20 August 2012
Stories that they had somehow managed to migrate across the Arctic from the Pacific and circumnavigate the globe have proliferated. There have been numerous reports of them turning up years later on the east coast of the US and in Europe.
The truth, however, is less romantic, and much more disturbing. Along with billions of tonnes of other plastic wastes, they are disintegrating into tiny fragments of “plastic sand” that will pollute the planet for hundreds of years, threatening wildlife and destroying the environment.
That, at least, is the conclusion of Donovan Hohn, a New York author who has spent five years investigating what actually happened to the toys. He is due to talk about his findings at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Tuesday evening.
“At the outset, I had no intention of doing what I eventually did: quit my job, kiss my wife farewell, and ramble about the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of watercraft,” he wrote in his book, Moby Duck.
He became so obsessed with finding out about the lost toys that he embarked on long journeys to Alaska, Hawaii, China, across the North Pacific and through the Arctic. He learnt all about ocean currents, and the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, where millions of tonnes of plastic rubbish swirl in a huge gyre through the ocean.
The bathtub toys, made in China, fell off a 26,000-tonne container ship, Ever Laurel, on 10 January 1992 during a fierce storm, to the south of the Aleutian Islands, south west of Alaska. There were 28,800 plastic animals in total, equally divided between red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks.
After they were noticed washing ashore by a local Alaskan newspaper, they became a global media event, with hundreds being found along the shores of Alaska, on the Aleutian Islands and in Washington State. The story inspired the children’s author, Eric Carle, famous for ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, to write ‘10 Little Rubber Ducks’.
Some experts predicted that they would find their way across the Arctic into the Atlantic and be found on the US east coast. But according to Hohn, there’s no proof they ever did, and numerous stories that they reached Cornwall in southwest England in 2007 were false.
He found that when frozen for several months or baked in the sun on a beach they became brittle and started crumbling into pieces. He visited Kamilo Beach at the south end of Hawaii, in the midst of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, and discovered that it was mostly fragments of plastic waste, like multi-coloured sand.
“This then is the destiny of those toy animals that beachcombers fail to recover,” he wrote. “They will eventually disintegrate into shards. Those shards will disintegrate into splinters, the splinters into particles, the particles into dust, the dust into molecules, which will circulate through the environment for centuries.”
Hohn added: “The very features that make plastic a perfect material for bathtub toys – so buoyant! so pliant! so smooth! so colourful! so hygienic! – also make it a superlative pollutant of the seas.”
He criticised efforts made around the world to clean up beaches, often helped by big packaging and beverage corporations, as missing the point. “Clean-ups do little to solve the problem once and for all,” he quoted one expert saying. “To do that, you had to stop it at its source.”
Beach clean-ups were defended, though, by the Marine Conservation Society (MSC) in Scotland as a “vital tool in the fight against marine litter”. Its surveys over the last 19 years had provided invaluable data on beach litter, it argued.
“Plastic litter is accumulating and will not disappear,” said MSC’s Anne Saunders. “The only way to reduce inputs of litter into our marine environment is to stop litter at source, and this is what MCS has been working tirelessly toward.”