Built to Last

A few days ago, I came upon a technique for preparing chicken. It was a fairly simple thing, butterflying chicken filets, and I hadn’t even been looking up how to do that (I don’t know what I had in my search term anymore, but it definitely contained the word ‘butterfly’). There were a few images. Cut open the filet, open it, cover it with cling wrap and then pummel until tender. No big deal, as meat preparation goes.

And yet, the final image caught my eye.

Butterflying chicken.
Source: BBC Good Food

And I wondered: Why the cling wrap between the meat and the tenderizing roller?

This is a process that takes a few short minutes. Sure, the roller stays clean and the chicken meat perhaps a bit more shapely if cling wrap is used.

Consider this: That strip of cling wrap is only used for a few short minutes before being thrown away (and quickly, because it is covered in chicken remains and within a few hours can potentially infect anything it comes into contact with). Yet it will go on to have a life-span of anywhere from ten years to a few decades, depending on how it is disposed of. Unless it’s incinerated, in which case it might release toxic gases.

All that for a few minutes of use, in a process for which it’s not even necessary. If it’s keeping the roller clean that matters, well…wash the roller afterwards. It worked for centuries, it can work today.

When I was a teenager and deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up (not realizing I would ever fully do either of those things), I considered a future in archeaology, the science of looking back. A friend invited me along on an archeaological dig along the California coast that was part research, part salvage mission.

The remains of a Pomo village located an eroding cliff above a beach in Humboldt county were crumbling, year for year, onto the sand below and being washed away by the Pacific tides. At least, I remember it being a Pomo village. Or Miwok. We found a lot of palm-sized notched stones, sinker stones used for weighting fishing nets, basket remains, net fragments. Much had already been reclaimed by the land and sea.

Sinker stones, Colombia River.
Source: Homestyle/Arrowheadology

One afternoon, I was sifting beach sand through a large sieve. What remained in the sieve was usually large bits of shells, rocks, seaweed. I remember very little plastic. This was in the mid-1970s, so I imagine there was plastic, but it didn’t stand out. What did stand out was a shiny shard of red obsidian, a stone that wasn’t otherwise found in that area. As it turned out, that little shard provided a sliver of proof that this village had traded with tribes to the east of California.

Everything we found had a utility, and we could trace it back to that specific utility. A tiny piece of beach-buried obsidian told us a story.

Now, consider this, a video by Sustainable Coasts Hawaii of another sand-sifting moment, decades and thousands of miles away from my own. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to be exact. Look what gets left behind in the sieve.

The vast majority of those plastic shards are now unrecognizable. They’ve degraded but not into something that can be considered safe – on the contrary, they are both useless and dangerous to sea and land animals. It’s safe to say that most of the plastic likely came from items that had a brief life in terms of usefulness for humans. Deodorant containers. Straws. Plastic plates or forks. Processed food packaging. Oh, all the one-use packaging. The stuff we use to carry other stuff once, maybe twice, then throw away so it can continue a life unseen, slowly falling apart, outliving all of us.

We build obsolescence into the things we need to last, like big appliances and phones, and build the disposable items as if we’ll need them forever.

Consider what we learned from a couple of weeks about a village by sifting along a beach and looking at what they left behind.

What will the world know of us, hundreds of years from now, when our plastic is still filling the world’s beaches?


*If, maybe in honor of Earth Day on April 22, you decide to make the move away from cling wrap, here’s a video on how to make a substitute. And before we lose a tear about the convenience of disposable plastic to our daily lives, think about how, once made, we never really get rid of plastic, and how inconvenient that is.

Amassed Lights

This NASA satellite image shows large clusters of moving lights far away from any human settlement, and far away from any land. Out in the middle of the ocean, where one might assume there shouldn’t be large gatherings of human-generated light. Most of the articles I found were playful: What could possibly be out there – submarine gatherings, aliens, Atlantis, military testing?

In 2012, a global composite map of Earth’s night lights revealed human activity well offshore from South America.  Caption/Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA National Geophysical Data Center

In 2012, a global composite map of Earth’s night lights revealed human activity well offshore from South America.
Caption/Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA National Geophysical Data Center

The answer, provided by NASA, is easy. Fishing fleets, of course. Fishing fleets out harvesting Illex argentinus, a species of short-finned squid. I’ve written about them here.

But how massive must these fleets be to form entire metropolises of light? How many fish could they possibly be harvesting?

And for that, I refer to another article out this month, the one about Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen. An experienced sailor, he recently sailed from Melbourne to Osaka, a trip he had taken ten years earlier.

The differences between the two trips were stark. Where his boat had been followed by flocks of birds the first time, the second time there were none. On the first trip he’d only had to dip a line into the water to catch a fish for dinner, the second time he was only able to catch two fish in 3000 miles (4800 km). On the second trip he had to navigate his boat through a silent sea of large debris and garbage patches.

Image: NOAA

And then he met up with a large fishing trawler.

The friendly fishermen offered him bags and bags of by-catch fish, the stuff that got caught in their nets but wasn’t the tuna they were harvesting. They said they simply throw away anything not on their shopping list – in this case, massive numbers of any and all creatures in their fishing zone.

So, back to the NASA images. One look at the comment section of one article shows that a large number of readers don’t believe the fishing fleet story. They would rather believe that the lights are evidence of underwater volcanoes, or alien forces amassing offshore with destructive intentions – because how could there be so many fishing boats?

And I guess from the point of view of the marine animals, an alien invasion would seem a pretty plausible explanation.Image credit: anterovium / 123RF Banque d'images

The problem with both perspectives – that of the silent sea, and that of preferring the explanation of aliens or Atlantis over massive fishing fleets – is that they can have the potential to paralyze us into fear and inaction.

And as an antidote to that, I propose this excellent article by Carlos Duarte, Director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia. He suggests that it isn’t the oceans which are dead (not yet, anyway), but that consumer behavior is broken and must be altered on a fundamental level.

And if these images and the story of Ivan Macfadyan’s sobering voyage have any effect, then I hope it is to inspire action rather than resignation.