French swimmer Ben Lecomte recently completed an 80-day trip at sea, bringing attention to the impacts of plastics in the ocean. He swam over 550 kilometres to represent the 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced each year. Lecomte and his crew will be in Calgary on Friday, Dec. 6 to speak about their findings and how to cut back on plastics.
While Calgary isn’t by the ocean, Lecomte says when it comes to plastics, our actions still have an impact.
“It doesn't matter if you're not near the ocean. You're alive on land, and if you don't do the right thing, you contribute to the amounts of plastic being tossed into the ocean,” he said.
Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, resulting in devastating impacts on both marine and human life. During his swim, Lecomte was witness to these. He saw “sperm whales swim through a smog of waterborne microplastics, a fish trapped inside a plastic water bottle and a fragment of plastic inside the stomach of a fish.”
This is not the 52-year-old’s first long-distance swim. In 1998, he became the first person to swim across the Atlantic Ocean, a journey that spanned 73 days.
Twenty years later, Lecomte was ready for his next challenge, this time with a goal in mind: to raise awareness about ocean health.
Lecomte planned to swim across the Pacific Ocean, starting in Japan and ending in California, but after 165 days at sea, he and his crew had to stop their journey when weather conditions became unsafe.
Instead of giving up, they turned their attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where Lecomte swam through an enormous accumulation of plastic.
Swimming through garbage
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the oceans. Located halfway between Hawaii and California, the patch is said to weigh more than 43,000 cars.
Lecomte said most people picture the patch as being “a big floating island of plastic” that could simply be removed from the ocean. In reality, it’s much more complex.
“From all the plastic that we know is in the ocean, we can only with certainty say that we know where one per cent is,” he said.
“The 99 other per cent we don't know if it's eaten by sea life, we don't know if it sunk to the bottom of the ocean. We don't know where it is.”
The patch is comprised of all sorts of plastics like microfibres and bigger debris. But of everything he swam through, Lecomte was especially surprised by the microplastics. These are small pieces of plastic that have broken down over time, but will never fully disintegrate because of the nature of the material.
“It’s like looking out the skies at night when it's snowing. You see all those flakes going down...but all those flakes are microplastic.”
While swimming, Lecomte observed what he was seeing in the water and reported back to the crew on the boat. They collected 17,348 microplastic pieces along with samples of organisms found in the debris, helping researchers better understand the effects of plastic pollution on marine and human life.
Why should Calgarians care?
While the ocean is out of sight for Calgarians, our everyday actions still have an impact.
“People don't feel connected because they say ‘Well inland, we don't contribute to the problem.’ But no, everybody does because of that simple fact that everything flows into the ocean,” Lecomte said.
This is largely because the vast majority of plastics — 80 percent, according to Lecomte — come into the ocean through rivers.
“Whenever you have a plastic that is left in the road, the rain is going to carry it into a stream, the stream is going to carry it into a river, and then the river is going to carry it into the ocean.”
Since it’s the endpoint for so much waste, Lecomte believes the only true solution is to stop the problem at its source by changing the relationship people have with plastics. He said the best way to keep waste out of the ocean is by avoiding single-use plastics altogether or opting for biodegradable options.
Though some might be discouraged by the negative impacts of human activity on the ocean, Lecomte remains hopeful.
“I have to stay optimistic because I have children, and even though I don't think in my lifetime the problem of the plastic is going to affect me, I know that it's going to affect them, and I know it's going to affect their children.”
I have to be very versed in the fact that yes, we will find a solution and we will make changes so they can have a cleaner ocean in their lifetime,” said Lecomte.
The event takes place at Campers Village Calgary on Friday, Dec. 6th at 6:30 pm. For more information and free registration, click here.
- By Alaina Shirt and Andrea Wong