Any competitive swimmer can tell you there’s nothing more satisfying than taking a dip in open waters. Limitless, silent, and as close to nature as you can possibly be — that is, until a crusty plastic bottle bobs into view.
That’s when Douglas Woodring knew that something was wrong. For a piece of man, so ugly and pervasive, to intrude upon the serenity of nature seemed grossly out of place to him.
To Woodring, pollution is an issue more difficult to solve than global warming — and more troubling. “Plastic does not go away,” he says. “All the plastic that’s been made on the planet still exists.”
“It might just seem like an aesthetic issue, but it actually impacts billions of people daily, from water quality, health, fishing, agriculture, tourism, and the ecosystem, among others.”
Woodring was in Singapore recently to launch the Bruges Whale, a towering 11-metre tall sculpture made entirely from plastic amassed from the ocean. His non-governmental organisation, the Ocean Recovery Alliance, was set up in 2010 with the aim to clean up the world’s oceans through education and projects.
He tells us about how an unrecycled plastic bottle or a carelessly tossed box can catalyse into so much more.
What was that ‘eureka’ moment that made you set up the Ocean Recovery Alliance?
I grew up in California and was always outdoors. I swam competitively on the U.C. Berkeley Swim, taught windsurfing, and went on to organise some of the longest ocean swim races in Asia. Being on the water gives me a sense of space, freedom and energy that is not often found in life on land.
Off of Palau over 10 years ago, in one of the most remote reefs, at 20m deep, I saw all types of plastic floating at different levels in beautifully clear water.
That was the final wake-up call that made me realise that no one was really working on this issue in a big, thoughtful and scalable manner.
Since you’ve been into open-water swimming for such a long time, how has the ocean changed over the years?
You can find plastic on reefs and floating along tide lines in bays and harbours, and some local governments still aren’t doing much to try to remove or prevent it.
Hong Kong is a good example where little is being done for on-the-water trash. One of our big races is called the Clean Half Extreme Marathon Swim, and we call it that, because it takes place in the “Clean Half” of Hong Kong Island.
It’s scary when you are swimming and you run directly into a plastic bag at eye-level, because it seems like you’re being confronted by a big fish that you might not want to meet head on!
How does a carelessly thrown plastic cup impact the environment in the long-run? Or a plastic bottle that’s gone unrecycled?
Plastic does not go away, and all plastic that has been made on the planet to date, still exists, unless it was incinerated.
Less than 15% of global plastic produced actually gets recycled, despite the nice little triangles on the bottom of packages that say that the items are “recyclable”. This is because most countries do not have the capacities or infrastructure to collect and recover waste for 2nd-life value creation.
So, plastic pollution, which might just seem like an aesthetic issue, actually impacts billions of people daily, with negative impacts on water quality, health, washing, fishing, agriculture, tourism, and the ecosystem, among others.
Plastic in the water has no boundaries either, if in the ocean, and it can move around like air pollution does, to any coastline or territory, based on wind and currents.
Has the public changed its mind about pollution over the years?
There is huge momentum now, like a tidal wave, in a positive way, as many companies and governments are now wanting to show that they are involved, and trying to make a difference.
The community and media are much more aware of the issue, which in my view is actually more complicated to fix than climate change.
That’s a scary thought. It doesn’t mean it will cause us all more damage — maybe it will — but it is harder to solve, due to the wide variety of types of plastics that exist. With the chemical blends used, there are, in fact, over 40,000 variants.
Now we can go to a meeting and people ask what to do, and how to do it, instead of us trying to explain to them about what the impacts are, and why it makes a difference.
What projects are you working on right now?
One is the Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP), announced at the Clinton Global Iniatitive, which is much like carbon and water reporting, but for plastic. Because if you do not measure what you have as a company, government, or institution, then it is hard to know how to move into a circular economy.
Our Global Alert app allows people to report trash hotspots anywhere in the world’s waters, using community reporting and geotagging, so that stakeholders in watersheds can think not only about clean-ups, but longer term catchments like booms and nets.This was partly funded by the World Bank, and is also in Spanish.
Our Water Falling and Water Rising Festivals in Cambodia are amazing too, engaging villages along the Tonle Sap Lake for the first time ever with broad cleanup and education efforts about water appreciation.
There’s a staggering amount of plastic out in the ocean right now. Do you ever feel like yours is an insurmountable task?
I don’t worry about it. I know that the work we are doing is some of the best in the world, and that if we had more capacities and scale, we could make it even more impactful. So we keep focusing on success stories, as that breeds similar efforts into other markets and communities.
What do you think has to be done to restore the oceans back to its natural state — if that’s possible at all?
Stop over-fishing, and let the ocean recover. Some say there will be more plastic than fish by 2050, but I think it will be much earlier due to overfishing. That also means we need to stop polluting it.
Most of the plastic comes from land, often not to the fault of the communities, but to the system they live in. There is lots of opportunity for change here, for those who want to be part of it.