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Moby-Duck: the True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea

Moby-Duck: the True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea
Donovan Hohn
Union Books, 416pp, £20

We are drowning in a sea of plastic. That is the message, more or less, of Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck (the first publication from the new Union Books imprint), which tracks the course of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea over a period of nearly 20 years.

The story begins with two containers snapping loose from a cargo ship travelling from China to the US on 10 January 1992. Their contents - sets of "Friendly Floatees", shaped like yellow ducks, green frogs, red beavers and blue turtles - tumbled into the Pacific Ocean and began an epic journey around the globe.

Found by beachcombers in the most unlikely locations, the toys provided rich data for those studying the notoriously difficult subject of the speed and direction of ocean currents. Despite their benign appearance, these toys also offer an indictment of our reliance on plastic and the huge damage it is doing to the world's oceans.

Fascinated by news reports about the lost shipment, Hohn, a schoolteacher, was lured into finding out more. Through no small effort, he traces the origin and destination of the toys, in a journey that takes him to a Chinese plastics factory and on to container ships crossing the Pacific.

He discovers that pollution is nothing new - it's a phenomenon dating back to the first volcanic eruptions that threw rock and ash into
the sea. However, the problem in the modern era is that plastic does not decompose. "Sixty per cent of plastic will float and the 60 per cent that does float will never sink because it doesn't absorb water," Hohn writes. "It fractures into ever smaller pieces."

As a consequence, there are things that are afloat in the sea today that will never sink. In the North Pacific gyre, a confluence of wind, tides and currents that gathers flotsam, sieving seawater produces more plastic fragments than plankton.

Hohn is clearly very taken with the whimsy of his tale and loses no opportunity to remind us how preposterous, crazy and unexpected the whole thing is. The naive narrator is a storytelling technique at least as old as Chaucer, allowing the reader and the teller of the tale to go on a voyage of discovery together. Phrases such as "I had no intention" and "I certainly never expected" litter the text. It is an established device but, at times, it gets in the way of Hohn's material, which is interesting enough to stand on its own.

While his style is polished - he is the recipient of several literary prizes and a former senior editor at Harper's - the quirky characters and situations he encounters would surely have spoken for themselves without our having to be reminded that he doesn't know how he got sucked into this crazy "quest" in the first place.

On the other hand, the interest of his central thread - the question of where these ducks came from and where they are going - lies in its sprawling nature. Hohn's investigation goes beyond the initial spill to encompass the toy industry in China, the production of plastic and early Arctic exploration.

Some of the allusions to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick feel laboured - the epilogue, for example, in which Hohn draws comparisons between the two books in terms of the motif of fatherhood, is a strange imposition. Yet, at its core, this is a fascinating story and Hohn makes a rare success of the difficult task of finding genuine human interest in the issue of global pollution.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism