PEI

Why throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean might be a bad idea

Harold Hackett of Tignish, P.E.I., says that after sending an estimated 10,000 bottles with messages into the ocean over 22 years, he will stop.

Harold Hackett of Tignish, P.E.I., says he will stop throwing bottles into the ocean

Tony Walker of Dalhousie University recommends against throwing bottles of any kind — glass or plastic — into the ocean, as such litter can hurt the environment. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Harold Hackett of Tignish, P.E.I., says that after sending an estimated 10,000 bottles with messages into the ocean over 22 years, he will stop.

Hackett, who calls himself The Bottleman, said a conservation officer told him recently that he would be fined $5,000 if he continued the practice.

"I see his point," Hackett said. "It hurts me to stop … but I mean, I gotta go by what they say."

Harold Hackett says that after he was visited by a conservation officer, the P.E.I. man will no longer toss bottles into the ocean. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

P.E.I.'s Department of Justice and Public Safety confirmed via email it has received complaints and that a conservation officer spoke to Hackett by phone "to remind him that littering is against the law and plastic in the ocean can be harmful to our environment."

"We appreciate Mr. Hackett's interest in connecting with people around the world and know he means no harm, but we do remind all Islanders that we need to protect our waterways by following the rules designed to preserve our environment," the email said.

Hackett said he will comply, but he'll continue to look forward to get back messages he has already sent out.

"I know I've got a lot more bottles out there," he said. "The ones that [are] out there now … you can't really take them out of the ocean now, they're gone."

An outdated notion

While a message in a bottle carried thousands of kilometres across the waves, as Hackett's have, may be a romantic notion, it's also an outdated one — and contributes to ocean pollution, according to Tony Walker, an assistant professor at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

"To actively and knowingly throw something into the environment now we know so much more about it, is bordering on reckless and adding to a pollution problem," said Walker, who researches human impact on the environment, including plastic marine pollution.

A plastic bottle lies among other debris washed ashore on the Indian Ocean beach in Sri Lanka. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/The Associated Press)

Walker said even substituting glass can be a bad move — sharp edges are a hazard to wildlife and it can take years before they are ground down into "beach glass."

"It's still throwing garbage into the environment — and it has no place there."

CBC reached out to the federal government, and was told no one was available for an interview.

"Pollution from plastic in our waters and environment is a growing concern in Canada and around the world," Environment Canada told CBC in an email statement, adding it "does not support putting plastic waste of any sort into the ocean."

The albatross that ate the bottle cap

Walker said even though the bottles are large and intact, they will eventually break down through UV light, salt degradation or by being smashed up by waves.

'If these bottles ever did get smashed up in waves, then the bottle caps is another significant item which is often ingested by seabirds," he said.

Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles and gallons washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai, south of Beirut, on July 19. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

"You've probably seen famous pictures of albatross chicks. They never even get to fledge because their stomachs are full of bottle caps that the parents have ingested on the open ocean."

A natural alternative

Walker said there are other ways to send messages around the world without adding waste to oceans.

He pointed to a research project out of the University of Oldenburg in Germany that is sending out wooden blocks with message embossed on them in a non-toxic ink. The project's goal is to have people report back where they found the blocks, in an effort to understand how plastics travel around oceans.

Researchers at the University of Oldenburg in Germany are sending out wooden blocks like this one in a project that tracks the trajectories of plastic in the ocean. (University of Oldenburg)

"Wooden blocks ultimately will degrade, so they don't have a legacy pollution impact on the environment," said Walker.

"Maybe plastics is not the way to do it anymore … or glass."

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About the Author

Jesara Sinclair

Journalist

Jesara Sinclair is a journalist with CBC P.E.I. Prior to Charlottetown, she worked with CBC in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. E-mail: jesara.sinclair@cbc.ca.

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