The Bay of Debris

This is a story of plastic in the environment. It begins on 1957 when, for the first time, the author encounters plastic in the marine environment, at Coogee Beach in Eastern Australia. It moves forward through a series of vignettes in 20 year intervals concluding in 2017 on Pulau Bintan, Indonesia.

At the Bay of Debris [Click the image for the full audio version]

Coogee Beach, 1957

When cyclonic winds brought heavy seas to Australia’s east coast beachcombing was a popular pastime. Storm surges shifted large volumes of sand revealing heavier items like coins , and even jewellery, unwittingly left by the thousands frequenting beaches on benign sunny days. Apart from these valuable items there was always a mystery. Just what might this storm bring? Usually it was shells, driftwood and kelp, but sometimes larger things like poor unfortunate wobbegong[1], injured sea lions, or the remains of fishing boats.

Early one morning in 1957 amongst the familiar flotsam and jetsam, mainly long strands of kelp and barnacle encrusted drift wood, was a small white disc. Almost flat on one side and with a hole on the other, but the hole didn’t go all the way through. Definitely a piece of plastic, but what was plastic doing in the ocean. Was it from a fishing boat, an ocean liner, a toy?

Just the week before I’d seen some flexible plastic toys in the local toy shop. This was the same plastic as the toys. What possible purpose could it serve? Why was it here?

First enquiries were unproductive.

Ace, the beach inspector, was puzzled. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. Are you sure it’s not one of those the little round doors that some sea snails have?”

“I know what you mean, but this is plastic and the wrong shape. Feel it! What in the bloody hell is it?”

“Yeah, plastic!” Ask Joe. He might know.”

“Joe? You mean Joe, the teacher?”

“Yeah, him. The bloke who plays the piano up the Surf Club.”

“Ok, thanks. I will.”

Joe was a popular, ex-primary school teacher who had travelled a bit. He was just back from the US. His parents had left him a house and a small inheritance so he had time to laze on the beach, and pursue his passion, music.

He was easy to find, but not on a stormy day like this. It would have to wait.

Plastics had begun to replace glass in numerous domestic roles. It was still expensive. Though plastic bottles had been in limited use for ten years they were only now entering common usage. One of the selling points was no more cuts from glass, plastic being far more flexible. We all knew that unless handled carefully glass could be a dangerous item. Breakages of glass bottles, glass storage vessels and domestic utensils were common. There were numerous cases of serious cuts from broken glass. So not only was it deemed safer but its uses were soon multifarious and its presence ubiquitous. Yet this didn’t explain the strange plastic disc.

Possibly sheltering from the weather, Joe surface a few days later. I saw him sitting on the benches above the rock pool by the Surf Club. While I didn’t know him well, he was friendly and being an ex-teacher inclined to take children seriously.

Scampering up the stairs, from the pool, I called “Joe, may I ask you a question?”

“Sure mate. What is it?”

Handing him the white disc I waited for a moment while he examined it. He looked at my quizzically.

“You been down in the cellars at the pub?”

“No! What?”

“This is a shive bung from a beer keg. They used to be wooden but lately they’ve been replaced by these little plastic pieces.”

“What’s a shive bung, Joe. I don’t get it.”

“I’ve done a bit of pub work so I’ve seen them before. You seen, them lowering those big beer barrels down that trap door at the Coogee Bay pub?”

“Yeah.”

“You ever wondered why the beer doesn’t run out?”

“There’s a plug I suppose.”

“Right, and that’s what this is.”

How on earth could a little plastic bit like that keep all the beer in. He’s pulling my leg. There must be gallons in those kegs. I thought they had big wooden stoppers.

“You see, I guess they’ve hosed out the cellar after they tapped a keg, maybe spilt some beer, and this little piece has been hosed down the drain.”

“Yeah, but how did it get here on the beach?”

“Where do you think the water goes when they house it down the drain.”

“ I dunno. Where does the drain go.”

“It runs out the stormwater outlet at the northern end of the beach.”

“Oh! I get it. Thanks Joe. They aren’t valuable are they?”

“Not anymore mate. Just chuck it. There’ll be plenty more.”

He was right. I saw more and more.

[1] Also known as Carpet Sharks

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