During the past half-century, a growing portion of what we eat, drink or use has come in plastic packaging - petroleum-based containers that are sturdy and long-lasting, yet are used only briefly and then thrown away. Daily, we use and discard billions of plastic bags and bottles, and much of this trash ends up littering the environment or, increasingly, being washed out to sea. Many scientists have documented the growing volume of plastic garbage floating in the oceans. Now a young couple is taking a fresh look at the problem to see if something can be done to solve it.
Marcus Eriksen is not really fishing. He is catching plastic trash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of kilometers from the nearest land.
Eriksen is on a global expedition to document and publicize the growing accumulation of plastic trash in our oceans, and to study its effects on marine and human life.
“These are the five sub-tropical gyres in the world where the majority of the plastic in the world accumulates,” he said.
“The gyre is formed by ocean currents that couple with the spinning of the earth's rotation. And what happens is that you have, effectively, a massive whirlpool, a large spinning system, where debris can accumulate,” said Anna Cummins, who along with her husband Marcus Eriksen, is a co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, a California-based non-profit organization that promotes research into plastic pollution in the oceans.
Cummins says that in less than 100 years, we have replaced most of our re-usable products and natural materials with plastics that are used just briefly. At the end of their short use cycle, plastic bags or bottles have little intrinsic value; the large majority end up in solid-waste landfills or as litter in creeks and rivers. A lot of this waste also washes out to sea, where it enters swirling ocean currents and over time, travels thousands of kilometers.
“This becomes a problem in the marine environment because plastics are designed to last forever," Cummins said. "They don’t break down, they can’t be digested by marine organisms and they persist in the ocean for thousands of years.”
In their journeys across the world’s oceans, Eriksen and Cummins have been trawling the top 20 centimeters of the water's surface with a fine mesh net. Hundreds of samples of the debris they've collected are now being analyzed in a California lab.
“What shocked me the most on all these trips is to cross an ocean for thousands and thousands of miles and find that every single sample we pull up has plastics,” Cummins said.
Some plastics in the ocean stay in large pieces for a long time. But many break into smaller particles.
“The plastic out there is not a condensed island of trash, [it] is really spread out," Eriksen said. "[It] is a plastic soup, from continent to continent.”
Animals mistakenly eat the smaller pieces of plastic, or feed them to their young. Hundreds of sea birds, fish and turtles die every year from consuming this toxic trash.
“Roughly 43 percent of all marine mammals, 86 percent of all sea turtle and 44 percent of sea bird species are found with plastics in or around their bodies,” Cummins said “Thirty-five percent of the samples of fish that we collected in the north Pacific had plastic in their stomachs.”
5-Gyres Institute and its research partners are now documenting the way plastics are entering the ocean food chain and studying their possible impact on human health.
“I had a chance to do what's called a 'body burden analysis' on my own blood," Anna Cummins said. "We looked into my blood serum to find, do I have the same chemicals that we know stick to plastic. And we found in my blood trace levels of PCBs [Polychlorinated biphenyls - a man-made organic chemical], DDT [dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane - a synthetic pesticide], PFCs [Perfluorocarbons - linked to infertility] and high levels of flame retardant. We don’t know how these chemicals entered my body. As a woman I know that these chemicals in my body will pass on to the next generation.”
As part of their effort to raise public awareness of the plastic trash problem, Marcus Eriksen and his partners built an ocean-going raft using 15,000 empty plastic soda bottles. They named the vessel "JUNKraft," and in 2008, they set sail from California to Hawaii - traveling right through the North Pacific Gyre.
“The North Pacific Gyre is surprising," Eriksen said. "If you go only 1,000 miles [1,609 Km] off the coast of California, which is 7,000 [11,265 km] miles from Japan, you still get a lot of Japanese and Chinese plastic because of [the] currents.”
Eriksen and Cummins recognize that cleansing the seas of plastic would be nearly impossible, since oceans cover two thirds of the planet. That plastic trash will be with us for a long time, they concede. But there are other solutions.
“The solutions do not begin in the ocean, they begin on land,” Eriksen said.
“We need to improve our recycling infrastructure" said Cummins. "Here in the U.S. we only recover and recycle rougly five percent of our plastics.”
Besides more plastic recycling, the husband and wife team advocates the wider use of biodegradable materials and the re-design of products so they are more fully recyclable. They also believe people around the world need to become more aware of plastic trash and its serious environmental and health impact.
In March, Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen will begin the last of their ocean expeditions, this time sailing through the South Pacific Gyre. On their return, the two activists plan to share their research findings with the scientific community and to publish a book about their ocean experiences.