Over the weekend, Planet Experts had the opportunity to interview Marcus Eriksen, Executive Director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute.
Dr. Eriksen received his Ph.D. in Science Education from the University of Southern California in 2003. Shortly afterward, he embarked on a 5 month odyssey down the Mississippi River on his own homemade raft. The experience led him to a career studying the ecological impacts of plastic marine pollution, which has included expeditions sailing 35,000 miles through all five subtropical gyres to discover new garbage patches of plastic pollution in the Southern Hemisphere.
We caught up with Dr. Eriksen just before he embarked on his latest research trip, the 2014 North Atlantic Viking Expedition. Eriksen and his team will be traveling from Bermuda to Iceland over the next three weeks, charting a course through the North Atlantic Gyre.
Planet Experts: What led you to found the 5 Gyres Institute?
Marcus Eriksen: My interest in plastics work goes back to a childhood growing up near the bank of the Mississippi River outside New Orleans, where in 2003 I built a raft and traveled the length of the river in 5 months. I always saw trash. This great river exported garbage to the world and it struck me as deeply wrong. I’m also a Gulf War veteran and witnessed an ecological disaster when I camped among burning oil wells back in Kuwait in 1991. In 2000 I went to Midway Atoll as a teacher for a traveling science program, but what stuck in my head was the image of hundreds of albatross carcasses filled with plastic. These experiences combined made me think about what’s worth fighting for. It’s conservation and human rights. That defines sustainability and that’s worth a good lifelong fight.
PE: What exactly is a gyre and why are plastics drawn to them?
ME: Gyres are natural systems formed by currents that diminish toward the middle. There are two clockwise ones in the north and three counter-clockwise ones in the south. Plastic in the ocean migrates there and is trapped by the lack of wind and current in the middle. It breaks down into microplastic there – trillions of particles of microplastics form the garbage patches in the gyres.
PE: What are the most significant hazards plastics pose to our oceans and marine life? What about human health?
ME: Entanglement and ingestion by plastic can harm wildlife. Ingested trash causes ulcers, false sense of satiation, loss of appetite, dehydration, and this makes marine life vulnerable to sickness and death. Also, plastics absorb POPs like PCBs, DDT, and other hydrocarbons that persist in the environment. When marine life try to digest toxin-laden plastics, they de-sorb toxins from plastic and store it in their bodies. Humans are affected when you eat animals that have a high body burden of stored toxins. We are apex carnivores at the top of the food chain.
PE: Like climate change, the overwhelming presence of plastics in our oceans is a problem of great magnitude that is caused by and affects countries all around the world. How do you even begin to implement solutions to plastics pollution?
ME: ALL SOLUTIONS begin on land. The myth of islands of plastic in the ocean had the unfortunate byproduct of making people think that fixing the problem is as simple as mining the garbage patches for trash. There are three primary solutions, and recycling isn’t one of them.
Public awareness. There is a need to increase awareness of the complete life cycle of plastic products, but also the alternatives.
Waste management. Much of the world still throws trash out the back door. This worked when everything was biodegradable. Today, without basic waste management, watersheds in the developing world are choked with plastic.
Smart Design and EPR. Extended Producer Responsibility means that if a company can’t promise an efficient system to deal with the waste from their product, then the product must be made with environmentally harmless materials.
PE: You’re embarking on a three-week research expedition from Bermuda to Iceland – what type of vessel are you sailing and how big is your crew?
ME: We’re aboard a 72-foot sailboat that’s designed like a floating tank. We’ve been on this boat in hurricane force winds before, so I’m confident this vessel, called the Sea Dragon, will get us to Iceland.
PE: This research expedition follows numerous others you have made since 2003. What were some of the most significant findings from those trips?
ME: We’ve discovered garbage patches around the world in each of the five subtropical gyres. This was undocumented before we came along. We’ve also worked with colleagues to study pollutants on fish, radioactivity from the Fukushima reactor, insect diversity in the open ocean, persistent pollutants in sea-water, and microbial communities on plastic waste drifting across oceans. Most recently, our trip across the five Great Lakes uncovered microbeads from facial scrubbers polluting US waters.
PE: What are your primary objectives for this upcoming trip? What methodologies will you be using, and how will you be documenting your findings?
ME: We’ve got a few goals:
Manta trawl every 50 miles to see how surface microplastics change as we leave the Subtropical Gyre and venture across the Subpolar Gyre.
Vertical distribution of plastic pollution. We’re using our vertical trawl design, which employs 11 nets suspended beneath the surface every 50 cm. We’ll see how plastic abundance vertically changes with sea state.
Collect myctophid fish and halobates insects for colleagues looking at toxicity and biodiversity, respectively. We are catching these fish and insects in our manta trawls.
POPs in seawater. We are working with Swedish colleagues to see what kinds of pollutants are drifting in surface waters in remote regions. We’re pumping water through a one micron filter.
PE: The Pacific Ocean Gyre has caught the public’s imagination to the point that many are aware that it exists – and plastics pollution hit the news again during the search for Flight MH370 in the Southern Indian Ocean. But, do you think there’s enough awareness regarding the scope of the problem?
ME: No, there is a need for more awareness. Our oceans are becoming more trashed, and the plastics industry still cranks out more than 288 million tons each year of new plastic. Countries around the world are finding their land and sea are full of plastic waste. There is a tremendous need for basic information. The biggest question to answer is, “Do you know the ultimate fate of all the material your community consumes, and what responsibility do you have for it?”
PE: What types of campaigns have proven to be the most effective at raising awareness and provoking calls to action?
ME: Our microbead campaign is proving to be very effective. We have at least five states willing to ban microbeads in products. We’re shooting for a national microbead ban.
PE: In addition to switching from plastic to paper bags and eliminating the use of microbeads in personal care products – trends that have recently gained significant traction – what other steps can individuals and communities take to prevent plastics from reaching the oceans?
ME: Improve waste management. Vote to support EPR. Run your own campaign. In your home and community you can do a lot of local work. Get your kids’ school off of plastic lunch trays or straws and utensils. Get your community to push for a plastic bag ban.
PE: What is something about plastic pollution most people do not know?
ME: There are five gyres, rather than one gyre in the North Pacific. People don’t know that plastics release plenty of chemicals into their bodies by just using it. For example, hold a wet store receipt in your hand. Does it leave a white residue behind? That’s BPA, an endocrine disruptor. Old baby toys are full of phthalates. Plastic chemicals are all around you, in and out of your body, and are quickly filling our oceans.
Marcus Eriksen will be sharing more stories with Planet Experts as he journeys through the North Atlantic. To learn more about marine pollution and what you can do to help, visit 5gyres.org