Matt Rutherford is the first person in history to complete a non-stop, singlehanded voyage around North and South America. He wishes that there was an island of garbage in the middle of Atlantic ocean. If there was, he could simply go out to the island and clean it up. The issue is far more insidious. Tiny fragments of plastic, the size of your fingernail or smaller, scattered over thousands of miles of ocean. Matt's talk focuses on the one and only solution to a growing problem.
Matt Rutherford wishes that there was an island of garbage in the middle of Atlantic ocean. If there was, he could simply go out to the island and clean it up. The issue is far more insidious. Tiny fragments of plastic, the size of your fingernail or smaller, scattered over thousands of miles of ocean. Matt's talk focuses on the one and only solution to a growing problem.
Matt Rutherford is the first person in history to complete a non-stop, singlehanded voyage around North and South America. Rutherford left Annapolis, MD on June 2011 and traversed some of the most dangerous seas on earth. During the first leg of his trek, Rutherford broke a record by singlehandedly sailing the smallest boat in history through the Northwest Passage. Once through this northern passage, Rutherford sailed around the entire state of Alaska, then south through the Pacific Ocean from North to South America to make his left-hand turn at storm-tossed Cape Horn. He completed his record-breaking journey in 309 days after sailing 27,077 miles at sea. www.solotheamericas.org
Once Matt returned from his circumnavigation, he immediately started work on building a non-profit organization that would help scientists better understand the problems facing our oceans. Matt believes that no one person can do everything but everyone can do something. By creating Ocean Research Project, Matt plans to educate people about marine issues and give back to our earth's oceans.
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Transcript, as relayed by a robot:
How are you guy’s doing? Alright, so as was said in 2012, April 2012 I finished the first ever it non-stop single-handed circumnavigation of the Americas which is a long sentence what that means is I sailed out of Annapolis went between Canada and Greenland over the top of Canada which is the Northwest Passage around the entire state of Alaska down Pacific around Cape Horn and then back up to Annapolis it’s that simple and I did it nonstop, nonstop means non stop, so you can’t go to port you don't drop an anchor. It is a non stop trip and I was alone. [You] are probably asking yourself why in the world would anybody wanna do that. In my case I was doing a fundraiser for a charity called CRAB.
CRAB is Chesapeake Regional accessible boating they give sailing opportunities to people with mental and physical disabilities so it was actually hugely successful, raised a hundred and twenty thousand. It was much more successful than I thought but I didn't even know if I was gonna make it. When I left the you know I was like well I might make it through the Arctic and I don’t know Cape Horn and I was out on a twenty-seven foot boat that was forty years old you could probably buy for five thousand dollars.
So it wasn't a and the boat you'll see here in a minute. It is not the same boat by the way. so when I got back from that trip I immediately started the building, creating a non-profit, and getting 501 c3 status from the IRS is like an expedition in bureaucracy you know I mean it was just…
…not my favorite type expedition but whatever, you know, we did it.
So the first expedition I saw a lot of stuff floating around in the ocean was out there a lot of plastic mostly as plastic floats I wanted to head out to the one of the gyres now there are 5 gyres in our Earth's ocean. A gyre is a large area of circular current kind of like a vortex but very slow-moving currents often these currents are associated with high pressure systems which means light winds so they're often areas with these vortextual currents in the doldrums. somewhere near the middle, if not in the middle, so you have one in the North Atlantic South Atlantic. North Pacific South Pacific and one in the Indian Ocean. The problem is that if you throw a plastic bottle in the ocean more than likely it's going to wind up in one of these gyres
So, the, but the problem is as as was spoken earlier about rights having rights of a river, it’s
hard to have a right to the ocean ‘cause the ocean isn’t part of any country and often it's outta sight outta mind so its hard to know just how much is out there. Now I wanted to head out into the middle of the Atlantic, does this sound like a good idea? No. I want to head out there because nobody has done this marine plastic research in that part of the ocean mostly because it's such a remote part of the ocean it is the middle of the North Atlantic gyre, or the Atlantic Garbage Patch.
There is a Pacific Garbage Patch as it has been deemed. You can call this a brother to the Atlantic Garbage Patch and so the idea was to go out there working with other universities, and what ocean research project does is we work with I scientists universities organizations to collect scientific data. We shoot documentaries while we're doing it. The idea is to make a documentary
that's not too educational because you want people to learn without knowing that they're learning
you want them to enjoy, you know watching the documentary, science-based documentaries typically aren't that exciting but I make them exciting by doing, you know, having a big adventure and then we implicate that into the school system.
We build curriculums working with teachers to it for lesson plans to teach fifth to seventh graders about this , these various issues so anyways we head out to sea so the first two thousand two hundred miles but we had to sail just to get to where we're gonna go research, which is a very long commute to work and I but you know. Everything was pretty good along the way. We had a tropical storm that went north of us but it wasn't that big a deal we can just went south and for the most part everything went well.
now you do see a variety of different plastics a floating around in the ocean. Now there’s a
major misconception when it comes to these Garbage Patch people think and most people think that there is an island of garbage out in the ocean or a mound of garbage out in the ocean. that does not exist. That is a huge misconception there's no such thing as an island of garbage. I wish there was so it would be much easier to go out and clean-up goes all in one area we could just go clean it up the problem is these gyres are huge and this plastic is spread out in an area roughly one-third the size the continental United States.
So there vast areas. Now they do clump together a little bit here and there but there is no such thing as an island of garbage and like I said it would be a lot easier to deal with this if there was
so what we did is me and one scientist Nichole who's quite the trooper went out in deployed something called a manta net. This is the standardized form of data collection what you want to do is you want to do. You want to the research the same way people are doing it in other oceans and other organizations so you could compare and contrast the data if everybody does the research the same you can get a general data set that can be used so a manta net it just skims the surface. No you're not trying to clean up.
There is a is an interesting idea given by a teenager that's kinda went viral about this idea how to clean up the oceans in five years with these robots. Really cool idea but it's not feasible with our technology it can’t happen the problem is that the oceans are so vast and also a very difficult place to hang out. Hurricanes go ripping through this area and tropical storms at least one a
Year, typically through that region so it would destroy any vessels. They say that it would take 64 vessels working 24 hours a day, ten years to clean it up but the problem is that if you clean up all this little plastic pieces floating along and we're talking about plastic the size of your fingernail or smaller you’re going to eliminate and collect a lot of the life.
There's a whole layer of life just at the surface in the ocean. So here's an example of a little sample, uh this was just a two-mile this manta net is only two feet at the mouth we just pulled it for two miles in the middle the ocean we got all this, this uh plastic. I counted this out in the lab. not too long ago and it was hundreds of pieces they think that there's sixty four thousand pieces of plastic per square mile. In in these regions I mean it's just a absolutely incredible but anyways after 26 days straight me and Nichole deployed and redeploy these nets over an area. That little zigzag you saw over an area about 2,500 miles day in day out if its three in the morning we're doing it if its three at night were always, take a sample, storing samples she's a scientist I'm not a scientist so you know she's the captain of science and I just kind of do what she says but uh, but anyway, so we did this and everything went really well.
And on day forty six we ended our research on day forty seven we started heading home we had about fifteen hundred miles to get back and you know like I say everything been going really well to this point which is obviously you know a bad sign but uh I go out and I make us a nice little dinner in and I'm a bring out and Nichole’s sitting there she looks out in the distance and she sees a mast floating around a boat you know. We just see this mast out there and we haven't seen any sailboat since we left the so you know I'm thinking maybe we can get a bottle of wine off these guys. You know, so its, we play this game to see if could ever get a bottle of booze from a freighter which never works by the way.
So we ask them when they pass by but so we get over and we get closer we noticed the sails
are dragging in the water and I am like what's going on here. This is this is obviously not right
,I and, so I jump in that's little kayak we had and I paddle over because either somebody is dead, somebody's injured, or the boat has been abandoned. So I get aboard the boat and I start looking around now, this is not an ordinary boat this is a forty eight-foot Swan this is like finding a rolls-royce floating around the edges a million-dollar boat that somebody…I found out later somebody abandoned it back in February because he couldn't get his engine started which is a terrible
reason to abandon ship but I, anyways the good news was that nobody was injured and nobody
needed medical help.
So if we can pull this boat back to Bermuda we would get enough funds to fund like the next three or four expeditions you know, I mean but the problem is were 700 miles east of Bermuda. We’re about fifteen hundred miles east of United States were way out in the ocean and we find this thing. We didn't have much fuel so we found a freighter. We didn't get alcohol but we did, a we did convince them to give us some fuel so you never want to be this close to a freighter in the ocean like never and if you even just touch that freighter you like destroy everything you know. It's like a giant wall of steel next to you. And so we get this fuel and a, and I, over an hour we get it on board and now this is like an all-time high point.
We got the 50 gallons of diesel that we needed so we can get in there and freighters don't run on diesel they run on something called bunker but they carry a little bit a diesel to start their axillary engine how often do they start their axillary engine probably not very often. So who knows how long this diesel has been sitting in a tank we took a risk and unfortunately we broke our injection pump on the engine now there's a lot of things you can fix, a but an injection pump is not one of them so we spent the next 24 days becalmed at sea now our, you know a sailboat without a sail and an engine is you know just a piece of floatsome and just like the forty eight-foot boat which is like the world's largest piece of marine debris.
We too, for a for a period of time became you know well, marine debris to some extent. I and it's this doldrum and this is why like I was saying these areas are associated with these light winds but after 24 days we slowly were able to make our way over and we got to Bermuda and this this boat came in this pilot boat and towed us in.
Just as tropical storm this was a tropical depression, Dorian, but it was a tropical storm a couple days before and that's what’s sitting there, that’s beginning of it so they throw our boat at this dock, they like just let the line go and chuck us and you know we got no engine and the wind is blowing 50 knots and raining sideways as things like crashing lightning on us. And
anyways we pull off and I fix the boat and we have been at sea for seventy three days by this point but you know I spent 309 days out at sea the last time and you guys are more than welcome to come with me next time if you want you know. It's not a good I did lose 30 pounds on this trip so freeze-dried food but anyways.
Just let's look at plastic the worldwide annually worldwide $300 million tons of plastic is made every year three hundred million 6.4 million tons gets dumped in the ocean and that's what we know of so I'm sure there's a bunch other plastic that we don't know, getting dumped now just to get a visual of what 6.4 million tons is you have to take semi trucks bumper to bumper for 1500 miles and fill all of them with plastic to be able to have 56.4 million tons a plastic so its whole lot. I
Now only eight percent of all the plastic that gets made every year ends up getting recycled and as I said earlier about 46,000 pieces in the ocean a lot of things are made a plastic computers. TV's, your bumper may be on your car but but let's look at something you know just focus on one aspect plastic bags. So every year annually a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide a trillion 102 billion in this country alone and 11 percent gets recycled 10 percent winds up in the ocean. So almost the same amount of plastic bags to get recycled wind up in the ocean it's incredible. Now Sun Chips in 2008 they try to do something a little revolutionary they created the first-ever a hundred percent compostable bag now compostable does not mean biodegrade.
Its compostable you need a high temperature composting facility. In order for it to compost but it's a step in the right direction at least somebody's trying to do something different. And instead of people getting behind SunChips and and promoting them for trying to make some kind of change for the better. Their sales dropped by 11 percent because people said the bag was too loud I mean, too loud? What are you talking about? Like that's a crazy thing and when I say this I mean like if you roll up a bag a chips. It make some noise if you roll up one of these bags that makes like twice as much noise but who cares, like put it in a bowl if you don’t like the noise you know I mean its still the same chip.
But after 18 months of sales dropping and I don't blame SunChips for this they had to go back to their old bag you have to stay competitive in business. And so they went back after just 18 months doing this what this does though is really sad because it shows the mentality of the American Consumer. That we are so obsessed with comfort and convenience that even something slightly inconvenient as a louder bag is enough for us to stop buying a product we normally buy and the consumer is crucial about making change about making a difference.
How many times have you went into a 7-11 or wherever it is and get yourself a cup of coffee and you stirred it up with one of those stupid little plastic straws? Alright, all the time. that plastic straw you will use a plastic straw for 10 seconds of your life that plastic straw will be on this planet after you're dead your kids are dead grandkids are dead. Why are we making one-time throwaway able items out of a material that's going to be here for hundreds of years?
So its it's really insanity, you know. it just doesn't make any sense at all except the bottom line is that it's cheap to make it. I just like styrofoam polystyrene is very cheap to make. So how we gonna make a difference well there are only two real biopolymers biodegradable polymers they’re both plant-based plastics just because plastic is made from a plant does not mean its biodegradable. Alright they can actually duplicate the same polymers as petroleum, most plastic
is made from petroleum so the the issue is that these biopolymers I are much more expensive to manufacture. So the plastic industry is going to have to invest a large amount of money millions of dollars into making these truly biodegradable biopolymers a cheaper and the consumer is going to have to be willing to spend a higher premium for these products.
So it's going to take a combination of the plastics industry and the consumer I in order to do this but you know no plastic is made in the ocean it all starts here on land. When those micro plastics get out to sea and they breakup your birds eat 'em fish eat 'em it's hard to know how many animals are being affected by it because have a fish dies because a belly full plastic it thinks it's full. It dies it floats to the bottom of the ocean it's a very hard place to get research bottom of the
1ocean you know and in birds some birds migrate to islands. And like there is a the island of Midway for instance a few years back, a guy went there the camera there's a thing there its called the gyre or something like that most depressing thing you could ever see
and its bout shows how these birds are are not just dying from it but they're feeding it to
their babies you know.
And uh but all this issue all this problem starts right here and if we were to promote this idea of, this one time, throw away but the one-time use items which are a huge variety of items that we have in our life. made of a truly biodegradable biopolymer PLA or PHA the only two that exist then we can really %uh we can really eliminate a huge amount of the plastic base trash not just here on land but also out at sea.
And it's going to take a it's going to take an effort both us in the marine and the plastics industry. So you know just like a lot of things we can make a difference we are in complete control of the situation we can be but we're gonna have to work together thank you very much.