The Outlaw Ocean Podcast

Episode 6

The Magic Pipe


Voice Over: Launched 2004, Caribbean Princess epitomizes style and grace. Experience a new kind of Caribbean with Princess Cruises. Ideal ship to help you come back new.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: Caribbean Princess is one of the largest passenger ships on the planet. 952 feet long. It's got an outdoor movie theater, 19 decks, mini golf course, a casino. It has rooms for more than 3000 passengers and roughly a thousand crew. You know, it's this massive thing, which is one part Vegas hotel, one part amusement park. I mean, the entire experience is designed to avoid passengers thinking about things like, you know, where does the trash go? Where does the sewage go? Where do those workers go when they're not catering to me? What keeps the illusion alive is hiding all the bad parts so that the passengers experience nothing but the sort of happy illusion.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: Episode six The Magic Pipe.

Unknown Man: Are you going? Good (indistinct). Okie doke. Can you please push the.

Ian Urbina: Chris Keys is this 28 year old Scotsman who landed the job of his life, starting as a low level engineer on the Caribbean Princess. On his second outing on the ship, they were 23 miles from Southampton, England, and Keys was exploring the engine room. And it's important to realize just what these engine rooms look like on a ship this big. It's a three story maze of shiny metal pipes and whirring machines and glowing monitors and like a whole floor of a hotel. And there were four dozen men who worked in the space. So Keys was exploring a new section he hadn't been to in the engine room. And he came across this thing that's called a magic pipe. A magic pipe is fairly nondescript. Often, it's just a hose that runs from one place to another. It might only be six feet long, but it serves a key purpose, which is essentially to make stuff disappear. And that stuff that disappears is the most toxic waste that the ship produced. Keys looked at where this weird jerry rig thing seemed to be running from and to, and quickly knew that this was not what it should be. It was something that had been added to the normal architecture of the machines. And then it dawned on him that this was a magic pipe. A guy like Keys knew what was at stake here. He knew that what that magic pipe was doing was flushing toxic waste into the ocean. And so he quietly left the scene. And when no one else would be around later that evening, he came back with his cell phone and, and filmed it.

Ominous Music and Electric Whirring

Ian Urbina: Keys knew that this was a big deal. He'd just come out of maritime school. He was well-trained, and he knew this was a serious crime that he was witnessing. I spoke with him later and he said his first thought was, “This is ridiculous.”

Ominous Music and Beeping

Ian Urbina: First Chance Keys got, he handed over his footage and quietly contacted British authorities and told them what he'd witnessed. And since the ship was a U.S. flag ship, the British authorities got in touch with American authorities.

Unknown Man: Our open seas are not dumping grounds for waste. There was a campaign of obstruction in an effort to hide the deliberate pollution of our seas with oily waste.

Broadcaster #1: The charges against Carnival stemmed from illegal dumping of oil contaminated waste from the Caribbean Princess cruise ship, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Thursday.

Ian Urbina: This was a huge deal. I mean, the Carnival company is a multibillion dollar company. It's got the best of the best lawyers and lobbyists and inroads on Capitol Hill. And so, to open up an investigation of any of their ships is a serious matter. Leading the investigation for the Department of Justice was a guy who had done this for decades. He is kind of the best and most known prosecutor of these sorts of magic pipe crimes, a guy named Richard Udell.

Richard Udell: My name is Richard Udell and I'm a federal prosecutor, and I specialize in environmental crimes.

Ian Urbina: Udell has been at this for years. But when I talked with him about this case, it was immediately clear that this one really got under his skin. You know, I think he was deeply pissed off about the extent and the willfulness of the crime here, the damage that it causes and that it involves a company that should know better.

Richard Udell: The idea that the biggest of them all, the richest of them all, is deliberately violating the entire maritime regime designed to protect the oceans, that's a big deal.

Wind Whistling

Ian Urbina: Princess advertised itself as an environmentally compliant industry leader with the best available technology. But it wasn't in compliance, didn't have the best available technology, and that reality is completely different to the image that the company projected.

Voice Over: But what I see here never ceases to amaze me. It happens when people connect with nature, with culture, with each other.

Voice Over: Princess Cruises: the best premium cruise line seven day Caribbean cruises from five ninety nine.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: Cruise ships, like most large ships, burn the dirtiest type of fuel on the planet. It's called bunker fuel, and it's a vicious, thick tar-like substance. And actually, at room temperature is a solid. And when it burns, it has all sorts of really bad chemicals released. Before you burn bunker fuel, it has to be filtered and spun to remove water, debris, you know, chemical impurities and that stuff that gets through a centrifuge stripped out of the bunker fuel produces what's called engine sludge. So, this extract is distinctly dirty. And then you also have sewage on the ship and sink water on the ship. And a lot of these different fluids drip down into bilge waste, which is this really concentrated bad form of water that collects in the base of the ship. And you've got to find a way to dispose of that as well.

Unknown Man: They're supposed to use cleaning tanks to separate out the oil before they put the water into the ocean or a place like the Great Lakes. But sometimes they use what's called a magic pipe.

Man over Speaker: Thing called a magic pipe.

Broadcaster #2: The so-called magic pipe to circumvent pollution prevention equipment that separates oil and monitors oil levels in the ship's water.

Broadcaster #3: An investigation found the vessel illegally dumped oil contaminated waste and is linked to ports in nine U.S. states and two territories.

Richard Udell: All in all, at least three different methods were in use on the Caribbean Princess to illegally dispose of oil contaminated bilge water. The magic pipe is the most obviously illegal, but there were other methods as well, and none of them were being accurately recorded in the oil record book, and that oil record book inspected by the Coast Guard in the United States, it was full of lies.

Ian Urbina: The engineers have to keep track of everything they do, including how they get rid of and how much they get rid of of the oil and the sludge. And the logbook was a creation of this set of laws called MARPOL. And MARPOL was created in 1973, but it was in response to a disaster that occurred in 1967, in which this ship off the coast of England, an oil freighter, overturned and began slowly spilling its oil.

Broadcaster #4: Lands in the Tawny Canyon spewed out of her more than 40,000 tons of crude oil. In home waters, no oil (indistinct) on anything like this scale has ever occurred. It had been suggested that napalm be used to set fire to the oil, both in the tanker and on the sea.

Ian Urbina: It was woefully mishandled by the British government who decided they would bomb the ship in hopes of setting the oil on fire and preventing from fouling the coastline. The plan completely backfired and hundreds of miles of coastline were instead soiled.

Broadcaster #4 Britain can pat herself on the back. Whatever happens for taking such prompt action to protect the beaches.

Ian Urbina: Out of that came a sort of worldwide recognition that there need to be new rules on ships, you know, double hulled ships, steel sided ships, and also logbooks, better ways of tracking the threat of oil spills. The logbooks are a real step forward. At the same time, they're easily gamed. And if you know how to play with the numbers, you can make things look roughly legitimate.

Richard Udell: The Norwegian engineers referred to it as the eventyr bok. An eventyr bok in Norwegian just meant fairy tale book. And that's because nobody writes in the oil record book, “We're dumping overboard today.” Instead, they wrote a book of lies and they all knew it. And that's why they referred to it as the eventyr bok, the fairy tale book. You might see lots of entries that are identical, and that's usually a pretty good tip off if the oily water separator is only used between the hours of 12 and one and only on Wednesdays, and it always discharges overboard five cubic meters. Those are telltale signs that somebody has been lazy and just gun decked. And that's the phrase, gun decking, it's a little check, check, check, but not actually doing the work.

Ominous Music

Richard Udell: A cruise line like Carnival or like Royal Caribbean or like Norwegian Cruise Lines, all of which have been convicted of environmental crimes, they can pay those expenses of environmental compliance, but they haven't. It's not that it's a financial incentive that was unaffordable to them. It's that environmental compliance, environmental stewardship simply was not prioritized.

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: I had grown very accustomed to finding the sort of middle tier players in far off countries engaged in this kind of outlaw behavior. It was the norm, in fact, from what I was seeing. What was unusual here was a multi-billion dollar, brand-conscious company being engaged in such a willful crime that was distinct.

Ominous Music

Indistinct Chatter

Spokesperson #1: I have a statement and then be glad to take a few questions and then refer them to our experts here that virtually every American is familiar with the tragic environmental disaster in Alaskan waters.

Broadcaster #5: A super tanker owned by the Exxon Corporation hit a reef 25 miles off the port of Valdez. By today, 10 million gallons of oil covered 100 square miles of ocean.

Broadcaster #6: Large amount of thick, toxic sludge has so far leaked from a Japanese freighter.

Broadcaster #7: A thousand barrels of oil a day continue to spill.

Barack Obama: An explosion ripped through BP Deepwater Horizon Drilling.

Spokesperson #2: The explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico never should have happened. And I'm deeply sorry that it did.

Ian Urbina You ask the average person about bad stuff that happens at sea and they're likely going to say something about Somali piracy or the BP spill. The BP spill, much like the Valdez spill before it, are known events because they got huge news coverage and for good reason. You know, spills are super, super destructive. But the reality is that every three years, ships around the world intentionally dump. They don't spill. They intentionally dump more oil than the Exxon Valdez and the BP spill combined.

Richard Udell: Routine and deliberate vessel pollution is a real problem, and it's been found in studies to be up to eight times the amount of pollution that comes from accidental spills like the Exxon Valdez. That's an incredible fact. And when you think about all the ships out there on the seas and imagine that a significant percentage of them are engaged in routine and deliberate discharges, that's why MARPOL exists.

Ian Urbina: The shipping industry in general has a massive environmental footprint on the water, in the air, and the cruise industry in particular has a distinctly detrimental impact on the environment, partially because these ships are so huge. You're talking about ships that have sometimes 5000 passengers on board and that are producing the amount of sewage of a small city, and the roughly 400 to 500 of these mega ships traversing the globe on any given day. And when those vessels pull into port in some tiny island nation, they can, in one flush, ruin the near-shore waters.

Voice Over Fading In and Echoing

Ian Urbina: The cruise ship industry is really selling an illusion. It advertises and peddles freedom and exploration. But truth is, the entire ventures are predictable and choreographed and sort of hyper-managed.

Echoing Voice Over: Of the ship.

Ian Urbina: When you're on these ships as a passenger, you're moving through one reality. You're on certain floors or in certain sections of the ship. And yet there's a parallel universe or even alternate stairwells and alternate floors where all the staff are when they're not catering to you. You know, from the front end of the ship, the tourists are escorted out and given these days of swimming with the sea turtles on the back end of the ship, there's this dumping going on that's polluting the very waters where the turtles live.

Voice Over Echoing

Voice Over: Come back new.

Upbeat Music

Ian Urbina: As different from so much else, I’ve done on the outlaw ocean, this is not an industry or a realm that lacks laws. In fact, this is part of the maritime space that's highly regulated. But at the end of the day, even with these rules on this industry, the big challenge is enforcing them.

Machines Whirring and Beeping

Richard Udell: Every time there's an advancement in how we might detect illegal violations of MARPOL, the crew members, they're engineers, very clever. They know what to do, and they invent other ways to do it. There's a bazillion ways to dump overboard, if that's what you're going to do. Even a brand new engineer knows about MARPOL. It's what you study in school. There's nobody who works in an engine room that has some confusion here. A magic pipe is not a mistake.

Tense Music

Richard Udell: Chris Key is the whistleblower, recognized exactly what was going on. He confronted his superiors right then and there. When the ship hit the next port, which was Southampton in England, he resigned his position and walked off the ship.

Tense Music

Richard Udell: Immediately after the Caribbean Princess was inspected by the Coast Guard, the chief engineer convened a meeting. It was a meeting to pretend to be looking into the allegations of improper conduct. And during the meeting, he held up a sign, a handwritten sign, that said “L.A. is listening.”

Ian Urbina: In the engine room, there were these microphones that were connected to the headquarters of the company, which is in L.A.. And there was real concern that any discussion that occurred in the office of the engine room might end up being used against the chief engineers in this criminal prosecution. So one by one, the senior engineers pulled the lower staff out into the hall, away from the microphones, and warned them that if they were asked about the magic pipe, they needed to lie.

Ian Urbina: It was a sham meeting, and it let everybody know that they should cover up what took place. It shows not just criminality, but it shows you the consciousness of guilt. They knew exactly what they were doing at the time and they knew how bad it was, and they were trying to cover it up.

Tense Music

Ian Urbina: This pattern of evasion and hiding and concealing of evidence and tampering with witnesses just showed a clear, premeditated criminality. You know, the old saying about “It's not the crime, it's the cover up.” And this cover up is really what nailed Carnival.

Broadcaster #9: Princess Cruises pleaded guilty to a total of seven felony charges, including conspiracy, obstruction, and violating the act against pollution by a ship. The company was hit with a $40 million penalty.

Broadcaster #10: Pay a $40 million fine for dumping oil-contaminated wastewater into the ocean over the course of eight years.

Spokesperson #3: The largest ever criminal prosecution for intentional dumping and pollution by a ship.

Tense Music

Richard Udell: When judges sentence a defendant, they're supposed to look at the nature and circumstances of the offense. And when we went to sentencing in the Princess case, we put together a list for the judge of the nature and seriousness of the offense and the aggravating factors. Here's that list: deliberate pollution within navigable waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone of the United States and elsewhere, bypassing and subverting required pollution prevention equipment, tampering with required environmental monitoring devices, the failure to conduct internal audits, the failure to address known…numerous and substantial acts of concealment, a long duration of conduct, a high level of consciousness of guilt, the involvement of a large number of participants, actual and perceived threats to lower level…pollution of the very environment upon which the company's livelihood depends.

Tense Music

Richard Udell: Princess was convicted, and the penalty was $40 million. And on top of that was sentenced to a term of probation of five years. During that five year period, the company had to agree to outside, independent auditors that had been inspecting their ships. It was discovered that they had a SWAT team effectively going out to the ships before the outside, independent auditors and correcting problems. You can imagine how well that went over.

Broadcaster #11: A remarkable scene unfolded in a Miami courtroom. The head of the world's largest cruise line company, Carnival, stood before a federal judge and pleaded guilty to six counts of violating probation.

Broadcaster #12: Ultimately, the judge approved an agreement by which Carnival pleads guilty to violating probation and pays a $20 million fine.

Carnival Spokesperson: We are very sorry for the inexcusable actions of our employees, and we also deeply regret that our oversight was inadequate. We take full responsibility.

Richard Udell: Carnival's initial response was that, yes, it was very sorry that it had a few bad apples. That's not what the case was about. What a case like this is about is about corporate culture. The company hasn't actually convinced its employees that it wants them to obey the law.

Pensive Music

Richard Udell: Environmental crimes are white collar crimes or financial crimes. There's something about money going on and that's the motivation in pretty much every white collar crime. In the Carnival case, crew members were told by their boss, by the chief engineer, that the chief engineer didn't want to spend money on things because it would make him look bad. There was an interesting expression on the Caribbean Princess. In Italian, the phrase is “braccino corto.” It just means short arms. The chief engineer had short arms because his arms were so short he couldn't reach his wallet. And crew members referred to him that way.

Ian Urbina: The simplistic, stripped down set of goals are get there, make the passengers happy, and do it for the least amount of money possible. What this results in is a sort of tacit encouragement to make problems go away, to find savings but don't say how you found them. And that's what created a culture of the magic pipe.

Ominous Music


Water Moving

Ian Urbina: 100 years ago, this case would have made no sense because dumping was the norm and it was legal and it was standard practice and all manner of things were routinely dumped offshore. For example, after World War II, Russia and the UK and the U.S. loaded about a million tons of unexploded ordnance, specifically mustard gas, onto the back of ships, and took them out to sea and dumped them.

Voice Over: The disposal methods to be shown are the result of over ten years of development in cooperation with the United States Coast Guard. The deep sea was chosen as the most desirable, ultimate depository.

Ian Urbina: These same countries had a practice of dumping nuclear sludge and even old nuclear reactors at sea. And shockingly, I mean, this practice of dumping nuclear waste at sea only was banned in 1993. Since then, you know, getting rid of nuclear waste essentially became a black market affair. The industry was driven underground. And there's this famous case, for example, of the Italian mafia waste disposal syndicate that was taking these oil drums full of nuclear waste and dumping them off the coast of Somalia.

Broadcaster #13: It's the Mafia's control of Italy's waste disposal industry that's proven not only to be its most lucrative racket yet, but also its deadliest. Now, Italy faces a toxic waste crisis that threatens the health of generations to come.

Ominous Music

Richard Udell: One of the judges in one of our first trials asked about this problem and made a comment, said, “You know, people have been dumping in the ocean since the time of the Phoenicians.” And that's true. That's true. And that's the problem. Many people think of the oceans as this resource that is bottomless, but it's not.

Ian Urbina: The sort of disappearance of this oil at sea fits inside a larger notion of “it will dilute.” You know, the saying is “dilution is the solution for pollution.” And, and the thought there is that this will be watered down in the ocean and no one will know and no one will be harmed. Because we have that outlook on the oceans that it can dilute anything, it almost has this deity like power. You know, it means that through time, the worst type of pollution, the worse it is, the more likely it’s to end up in the ocean.

Intense Music and Sonar Beeping

Sonar Beeping and Water Moving

Ian Urbina: I mean, think about the diversity of what we've dumped at sea. You've got oil, sewage, chemical and effluvium garbage, military ordnance, entire nuclear reactors or oil and gas drilling rigs. I mean, everything has been thrown over the years into the ocean. And so of all the insane things that we throw away in the ocean, one in particular, one type in particular, has really accumulated to an impossible degree. And that is plastic pollution.

Broadcaster #14: In an underwater paradise, a plastic nightmare. Diver Rich Horner just days ago filming stunning images, searching for fish, but finding an ocean of plastic trash was

Broadcaster #15: Every year, about 8 million tons of this type of waste ends up in our oceans.

Broadcaster #14: The U.N. estimates by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Eerie Music

Speaker 2 The CEO of Greenpeace, Annie Leonard, is someone I turn to for analysis on the ocean, not just for the threats the ocean face, but the sort of systems that create those threats.

Annie Leonard: I’m Annie Leonard, and I'm the executive director of Greenpeace U.S..

Ian Urbina: Greenpeace has a reputation, and deservedly so, as a radical organization. At the same time, my experience was that while they’re radical, they're very rigorous, often quite nuanced, and deeply sober about their outlook on the world.

Annie Leonard: I can say that for decades, basically my entire adult life, I have been fascinated with how things move through the economy, the sort of social, environmental, political, psychological, health impacts of that. And so I did spend over a decade traveling around the world, looking at the factories that make our stuff in the dumps where we dump our stuff. And when I came back to the U.S., I was thinking, “How can I get people to think about all of our stuff before we have it and after we’re done with it?” So I made a talk that became enormously popular called The Story of Stuff.

Ian Urbina: The Story of Stuff was adapted into a documentary film called The Story of Plastic, and it is unusually incisive and offers a sort of deeper and broader analysis of the plastic problem. This excerpt is from the film.

The Story of Plastic Excerpt: The latest estimate from the American Chemistry Council is that $194 billion will be invested in the US into 325 new or expanded facilities for petrochemicals, primarily for plastics between now and 2025. We're already producing more plastics in the United States than we can use. So the question is, where is that plastic going? It's flowing to Asia. It's flowing to Europe. It's flowing into ever new product streams. This highlights a really fundamental truth about the plastics crisis and about plastics as a product. To a far greater extent than in any other product chain, plastics are driven not by the demand for them, but by the supply. This is the story of plastics. It is fossil fuels finding a new form and finding a new place to flow through the economy.

Ian Urbina: I've been a fan of Annie Leonard’s for a long time, and her Story of Stuff Project, I thought was really smart. And at its root, it had a simple thought, which is that we on this planet are operating as if we have infinite resources, and the opposite is the case. We have finite resources, and the way that we consume and dispose of things is utterly unsustainable. And nowhere is that story more relevant than on the oceans, both in terms of what we're taking out of the oceans and also what we're putting into them.

Ian Urbina: I did travel around the world for over a decade and looking at the different places that people have figured out to put waste, and we put waste in all kinds of places. But top of the list is often the ocean. In every coastal country that I saw, there was people dumping waste into the ocean. The city of Philadelphia had been burning its municipal solid waste, its trash, in an incinerator, which is an incredibly stupid thing to do with your garbage because you are left over with this pile of toxic ash that you have to put somewhere. And so the city of Philadelphia loaded this ash onto a ship and went off in search of a country to dump it on.

Train Car Moving

Annie Leonard: Greenpeace followed it and warned every country it was approaching. And we followed this ship for 27 months. During that journey, when it kept trying to find a dump spot, it three times changed its name, got a paint job. Eventually in the Indian Ocean, it opened up its holds to reporters and said, “Look, it's gone.” And everybody said, “Where is that ash?” Thousands of tons of toxic ash. They said, “Where is that ash?” And they wouldn't tell. But fortunately, as is often the case, a crew member thought it was concerning that they were bulldozering that into the sea and took photographs of it.

Unknown Man: It went to the Bahamas, it went to the Dominican Republic, it went to Honduras, and it even went to Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa before coming all the way back to Haiti, where it landed on December 31st, 1987.

Spokesperson #4: Haiti has a lot of coastline, and what little surveillance there is can be bought off very easily. That's the crux of the matter.

Tense Music

Annie Leonard: Often the waste that's in the ocean wasn't even dumped in the ocean at all. It was dumped on the land. It was dumped on the beach. It was dumped in rivers. I mean, everything drains into the ocean. So the ocean is getting waste that's from dust from tire wear on the roads. It's getting waste from agricultural runoff, pesticides, and chemicals. What's crazy is that awareness of waste is growing. I mean, everybody is concerned about waste in the ocean, about the need to recycle. Awareness of waste is growing, but so is the waste itself. The amount of waste that the average person produces in the United States is growing and growing. The U.S. has about 5% of the world's population and produces about 20% of the world's waste. We are just a very, very wasteful society and economy compared to almost any other country out there.

Broadcaster #16: Americans throwing out on average ten plastic bags a week each, millions ending up here.

Annie Leonard: Overall, when you think of the total materials that we pull out of the earth and run through the system, less than 1% of total materials that we pull out of the earth is still in product or use six months later. That means 99% of the stuff that we are mining, logging, harvesting, extracting, 99% of that is waste in less than six months. And that is just no way to run a sustainable economy.

Voice Over: Oil companies compete with each other in taking the petroleum molecule apart and rearranging it into, well, you name it, fabrics, toothbrushes, tires, insecticides, cosmetics, weed killers, a whole galaxy of things to make a better life all around.

Machine Noises and Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: The magic of plastic, the thing that has made it so ubiquitous, that’s turned it into a monster, was on the front end of its origin story. The very thing that made it so inspiring and encouraging, you know, it was indestructible, it could last forever, you could reuse it, and it was super cheap to make. And those very same traits are the ones that have turned it into a complete nightmare. It doesn't break down. It's so cheap, it's ubiquitous and all over the place. And so when it gets into the ocean, it does not biodegrade. It takes forever to break down. And it just accumulates in the water, on the seafloor, and in the marine life itself.

Ominous Music and Water Moving

broadcaster #17: This pilot whale is starving to death. If the team leave it, it will drown. It cannot eat because its stomach is full of plastic. Rescuers know this whale won't be the last. With 8 million tons of bags and bottles clogging up our oceans, more animals will die.

Unknown Woman: Now she is bleeding.

Annie Leonard: Definitely awareness about ocean plastic is increasing and, you know, the turtle with the straw up its nose did a huge service for raising awareness about this issue.

Unknown Woman: Oh man.

Unknown Woman: Oh my god.

Unknown Woman: That is just freaky.

Annie Leonard: Unfortunately, that raised awareness has not translated into actual improvement in the issue. What we've seen is the plastic industry and the fossil fuel industry that's so closely connected to it, doubling down with PR and marketing, reminding everybody that plastic is recyclable, which is not really true, but which is a very effective marketing technique to get people to feel comfortable buying and throwing away this inherently dangerous product.

Tense Music

Annie Leonard: The reality is that plastic is not recyclable for a number of reasons. One is, physically plastic is made out of these long chains of polymers, and any time it's heated and reprocessed, those polymers degrade. So you can't make a plastic bottle out of a plastic bottle out of a plastic bottle indefinitely as you can with other materials like aluminum, for example. So it's technically problematic, but even worse, it's economically not feasible. It just doesn't make sense. It costs more money to collect, sort, wash and transport, and process the plastic than it would cost to make new plastic. And one of the reasons for that is that 99% of the raw gradients of plastic are fossil fuels. And fossil fuels are so heavily subsidized and so inexpensive that recycled plastic could just never economically compete with virgin plastic made from these subsidized fossil fuels.

Tense Music

Annie Leonard: There's a huge gap between people's perception of how much plastic is recycled and the reality. Globally, it's less than 9% of plastic that has ever been produced has actually been reprocessed. That means that 91% of all the plastic that's ever been produced, that is millions and millions and millions of tons, 91% is either buried in a hole in the ground, burned in an incinerator, or is in the ocean. It is dumped somewhere.


Annie Leonard: In many ways, we've won the battle for public consciousness. The problem is that the overall system is just so unsustainable that a little bit of greenwashing here, a little bit of green packaging here or there, it just doesn't make any difference. And in fact, all of this green slogans on products can lead to what we call the rebound effect of people buying more stuff, causing more environmental damage because they think it is a green product.

Unknown Man: It's great to know that companies like Nestlé Waters are well along the journey of recycling.

Unknown Man: We get it back, we reprocess it, we use it again.

Unknown Man: We get to make the world a better place. So let's use them over and over and over again.

Ominous Music and Water Dripping

Annie Leonard: One of the reasons that new plastic is so artificially cheap is that the companies are not really paying the true cost of producing that plastic. And one of the best examples of that is the pollution that's caused both by plastic production and by disposal. The companies aren't paying for that. The term when a cost is not actually incorporated by the company is that they've externalized that cost. And so all these companies that are making and using huge amounts of plastic-Coca-Cola, Unilever, Procter Gamble-they make huge amounts of plastic, much of which ends up in the ocean. And they're not paying for that disposal. The oceans are paying and all of us, including the 3 billion people globally that are dependent on ocean ecosystems for survival, we're all the ones paying because we're losing our oceans while those plastic producing companies are just raking in the profits.

Ian Urbina: You know, I came to think of the magic pipe as a synecdoche for the larger societal way that we deal with waste. You know, we are getting rid of waste in this seemingly magical way where we send it off into the air or into the water and assume it's gone for good.

Ominous Music and Water Dripping

Ian Urbina: As is often the case with these issues, the disproportionate burden of this problem ends up being on the shoulders of the developing nations. So not only are those nations least equipped to clean up their coastal waters as this stuff floats their way, but they are also the location where when we take our plastic waste from the developed world, where do we dump it but the developing world in their very landfills, which of course end up often in their rivers and back along their coastline.

Annie Leonard: I often say that waste follows the path of least resistance. Waste will go to communities or locations where the people there are perceived to not have the political or educational or financial resources to fight back because nobody wants this stuff. And so waste usually ends up in low income communities, whether that's in the United States-low income black, brown, indigenous communities-or overseas. We export a lot of our waste, especially our plastic waste, to countries in the global south, to Asia, to Africa.

Unknown Man: The way it is, you are a small nation at the service of the so-called big brother. So why should they refuse big bucks to have Haiti as the garbage basket for the needs of the US?

Ominous Music

Ian Urbina: As the developed world realizes that this thing, this single use plastic, is a problem, the main sellers of it, the corporate players that are making and selling it, are shifting their attention to where is the last front, you know, their last possibility for survival. And so they're looking to the developing world to sell more and more of the single use plastic products.

Annie Leonard: I lived in Asia for a number of years. I saw it right before my eyes. Sustainable material, you know, natural clay, reusable stainless steel, sustainable materials that could be used over and over or readily composted were being replaced with disposable plastic. And you see it everywhere you know, you go to markets in a lot of other countries, just like if you go to Target here as well, I guess, and there's just wall to wall disposable plastic, which is going to end up in the oceans soon enough because these are very short lived items. So we're exporting our actual waste and we're exporting a disposable orientation towards our economy that's going to take years to recover from.

Ominous Music

Annie Leonard: The level of plastic pollution in the ocean has reached absolute crisis levels. Like, it is a full on global emergency, and often when people think about plastic in the ocean, they think about large items. You hear about the, the great garbage patch, like it's some kind of, you know, floating mass of plastic. It's much worse than that.

Tense Music

Annie Leonard: There are those big chunks of plastic, you know, lawn furniture, fishing nets, you know, big plastic items. But most of the plastic has actually been broken down through wave action, through sunlight, into what's called microplastics. Tiny, tiny pieces of plastic that just permeate the entire ocean. It is, it is much more like plastic soup than sort of floating plastic garbage. It's just everywhere.

Broadcaster #18: Scientists estimate around 3 million tons of microfibers now pollute our oceans, even reaching Antarctica.

Broadcaster #19: Have discovered microscopic particles of plastic in snow.

Broadcaster #20: Even here, the Mariana Trench plastic has found its way more than six and a half miles down.

Broadcaster #21: Evidence showing particles from plastic waste end up in our water, soil and air.

Annie Leonard: It's in every species of fish and sea life that has been tested are these tiny little bits of plastic full of toxic chemicals that sea life either eats or it gets in through their gills, and some of the stuff is so small, it crosses into organs, it crosses the cell barrier. So we've basically permeated our entire ocean with little, tiny, toxic containing plastic nuggets, which is threatening the sea life and then threatening us because we're eating this stuff.

Ominous Music and Birds Squawking

Ian Urbina: These problems matter because we need a healthy ocean. Only with a healthy ocean can it serve its many purposes, one of which is the oceans are what provides us with 50% of the air we breathe, and they play this important role to clean the air. It truly is the temperature stabilizer of the planet, and it's one of the few things that we have that’s slowing the current rate of global warming.

Annie Leonard: It is like a science experiment except I don't even think scientists could have thought of something so sinister. It's like a science fiction horror film where there's this part of the planet, the majority of the planet, that sustains life, that is magical and beautiful, that moderates the hydrological cycle, it moderates weather, it absorbs carbon so it combats climate change. It's like this magic, incredible, wonderful gift is our ocean. And through the way that we run our economy and through climate change and pollution, we are undermining the oceans ability to take care of us. The only way you could describe the trajectory, Ron, is just downright suicidal.

Somber Music

Ian Urbina: You've got fish stocks collapsing. You have plastic pollution accumulating. You have sea levels rising. You have acidity levels rising. You have mass die offs. You have algae blooms. You have dumping increasing. You have so many different problems that are getting worse, not better. And if these problems were occurring in different places, different disconnected places, and weren't reinforcing each other and interacting with each other, it'd be one thing. But they are accumulating and growing on the momentum of each other, and we don't really know what that means.

Annie Leonard: Scientists talk about tipping points, tipping points where some damage of a system is so bad that we can't recover. And I worry that we are nearing tipping points on the ocean. The combination of increased temperatures, changing ocean chemistry, depleting the sea life that lives in there, the pollution, we're really pushing the ocean to its absolute brink of survival. And that has enormous impacts because we can't live without the ocean. So I'm extremely alarmed about the tipping point. Once we pass that tipping point, which we are perilously close to, then we just move into harm reduction. Then it's too late.

Somber Music

Cracking, Thunder, Rain, and Ominous Music

Unknown Man: Tugboat named the Arctic Sunrise. As you can see, we are still in the process of conducting a peaceful protest here out in these distant waters far from the coast. We consider that your drilling operation is not safe. It’s not safe for the planet. And we have a message for you from the people, from thousands of people who feel the same way. We will stand our ground in peaceful protest at the operation that is most dangerous to emit more CO₂ and affect climate change.

Intense Music

Ian Urbina: When I started this reporting, I was most interested in chronicling, explaining, maybe even countering the abuses that occur out there. And I started out thinking in a more black and white way of the abuses against the people. And, you know, I still have that priority, but I think the more time I spend out there, the more I realize that this whole other category of crime and abuse is one that's occurring against the ocean itself. I needed to not think of it as some passive, you know, backdrop or like a canvas of bad behavior, but rather as this vibrant organism that had its own story. The people on the ocean surface were a bit like sea lice, you know, on a whale. You know, you can focus on the tragedy of the sea lice, and it's probably important, but, but you also really need to think about the whale itself. It's not just a surface, it's a thing. It's alive. And I really need to understand how the parasitic passengers were making the whale sick.

Pensive Music


VO: On the final episode of The Outlaw Ocean…

Ian Urbina:It’s so hard to communicate what it’s like out there, right? You need to talk bigger in order to, kind of, just shake people and let people know, like, it’s unreal out there.

You’ll hear people talk about the draw of the sea, and the spell that it casts on you and stuff like that, and that’s really, really true.

I mean, the moment I headed out on the fishing boats, my entire life has been about returning to the ocean.


From CBC Podcasts and the LA Times, this series is created and produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project.

It’s reported and hosted by me, Ian Urbina. Written and produced by Ryan Ffrench. Editing and sound design by Michael Ward. Sound recording by Tony Fowler. Our associate producer is Margaret Parsons. Additional production by Joe Galvin and Marcella Boehler.

This episode features music by: Kodomo, Stoneface & Terminal, Antarctic Wastelands, Appleblim, Earthen Sea, DRWN., Solar Heavy, Bokki, Himuro Yoshiteru, Patricia Spero, Machinefabriek, Sjors Mans, Marco Faraone, and Melorman.

Their music is available online at The Outlaw Ocean Music Project website and wherever you stream music. Please check out their work.

Additional music by Scott Coatsworth, Bret Brady, Matthew Stevens, Gammatone, and Fábio Nascimento.