June 2, 2005
By Amy Nevala
It doesn’t seem like you would see garbage 200 miles (320 kilometers) from shore. Especially when you are diving in remote areas of the ocean nearly two miles (3.2 kilometers) below the surface. Especially when you are at least 24 hours from the nearest city. Especially when it seems like people everywhere are trying to be diligent about recycling and reducing waste.
It’s seen more often than you might think.
“That’s a plastic bag,” Rhian Waller said, pointing to a wadded-up white object captured in a photo taken of lava at Rosebud. “We see some sort of trash on every expedition—oil cans, pieces of sheet metal, fishing gear.”
Chief mate Mitzi Crane has seen it. She’s also seen the whales, dolphins, turtles and other sea life it inevitably affects. So on Atlantis, proper disposal of waste is as important to her as the health and safety of people on board. During orientation at the start of our expedition, she demonstrated how to separate materials into different, labeled bins—plastic forks in one, flattened cardboard in another, and empty aerosol containers of whipped cream in another.
Plastics are burned, and the ashes brought back to shore. Aerosol containers are also saved for disposal on land; they explode in the incinerator, endangering the crew. Food waste and paper are discarded at sea, where it will disintegrate.
Mitzi knows that crewmembers affectionately tease her about her devotion to proper waste disposal. She isn’t laughing.
“NO PLASTIC!!!” exploded Mitzi, an otherwise even-tempered woman, in a ship-wide email sent several days ago after she found an empty, plastic lotion bottle in a paper-only bin. “What part of the NO and PLASTIC is a mystery??”
She’s angry for a reason. That single plastic bottle, if thrown into the sea, would take 450 years to dissolve, according to waste statistics she distributes. If a sea creature doesn’t ingest it first and become injured, she said. To a sea turtle, plastic looks like a jellyfish. So they eat it.
Seaman Rob Barrett spends 30 minutes a day collecting trash from about 30 garbage receptacles on ship. “You could say I know what gets thrown away around here,” he said, dumping the contents of garbage containers into a big paper sack.
Soiled rubber gloves. Paper cups sticky with orange drink. Rags streaked with grease. Chocolate candy wrappers and empty nacho chip bags.
“Lots and lots of paper towel,” Rob said of the most abundant garbage item. “Most people are good about recognizing the importance of separating waste. But sometimes I want to tell people, ‘you don't need 20 sheets to dry your hands.’”
Do you have questions about oceanographic research, hydrothermal vents, or about what it is like to work on board a ship? E-mail your questions to the scientists working on board RV Atlantis at email@example.com. Please tell us your town and state, and keep your messages short with no attachments. Read today's mail »