Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen, co-founders of 5 Gyres, search the world for plastic particles the size of a grain of sand. [Image credit: JoAnna Klein]
In 1997, Captain Charles Moore was sailing from Hawaii back to the mainland when he found himself in a sea of floating debris the size of Texas. Some of the bobbing plastic was so big that Moore could spot it from the deck of his boat, though most was much smaller. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it became known, was the consequence of a gyre — a vortex of swirling ocean currents that sucked floating debris into its core.
Soon, that same gyre would seduce Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins.
Eriksen and Cummins met at a birthday party for Captain Moore in 2007 and got engaged while cruising the Garbage Patch with him. They turned their growing fascination with plastic into a crusade to remove it from the world’s oceans. They used cash gifts from their 2009 wedding — he wore a recycled plastic tux, she a plastic gown — to incorporate 5 Gyres, a small non-profit that has since grown into a well-funded group with partners around the world that embarks on research expeditions across four oceans. Today, the group focuses on engaging the public in action-based solutions — they prefer to call it plastic smog instead of a garbage patch — and promoting innovative solutions, such as tougher manufacturing laws and greener products.
“Charlie Moore started it, and they took it to a different level,” says Chelsea Rochman about Eriksen and Cummins, who first brought attention to the ocean plastic problem through Moore’s The Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Now a marine ecologist at The University of California, Davis, Rochman got her research start in 2009 exploring The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Eriksen, a Gulf War veteran, became interested in the environment after witnessing hundreds of burning oil wells in Kuwait. He was drifting down the Mississippi River on a handmade raft made of plastic debris when he heard about Moore’s discovery in 2004. Around the same time, Cummins first heard Moore speak while she was conducting bilingual education and environmental outreach for a California non-profit. Both ended up sailing separately with Algalita.
When the pair finally met, the natural next step was the formation of 5 Gyres, their own non-profit to clean up all of the ocean’s gyres. At first the group focused on understanding the scope of the problem.
“In the beginning, it was just a scrappy NGO doing science,” says Cummins.
Setting sail on its first expedition in January 2010, the group relied in part (and still does) on contributions from donors, or “ambassadors” who each paid up to $5,000 for a spot on the boat. During their trips they survey the ocean for plastic debris, quantify how much they find and sometimes bring on extra people for other research. On occasion, Cummins plays the fiddle.
5 Gyres had split from Algalita to take its environmental advocacy global. And after a few well-publicized trips, Eriksen and Cummins started attracting corporate sponsors such as Patagonia and Kleen Kanteen.
Today, 5 Gyres is deeply involved in advocacy as well as science. They now have a $600,000 annual budget supported by 32 corporate backers, family foundations and a small army of grassroots activists. Prominent climate activist Bill McKibben is one of the group’s scientific advisors.
By 2014, 5 Gyres had made 16 global expeditions and collected data from 1,571 locations. Based on the data from those voyages, Eriksen concluded in a 2014 PLOS-One study that there are at least 5.65 billion pieces of plastic floating atop the Earth’s oceans. He says that’s more than 250,000 metric tons of plastic, roughly equivalent to a stack of water bottles stretching all the way to the moon and back — twice.Ranging from the size of a boat to the size of a grain of sand, these pieces of plastic degrade, fragment, sink or collect in ocean currents and travel the world as tiny, toxic particles.
“There are no patches of trash sitting in the ocean,” according to Eriksen. “I think its more appropriate to call it a smog, where you get this fine, particulate substance that becomes globally distributed throughout the water column in all dimensions.”
He thinks that California’s experience with airborne smog may be instructive in fighting microplastic pollution. In the 1970’s, some of the early ideas for addressing smog in California focused on sucking it up with vacuums. But soon attention shifted to the source of the emissions, and engineers designed better mufflers and cleaner smokestacks.
Eriksen and Cummins hope that reframing the “garbage patch” as a “plastic smog” will convince people to focus on land-based preventative solutions rather than trying to clean up debris after it’s in the ocean.
With 288 million tons of plastic produced worldwide in 2012, and 4.8 to 12.7 million tons entering the ocean in 2010, trying to remove plastics from the world’s oceans would be like mopping up water from an eternally gushing faucet.
The problem is so vast that Eriksen acknowledges “there is no silver bullet.” But he thinks progress is possible by hitting three targets: individuals, companies and government.
Individuals, he says, can reduce consumption, recycle what they can and clean up plastic before it reaches the ocean. Industries can design marine biodegradable products and encourage the use of glass alternatives with return programs where bottles serve as discount coupons for the consumer’s next purchase.
As for government, pressure from 5 Gyres and other groups has led 18 states to pass or propose legislation limiting the use of microbeads, the granular particles found in some cosmetics and cleaning products. These tiny plastics are small enough to pass through filters in the water system, flush into waterways and ultimately end up in the bellies of marine animals. Concern over microplastic toxicity and its potential harm throughout the food chain is gaining momentum in research groups and environmental agencies around the world.
The smaller the plastic, the bigger the concern, explained Anna-Marie Cook of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She says the tiny bits act like sponges, sopping up environmental chemicals such as flame retardants and pesticides.
Rochman, the UC-Davis ecologist, says she’s found microplastics in all sorts of marine life. Animals eat them and their tissues absorb the chemicals — in some cases, causing signs of endocrine disruption and behavior problems.
As concern about the problem spreads, 5 Gyres plans to expand its 6-member staff of scientists, educators, writers and artists. “We are growing our reach to be a citizen science hub for plastic pollution activists worldwide,” says Eriksen.
5 Gyres is collaborating with artist Alejandro Duran, who has attracted attention for his plastic installations on the Yucatan coast. Eriksen, also a sculptor, joined Moore at the Atlanta Science Festival on a panel about plastic, art and advocacy this March.
After their daughter Avani (whose name means Earth in Hindu) was born in 2012, Eriksen and Cummins have been focusing on educating children. Their most recent expedition culminated in an international youth summit in the Bahamas.
*Corrections, August 12, 2015. The following errors have been corrected from the originally published version of this story:
5 Gyres does not focus on correcting public misunderstanding, but on engaging the public in action-based solutions.
In their first expedition, 5 Gyres donors paid up to $5,000 for a spot on the boat and not $8,500.
5 Gyres does not receive funding from the American Chemistry Council.
5 Gyres’ budget is supported by family foundations as well as corporate backers and grassroots activists.
5 Gyres has 6 staff members, not 16.
Avani means Earth in Hindu, not Italian.