How single-use plastics are littering the ocean and disrupting the food web
Imagine a clogged toilet of colorful plastic confetti. As the water turns, the scraps wash against the porcelain rim and back again. The mechanical churning erodes the plastics, forming a swirling mass of debris.
Now imagine fishing here for dinner.
That’s the North Pacific gyre: 10 million square miles of open ocean currents, circulating in a continental bowl formed by North America and Asia—littered like the morning after bar mitzvah.
Popular myth describes the gyre as a vortex of garbage twice the size of Texas—an island of waste suspended off the shipping lanes between California and Hawaii. But the Pacific “garbage patch” is more ocean than anything. What exists is a stewing flotsam of convenience, fully enmeshed with the marine ecosystem, drifting to and fro among nations.
“This is what you get when you skim the ocean surface,” said Marcus Eriksen, while holding up a syrup bottle of murky brown water to a group of Chico State students last week. “Two-thirds of the Earth’s ocean is now a plastic soup.”
Swirling the bottle, pale speckles of plastic no larger than a pearl clustered at the bottleneck. Eriksen said the worn and polished beads could have been anything, from water bottles to straws to picnic utensils from the Fourth of July of 1997. In a steady march toward the sea, the runoff of single-use plastics parade through watersheds to the Bay Delta, and then out to sea to float off to the great “away.”
Eriksen knows all about the gyre and describes finding plastics there in a similar way to noticing cigarette butts on the street: “You can look across the sea and say, ‘There’s one, there’s one, there’s another,’ but then in some places, it looks like Walmart washed up on a beach.”
This grim reality has propelled Eriksen over land and sea to make one point abundantly clear: Our relationship with single-use plastics must change.
“We’re not anti-plastic; we’re against the throw-away design,” explained Eriksen in stern sincerity. “If you can live without that moment of convenience, you can find another way to live.”
Eriksen, who has a doctorate in science education, is director of education for the California-based nonprofit Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and has gone beyond conventional research journals and seminars to expose the gyre to the world.
Last year, he and fellow researcher Joel Paschal set adrift from Long Beach through 2,600 miles of open ocean on a raft of recycled garbage for an Algalita research voyage titled “JUNK.” Using a salvaged Cessna cabin, sailing masts and more than 15,000 plastic bottles held within fishing nets, Eriksen crafted a sea-worthy vessel to cross the gyre “Kon-Tiki style,” and reach Hawaii. The effort took 87 days.
Now on a campaign aptly titled “Message in a Bottle,” Eriksen and his fiancée, Anna Cummins, are traveling by bicycle from Vancouver to Tijuana. Along their 2,000-mile route, the couple are putting sample bottles of plastic debris collected from the gyre in the hands of legislators, educators and students.
The intention is to reveal the research of the expedition. During the voyage, Paschal and Eriksen collected plastic debris from the bellies of marine life, and skimmed the surface of the Pacific Ocean like a swimming pool. The findings left the crew appalled.
“We compared our research from 10 years ago,” explained Cummins, alarm in her voice. “Where there was once six times the amount of plastic to plankton in the gyre, we are now finding that amount has doubled.”
Drifting with the current, the plastic and its toxic properties are passed higher and higher up the food chain. From the lantern fish to the rainbow runner to the tuna; and then on to anyone fishing with a popper lure from the rocks beneath the Golden Gate or purchasing bycatch sold at market. This marine life becomes fish tacos, sushi, and your favorite honeyed eggplant dish.
Plastic has returned from “away” and ended up on our dinner plates.
Another frightening thing about plastic: persistent organic pollutants (POP). These chemicals are resilient to deterioration and attach to plastics. During a straw’s lifecycle in a gutter, for example, it will collect a variety of pollutants. POPs bioaccumulate in the fatty tissue of animals as they move up the food chain. They are known to affect the brain as well as the reproductive and immune systems, and are linked to breast cancer.
Tracing the build-up of chemicals and plastic’s devastating harm to the human body, Cummins founded a campaign called Synthetic Me. In an effort to prove the correlation between toxicity in fish and humans, she is researching what she has coined the “body burden” of plastic by having her blood analyzed for PCBs, flame retardants and other POP materials.
“Coming from a maternal place, and considering [having] a family one day, I want to know what is being passed within me to my child,” said Cummins. “What sort of legacy are we leaving our next generations?”
Eriksen echoed her and is calling on the public to change behavior. Surprisingly, none of his suggestions include recycling.
“Post-consumer tactics are not enough,” Eriksen said. “First we must eliminate the throw-away design; there is no excuse to using something that lasts forever, once. Secondly, we need to extended producer responsibility. The return value that works for Coke bottles can work for cell phones; this will encourage more durable products.
“And third, we need a global recovery effort with an economic poor-man’s incentive. If the industries that make plastics are required to take the plastic back and reuse it, this will help make the difference.”
Eriksen and Cummins encourage communities to ban the plastic bag and perform creek cleanups. They suggest participating in the local-food movement, reducing the “fork print” by creating a personal utensil kit, and taking the time to explain the gyre to others.
“Once you see all this you are faced with a moral decision,” Eriksen said. “You see it and you must say, ‘Am I going to do something about it, or will I walk away?’ And if you walk away, you are part of the problem.”