarette filters are styrofoam."
Pohl isn't just paddling. She's collecting water quality samples, photographing plastic waste, doing beach clean-ups with local river conservation groups, and speaking with children and legislators along the way. Her quest for the Gulf of Mexico and cleaner rivers and oceans is complicated by an internal physical challenge.
"I'm paddling with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It's a genetic connective tissue disorder. My joints are very lax. Building muscle is very difficult and my joints are rubbery. I'm a professional dancer and contortionist and loose joints help with that but complicate paddling. I'm in a lot more pain than a lot of the other paddlers. I wake up in the morning and just want to stay in bed all day. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I really put myself to the limit of my ability. I went 37 miles in a day and I was really proud of that, but a typical 17-mile day still feels really long."
Still, there are mitigating pleasures.
"I love watching the cloud formations. Every day, they're so different. I love being attuned to wind direction and watching the leaves flutter in the wind. Then there's meeting all the River Angels, the people dedicated to helping long distance paddlers, but the help comes from an even mix of River Angels and people I just happen to meet who are delighted to be helping someone."
Those people believe in Pohl's paddle, which she has named Paddle On!
"This is not a vacation. I work hard every day. For the past two years, I had a two-year fellowship with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration working on coastal resiliency issues. I loved that. When my fellowship ended, I spent several months in my D.C. apartment, missing the outdoors and doing good work out there. I realized I didn't need an employer to do good work. I'd been trained in environmental work, so I started a Kickstarter. I requested $5,500 and raised almost $7,000. That meant a good paddle."
A good Paddle On!
Follow Pohl's Paddle On!
Video introducing Paddle On! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1564119377/paddle-on-an-environmental-adventure-on-the-missis
Paddle On! blog: http://alyssumpohl.weebly.com/paddle-on