Prior to a law passed in 1978 - and eventually enforced starting in 1983 - ocean-going vessels and barges carrying garbage simply dumped their waste into the ocean.
Marine pollution is known by the acronym MARPOL. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships known as MARPOL 73/78, is one of the most important international marine conventions. After 1983, conditions began to improve through the efforts of environmentalists and concerned mariners who saw firsthand the devastating effects of garbage patches that spread for miles.
One Sisters resident dedicated 17 years of his career helping shift the tides of the expanding problem. Retired Chief Engineer David Hiller's career was in the marine industry. He sailed as chief engineer for 19 years on container ships, tankers and bulk carriers. During that time he saw his share of garbage floating on the ocean.
Hiller's career began in 1966. He saw his first large mass of garbage, a quarter-mile in diameter, while heading to Wake Island, which is southwest of the Hawaiian Islands.
"Forty or 50 years ago, I'd go into harbors in India and Taiwan and they'd be floating with trash," Hiller recalled. "In Japan in the '60s and '70s we'd have to clean our cooling water strainers from plastic bags. There's been tremendous progress, but we're not there yet."
Hiller wanted to help solve the problem and educate mariners so they could adhere to the MARPOL Treaty and follow marine pollution regulations.
"We built software programs to train crews on how not to pollute the oceans ... not just plastics but other kinds of pollutions, too. The program is called Meeting MARPOL Standards. My partners and I built an interactive program. It's on several thousand ships as a training program. Crews use it to keep current and adhere to regulations."
Hiller was the subject matter expert on the project. The company is still active, and a demo for their program is available on their website: MARPOLtraining.com.
Hiller wants to see everyone take part in cleaning up our planet both on and off the water.
"It makes you angry that we do this as a humanity," he said. "You look at it and it's no different than going along the highway and seeing garbage coming out of a pick-up truck. It's the same thing, it's just the ocean is out of most people's view. We as a humanity have got to come up with better ways. We can't continue landfills. We are going to run out of places to put our waste."
By Katy Yoder
The world is drowning in plastic. Great masses of the stuff float in the oceans. Living in Central Oregon, people are removed from the visual realities of pollution in the ocean - but a group of Sisters students now know a lot about the subject. And they're taking action.
Rima Givot's biology class at Sisters High School recently tackled the topic of how carbon cycles through the biosphere and the role humans play in that cycle. They studied how human waste (carbon emissions and plastic) impacts the natural world, especially in the ocean ecosystems.
To give the topic a local focus, Givot's students designed projects with the goal to reduce plastic waste, disposable plastic consumption, and/or carbon emissions, while raising awareness about the problem. The students conducted a wide range of projects including writing letters to government representatives, picking up litter and interviewing local business owners about plastic-bag use.
Some of the students learned how to make useful things from waste items like feed sacks and wine corks, as well as the option to reuse zip-close bags and utensils. They looked at the positive impacts of riding the bus and bikes and surveyed community members. They presented information to other students and made a proposal to the city council.
When they calculated the results of their inquiries they ran an advertisement in The Nugget revealing their findings.
Givot gave her class a lot to accomplish, and the students rose and often exceeded her expectations.
"I was really inspired by these freshmen and sophomore students," she said. "In addition to learning about the biological role of carbon and ways we can play a part in how it cycles, the students felt empowered to have a positive impact on their community. They found a wide range of ways to encourage positive change and felt a connection to the community. It's been a really exciting project!"
Student Mary Root hopes Sisters-area residents will get on board as well. Root's student team interviewed tourist-oriented businesses in town.
"We polled businesses and asked them how many bags they used per day and if they use paper bags," she said. "We wanted to know if they offered reusable bags and promoted them as a healthier way to carry items."
Root found that after the questions were answered, business owners were more aware of how they could mitigate the overuse of plastics.
With large masses of plastic-infused islands called gyres floating off-shore, Root found that plastic bags are a big part of the problem because they are easily transported by wind. The garbage mass in the Pacific Ocean is called the North Pacific Gyre. Root learned why these garbage patches are so destructive to marine life.
"In these gyres, there are currents that accumulate materials into one area. There are lots of nutrients accumulated too, so animals go there to get the nutrients. They also ingest the small particles of plastics that are interspersed with the nutrients. You can see sea turtles that have died and when examined they have plastics in their stomachs."
The students' research informed them that plastic bags are threatening wildlife in and out of the water. Not only that, humans are affected through plastic particles entering the food chain in the ocean (see related story, page 21).
Root and many of her classmates are changing their behavior since doing the project in Givot's class.
"This has changed me and made me think more about it," said Root. "I used to use a lot of zip-[close] bags with my lunches, now my family buys reusable bags with Velcro. I use a lot less plastics than I used to. The purpose of the project was to have the future generation think about it more."