Sailors in the Volvo Ocean Race came to the stopover in Newport, R.I., with a one-word message. It’s not “strength” or “endurance” or any other inspirational messaging poster you might see hanging in an office boardroom.
Plastic is the main type of garbage, referred to as “leakage,” that is a growing problem in the oceans, according to sailors who travel the world’s most obscure waterways. For every three tons of fish, there will be a ton of plastic within a decade if the current trajectory continues, say advocates for change. As a result, sailors in what many call the world’s most grueling race are coming to port stops with a plea to clean up the oceans.
The Volvo Ocean Race Ocean Summit on Marine Debris was part of an initiative to prompt people to act with legislators and the private and nonprofit sectors to effect change. At the Newport stopover, speakers ranged from Rhode Island political leaders, such as Republican U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo, to Lisa Emelia Svensson, Sweden’s ambassador for ocean, seas and fresh water, and Henry Stenson, executive vice president of corporate communication and sustainability for the Volvo Penta Group. University of Rhode Island professor Dennis Nixon hosted the summit.
Rhode Island native and Team Alvimedica skipper Charlie Enright and Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad showed a video and spoke to the growing amount of trash the Volvo racers have encountered — both near land and in remote parts of the ocean.
“The route of this race has changed for a lot of different reasons,” Frostad told an audience of about 250 legislators, dignitaries, media and advocates at the Volvo Pavilion at Fort Adams State Park. “That gives us an opportunity to see a lot more of this debris.”
The debris becomes a hazard to the sailors, but that’s not the part that disturbs them the most, despite spending hours and hours of the race peering through endoscopes to spot debris on foils and removing it.
“I think the most surprising thing for me is the amount of debris we’ve seen so far from land,” Team SCA crewmember Annie Lush says in the video. United Nations ambassador Eden Charles of Trinidad and Tobago was so moved by the presentation that he invited Enright and Frostad to address a U.N. convention later this year on trash in the oceans.
Dee Caffari, a sailor with the all-female SCA Volvo Ocean Race team, says the amount of waste she has seen increase in her “playground” is saddening. “The Malacca Strait is filled with polystyrene,” Caffari says. “Every flat-screen TV looked like it had been unpacked in the strait.”
It was there that one sailor marveled at a seal playing nearby. When the crew took a closer look through binoculars, “the sad thing was that the seal was playing with a plastic bag.”
In 2010, 8 million metric tons of plastic went into the ocean, says Sandra Whitehouse, senior policy adviser to the Ocean Conservancy. The Malacca Strait is an area of particular concern because rapidly developing nations — namely China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, which account for 57 percent of the ocean’s plastic input — have not implemented management systems.
“Sometimes we think less-developed countries don’t care, but they do care,” Frostad says. “They just don’t have the means to do it.”
Using social media, sailors are able to get the message out in a more meaningful way than they previously could, and they have firsthand access to the problem, Frostad says. Whitehouse says albatross were found dead with so much plastic in their bellies they could no longer digest food.
“There are no single solutions. We have to tailor solutions for individual countries,” says Whitehouse. “If we’re going to avoid this doubling of plastic in the next 10 years, we’re going to need to drive down this curve.” The plastic is largely from land, she says, with only 20 percent originating from activities at sea.
“The biggest problem is coming from land. We refer to it as leakage,” she says. “Some is direct litter. Sometimes it comes from illegal dumping into rivers or on watersides. Some comes from uncovered landfills, being washed or blown to the ocean. Sometimes it occurs from natural disasters, such as the Japanese tsunami.”
Even the tiniest organisms in the ocean, plankton, can be identified with plastic inside, coming from the tiny microbeads in body lotions and scrubs, Whitehouse says.
Raimondo praised the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association for helping to clean up Narragansett Bay.
“Business has a role to play,” she says. “When combating pollution and dealing with debris, we must be collaborative. That means governments, grass-roots organizations, nonprofit entities, but also private enterprise. We all have a lot at stake.”
Daniel Wild, head of sustainability investing research and development at RobecoSAM, an international investment company with a specific focus on sustainability investments, says sustainability will be increasingly attractive to businesses because their reputations are at stake. The more global the economy, the more pressure they will have to act reputably.
“Our hope is that as the Volvo Ocean Race goes from port to port, the level of enthusiasm and engagement generated for the race itself can be turned into change and into action to solving these problems,” said keynote speaker Catherine Novelli, undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment for the U.S. State Department. “Our fate is inextricably tied to the ocean’s fate.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.