Saturday, August 1, 2015

Trawling for Plastic: Sketches from the Bermuda Triangle

I recently had the privilege of being a crew member aboard the 5 Gyres SEA Change research expedition to the Bermuda Triangle. The purpose of the trip was to capture and document the plastic floating on the ocean’s surface through the North Atlantic Gyre – a conglomeration of swirling ocean currents, which form a vortex that captures floating trash.
5 Gyres is a unique organization. Founded by husband and wife team, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, the organization has conducted research expeditions to all four corners of the globe, painstakingly documenting the size and scope of the problem that has come to be known as “plastic pollution.” Not content to only document the problem, Anna and Marcus built world class public education and advocacy components into their work to engage the world’s people in solving it.
As part of each expedition, 5 Gyres seeks to engage influentials to help conduct citizen science and become global ambassadors on the issue. My leg of the trip from the Bahamas to Bermuda was packed with a remarkable mix of people from B-Corp businesses, the media, music, adventure sports, and advocacy organizations. More on this later. First…

The Gyres

Generally when I speak with most people about the gyres, they usually say, “Oh right, those are the big islands of trash floating in the middle of the world’s oceans.” Some of the early media stories led to this concept of floating “garbage patches,” and the idea stuck. Contrary to conventional wisdom, plastic in the ocean more closely resembles the concept of “smog” than an island of garbage. Here’s why:
Our sewers, storm drains and rivers act like “horizontal smokestacks” that carry plastic bags, soda bottles, disposable cutlery, etc. into our oceans. A significant amount sinks to the ocean floor or washes up on beaches throughout the world. The remaining floating plastic gets carried out to sea, where ocean currents swirl much of it into the gyres. Gyres exist in every major ocean and act like giant swirling “blenders” that assist sunlight in shredding plastic debris into smaller particles called microplastics. These tiny bits of plastic are mostly what you find when you go into the gyres in search of plastic pollution.

The Research


5 Gyres research focuses on documenting the prevalence of microplastics in our oceans and supporting the efforts to understand how this affects the health of marine ecosystems around the world. During the 800-mile leg from the Bahamas to Bermuda, we trawled for plastic nearly the entire time. The research crew would carefully rig and lower a number of different trawls, which are essentially floating traps with fine mesh screens that hang several meters behind the opening. The duration that the trawl is in the water and the speed of the boat are tracked to estimate the amount of plastic being captured over a certain distance. Then comes the fun part.
The trawl is hoisted up and its contents sifted through a screen. All the organic material (mostly a floating seaweed called sargassum) has to be hand-picked to remove the plastic and then thrown overboard. After the sample has been collected and screened, the plastic is hand-counted – by the hundreds and thousands – and then recorded.
5 Gyres can then use the data to estimate how much microplastic is floating on our oceans and where it’s concentrated. What they’ve discovered is that these tiny bits of plastic aren’t just contained in the gyres, but can be found all over the world’s oceans, major freshwater bodies and on our beaches.
Throughout the marine food chain, organisms big and small are eating microplastics. What’s worse is that the plastic acts as a sponge for persistent organic pollutants in the environment. All the long-lived toxic chemicals – like DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, etc – that we’ve pumped into the environment over the last 50 years are absorbed by the plastic. Studies show that the concentration of toxic chemicals can be 1,000 times greater on the surface or marine plastic than in the surrounding water. So essentially, the plastic in our oceans is acting like a toxic conveyor belt, attracting and concentrating toxic chemicals up the marine food chain and into our bodies. That’s the bad news.

The Crew 

The good news is that over the last 10 years – efforts to combat marine plastic pollution have grown from a handful of scientists to a global movement with constituents ranging from community-based advocacy groups, to government and corporate actors, to powerful national and international NGOs. Thanks to the hard work of 5 Gyres and many other groups and individuals, plastic pollution is an issue that is starting to crest in the public’s awareness in the United States and around the world.
And the participants on this trip were a testament to that growing movement. Over all three legs of the trip from Florida to New York, 5 Gyres assembled more than 50 individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise to become “citizen scientists” during the voyage and lifelong ambassadors following. My leg included noteworthy crew like the musician and philanthropist – Jack Johnson, documentary filmmakers – Ian Cheney and Simon Beins, surf legends and brothers – Dan and Keith Malloy, professional free diver and spear-fisherwoman – Kimi Werner, acclaimed writer – Adam Skolnick, and bodysurfing icon – Mark Cunningham.
The expedition also included representatives from B-Corp businesses making products and contributing significant financial resources to solve ocean plastic pollution, including entrepreneur Andy Keller (a.k.a. the “Bagmonster”) from Chico Bag, Caroleigh Pierce from Klean Kanteen and Pearl Gottschall from Lush Cosmetics. On the NGO side, I was joined by Jeroen Dagevos, Program Director for the Plastic Soup Foundation, one of the major European organizations focused working on the issue, and Krystal Ambrose, from the Bahamas Plastic Movement, a remarkable young woman who is building an organization to stem the tide of disposable plastic on the islands she calls home.
There were also a number of other extraordinary people with a variety of backgrounds on board, including several engaged and passionate college students. Over the six days at sea, each person had to give a presentation. While mine fell into the “plastics geek” category, many of the talks revolved around people’s lives and their connection to – and love for – the ocean.
I was struck by how many of the people on board had made sacrifices to pursue their passion in life. And by how those singular decisions helped define them and create the circumstances for their success and life’s work. This was emblematic in Marcus’s personal story of diving into research and school following a difficult tour as a soldier during the first Gulf War. His choice to pursue science and find meaning in unraveling one of the great environmental catastrophes of our time has defined his success and even led to meeting his wife and partner, Anna.
Over the week at sea, I was deeply touched and humbled by the way the crew opened themselves up to the experience and to each other. A high point of the trip was an impromptu jam session after a wine-tasting on the deck as the crew watched the sunset over the ocean. The guitar players traded songs, while hand drums roared and the crew sang along for hours. We were bonded tight at that point, like kids at summer camp for the first time.

Next Steps

Well… I was committed before, but now, I’m hooked. Thanks to the 5 Gyres crew, I’m now a lifelong plastic pollution advocate. And as you may have read in earlier blogs, UPSTREAM is shifting more of our projects to focus on solving ocean plastic pollution. If ever there was an issue that is ripe for extended producer responsibility, it’s this one. We’ve just launched our new Plastic Pollution Policy Project (P4) to help align the movement around solutions-oriented policies and campaigns. This is the next evolution of our work to advance sustainable packaging, and we see this project as being the highest contribution our organization can make in this area.

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