Marcus Eriksen, Co-founder & Research Director of 5 Gyres Institute (5gyres.org) leads an informative discussion on the ever-growing plastic trash problem that is having a detrimental impact on our seas, sea life, and planetary health.
Eriksen’s experience in the area of marine research is vast, as he has led multiple expeditions around the globe to specifically research plastic marine pollution. As a pioneer in this field of study, Eriksen’s work, and subsequent discovery of plastic microbeads in the Great Lakes was so startlingly significant that it lead to the passage of the Microbead-free Waters Act of 2015. As a noted author on the subject and experienced researcher with a PhD in science education, Eriksen, and his wife Anna Cummins, launched the 5 Gyres Institute after completing an exhaustive 88-day trek from California to Hawaii on a raft built from 15,000 plastic bottles. The institute takes its name from the root word ‘gyre’ that is defined as a large-scale system of surface currents in the ocean that are driven by the wind.
The research director discusses his expeditions, the voyage with Captain Charles Moore (the oceanographer who discovered the sea trash accumulation zone), and the eureka moment when he realized that there were thousands of sea miles free for study. Eriksen’s realization that the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Bay of Bengal, the Mediterranean Sea, and the equatorial waters were barely travelled and wide open for scientific research, spawned an idea. The idea was to embark upon major scientific expeditions to collect data and publish their findings on the sea plastic trash problem. After six years of study, their results were staggering. They concluded that there were an estimated 5.25 trillion bits of plastics floating in the oceans from a quarter of a million tons of trash.
The 5 Gyres co-founder details how cups, plastic bags, polystyrene, bottles and more are degraded into smaller bits by ocean currents, fish nibbling, and the sun’s rays, and how these microsized bits are causing real damage to wildlife. Eriksen states that the ideal solution, other than simply not allowing any plastics to make it into the ocean altogether, would be to harness the trash plastics near coastlines, before they get out to sea.
Eriksen gives an eye-opening introduction to the strategies needed to tackle this global problem successfully. Ultimately, he states, the real solution is to tighten up community and municipality recycling programs from city centers all the way down to the individual homeowner. Getting a handle on the recycling of plastics at the source, and ending the production of single-use plastics would help to prevent the sea plastic trash problem before it happens. Unfortunately, recycling programs currently aren’t meeting the challenge.
In regard to sea life health, toxins such as DDT, PCB, flame-retardants, etc. are being ingested. Thus sea life is ingesting chemical toxins from the volume of microplastics that exist within our oceans and the long-term effects to aquatic life, as well as human life, could be deleterious, but more study is needed.
Eriksen’s team believes that the current implementation of recycling plans and programs only scratches the surface of the greater need. Eriksen affirms that truly successful recycling strategy would suggest that every manufacturer of a plastic or disposable item have an ‘end of use’ plan for their items. Ideas might include ‘buy back’ plans such that manufacturers take back their product, and provide coupons for their receipt, that would then provide discounts for secondary purchases, and so forth.
He’ll discuss society’s need to adopt stricter recycling strategies that put an end to carry out containers and usher in the concept of a ‘bring your own’ carry out container way of life. Additionally, the science educator discusses other concepts that walk us away from our disposable culture habits, such as ‘heirloom culture,’ which is the concept of buying things that might be more expensive but are built to last for years, perhaps decades.
To make a dent in the plastic and disposable trash problem, we must consider intelligent packaging, reduction of single-use, ending unnecessary plastic use, and rethink recycling and non-compostable waste strategies, etc.