Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rubber Duckie, You're The One

Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn is the story of a man, Hohn, trying to find rubber duckies.  I'm serious.  Except that, as Hohn patiently explains, they aren't really rubber and they aren't just duckies. 

In 1992, a container filled with cardboard boxes, filled with plastic bags, filled with plastic ducks, turtles, beavers and frogs, fell off of its container ship, and into the Pacific Ocean.  Because of the nature of the shipment, many of the 28,800 toys floated, and found their way to various American and Canadian shores.  Hohn interviewed people who had found the animals, who study the Pacific Garbage Patch(es), who monitor the ice in the Arctic, who ship containers, and who make plastic bath toys, and reported his findings in Moby-Duck.

Strange, isn't it, that a container of floating bath toys would be the one to fall off the container ship?  Not really.  According to Hohn, somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 containers fall overboard each and every year, filling the ocean with cell phones, computer monitors, shoes, bikes, and lots and lots of plastic.  In fact, Hohn says that 2,000 supertankers and container ships have actually sunk in the last 20 years due to weather alone, and that two undefined "large ships" sink every week.  Apparently this is not widely known because the companies that lose shipments don't want to get reputations as polluters, and the shipping industry is not well regulated.  The disposability of the lives of the primarily Filipino crew members is also mentioned.

Hohn believes that the way to minimize the ocean's pollution is not to organize beach clean ups, but to go straight to the source - the corporations that actually make the things that pollute the oceans.  He points out that many of the names of organizations that claim to be all about keeping the world clean are really deceptive, as many of these organizations, like "Keep America Beautiful" are actually created by big corporations that contribute to the pollution problem.  By creating ad campaigns, like the crying Indian campaign of the 1970s, these corporations try to shift the blame away from themselves and to individual litter bugs who they imply cause pollution by not disposing of unnecessary packaging appropriately.  Hohn also reveals that the crying Indian himself, Iron Eyes Cody, is actually not a Native American at all, but a Sicilian born "Espera Oscar De Corti". 

An example of this unnecessary packaging that had never crossed my mind before is the plastic bag which Subway puts around each and every sandwich that it makes.  When I buy one sandwich for each member of my family, I wind up with 5 plastic bags, because they put our 4 bagged sandwiches into a larger plastic bag, for my convenience, all of which I throw away 30 seconds later.  Why do I accept that?  I bring fabric shopping bags to the grocery store, but I never thought to bring them to Subway.  Jimmy John's and Potbelly don't use plastic bags.  Subway might try to redeem itself by sponsoring a "recycle your plastic" ad campaign, but really, wouldn't that problem be solved if they stopped using plastic, instead of shifting the blame to their customers for not recycling?

Hohn is also interested in our fascination with the "rubber duckie".  As mentioned above, they haven't really been rubber for years, but are made from cheap plastic.  Hohn credits Sesame Street, and specifically Ernie, with making the yellow duck (which doesn't exist in nature) a cultural icon.

All told, this is an interesting book, but I would have preferred if it was 100 pages shorter.  Hohn went on tangents, pursued each to its logical or illogical end, and reported his well researched findings.  The end notes in this book are especially interesting.  They are not citations to articles supporting his conclusions, as one might expect, but instead are Hohn's commentaries that were so tangential that you just know his editor insisted they be cut from the body of the book.  With about 50 pages left, Hohn explained how a ship that he was on broke ice by charging toward it, landing on it, and waiting for the ice to break under the weight of the boat.  This is exactly how Mark Helprin described a ship breaking ice in Winter's Tale, which was sitting on my nightstand staring at me while I trudged through the end of Moby-Duck.  Next to Winter's Tale, Hohn didn't have a chance, and I admit to skimming through after that point.

Moby-Duck was published in 2011, although Hohn seemed to do most if its research around 2007.  At that point, it had been 15 years since the container full of bath toys fell overboard, and they were still, occasionally, washing up.  My guess is that right now, Hohn is somewhere on the West Coast of the US, impatiently awaiting fresh arrivals.  According to this article, published today, the first debris from the April 7, 2011 Japanese Tsunami has just begun to arrive in the Gulf of Alaska. 

Next up:  Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin!  Yep, I've been listening to it for a couple of weeks, and loving it, so now I am going to read too while I'm at home, so that I'm not tempted to drive around aimlessly (polluting the environment at $3.99 per gallon) in order to find out what happens next.

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