“We don’t need millions of people to do it perfectly, we need millions to do it imperfectly.”

Words: Evan Wishloff 
Photos: Josh Munoz, Corbin Marshall

Recently, we were lucky enough to host David Langdon and Ben Lecomte from The Vortex Swim Crew in our West Edmonton and Calgary stores for a presentation and Q&A session about their awe-inspiring journey across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

After sitting down for lunch with David and Ben, as well as watching their presentation, I knew I had to write about it. Approximately 150 people combined attended the two presentations, but their message is the kind that I think far more people should hear. 

For those of you who find yourself asking What the heck is the Vortex Swim, you are likely not alone. If it weren’t for Icebreaker, I wouldn’t have heard of the Vortex Swim either! So before diving in (pun intended), here’s a brief synopsis of the Vortex Swim:

Long-distance swimmer, and the first man to swim across the Atlantic Ocean without a kick board, Ben Lecomte, had a vision to swim through the greatest concentration of plastic in our oceans, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The goal? To bring awareness to the issue of plastics in our oceans. Along the way, they collected plastics and tagged others for tracking and research purposes, but the real story is in the swim. 

Over 500 km of open-ocean swimming through the densest concentration of plastics in the ocean. 

The Vortex Swim - Microplastics in the Ocean

The challenge? How do I convey what I heard and learned in a blog post? First, I’ll start by saying I was amazed at how Ben and David managed to present what they found during the Vortex Swim in an entirely unpretentious way. There was no preaching, no shaming, and I think it’s safe to say instead of leaving the evening in a doom-and-gloom attitude, most people left with an increased awareness, and hopefully a gameplan on some small change they can make that will have an impact for the better.

The Vortex Swim - Plastic Garbage in our Ocean

Anyways, back to how I’m going to share this. It would be a disservice to the quality of Ben and David’s presentation to rehash it here. So I’m going to get personal instead - bear with me!

I like to think of myself as a decent person when it comes to the environment and my impact on it, but I also like to think I’m a realist. I drive a car, I eat take-out, I buy things I don’t need, I take vacations on an airplane from time to time, and I do all sorts of things that are certainly at odds with an extreme environmentalist view. But at the same time, I like to think I do care about the environment, and I try to at least consider the impacts of my actions and act accordingly.

I’ve always struggled with how to reconcile the two - I care about the environment and I think there are some problems we need to solve, but I also do things that I know are at odds with that. 

For example, I recently bought a pair of Redback Boots. Was it because I didn’t have any suitable footwear in my closet already? No. It was because I liked the comfort, style, and utiliarianism of them. Want? Yes. Need? No. 

Or even today, on my way to the office before writing this, I quickly stopped into my favourite local coffee shop. I usually bring my reusable mug, but today, I realized I had forgotten it at home. I could have foregone ordering a coffee and just gone to work. But if you know me, you know I love coffee, so I still ordered one in a take-out cup, that sadly will likely end up in a landfill

This push and pull between how I know I should act and what I actually do creates a certain tension that I think has always led me to try to insulate myself from the impacts of pollution on the environment. Sure, I’m aware there’s a problem, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, lest I fall into a doom-and-gloom pit of depression. We’re doomed no matter what, right? 

The Vortex Swim - Plastic Garbage in our Ocean

Then, over lunch with Ben and David, I heard the phrase “It’s not about any individual doing it perfectly, it’s about millions doing it imperfectly.” 

What exactly does that mean? It means a simple, small change in our day-to-day life has the ability to make a HUGE impact. It’s not about waking up tomorrow and living in a perfectly sustainable and renewable way. It’s about waking up tomorrow and upping your awareness. Find one small, actionable thing you can do, and actually doing it. 

In one short sentence, all the internal tension between wanting to do better for the environment, but knowing I’m far from perfect, disintegrated.

If there was ever anybody who had the right to stand up on a soapbox and tell us how bad we were doing, it was the crew of the Vortex Swim, who saw some truly harrowing and disturbing examples of plastic pollution.

Ben, the man who swam across the Atlantic 20 years ago and barely saw enough pollution to notice it, who now, will see plastic anywhere and everywhere when on the water, the man who decided to swim through the densest concentration of plastic in our oceans and saw some of the most disturbing and harrowing examples of plastic pollution impacting our seas, deserves to get up on a soapbox and preach our failures at us. 

Ben Lecomte - The Vortex Swim - Plastic Garbage in our Ocean

David, the man who saw so much plastic from onboard their ship (an average of seeing one large piece of plastic every 3 minutes across the entire 80 days) that he no longer expected any shape on the horizon to be a living sea creature, but rather more plastic, has a right to get up on a soapbox and call for extreme change. 

But neither of them did. Instead, they called for awareness, leaving the ball firmly in our court when it comes to how we want to address this problem. 

The Vortex Swim - Plastic Garbage in our Ocean

David put it quite succinctly: “It’s about leading by example with those small changes to start something bigger. It’s about walking into that coffee shop with that reusable coffee cup. The barista sees it. Your kids [family, friends, whoever you’re with] see it. The other patrons of the coffee shop see it. And maybe they go home and think about how they saw somebody trying to take one step to minimize their impact, so they wake up the next day and do the same” 

It’s hard being a human - we are imperfect, and I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up over it. It’s difficult, and to be honest, practically impossible to live a life without creating some plastic waste. But if you think about it, even briefly, we can all come up with something small and simple that we can do that minimizes our impact in some way. That’s how we are going to change for the better. 

The Vortex Swim - Plastic Garbage in our Ocean

No story puts that in better context than when I asked Ben why he had decided to tackle the Vortex Swim. 

“I’ve been doing open water swimming for a long time, and I’ve seen the progression of the amount of plastics in the water. It became a real problem for me when I had children. When I was growing up I don’t remember seeing any plastics in the ocean or on the beach, and now we see it everywhere. And all of that plastic comes from somebody. This problem wasn’t created in a day, and we aren’t going to fix it in a day.”

The Vortex Swim - Plastic Garbage in our Ocean

Little changes turn into big changes. That bottle you throw out may eventually end up in the ocean, and over time, with enough people, and enough bottles, we end up with a problem like we have today. If you only do one thing after reading this, I hope it's to spend some time becoming aware of your impacts on the environment, and making one simple, small, easy-to-implement change to reduce your impact. 

“We don’t need millions of people to do it perfectly, we need millions to do it imperfectly.”

The Vortex Swim - Plastic Garbage in our Ocean