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Sailing on Junk to Save Our Oceans from Plastic Pollution

A Q&A with Marcus Eriksen

Junk Raft
Photo credit: Morgan Kavanaugh

Scientist, activist, and inveterate adventurer Marcus Eriksen had a plan to draw public attention to the scale and impact of plastic pollution in the ocean. In 2008, along with his friend and co-navigator Joel Paschal, he set off on a two-month voyage from California to Hawaii, crossing the ocean on a homemade raft made from plastic soda bottles and old airplane parts. He recounts his harrowing trip and his struggles to keep afloat in Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution. Released this month, Junk Raft also immerses us deep in the history of the plastic pollution crisis and the movement to combat it. Eriksen provides concrete, actionable solutions and an empowering message: it’s within in our power to change the throw-away culture for the sake of our planet. He chatted with our blog editor Christian Coleman about his journey, the dangers plastic pollution poses to our health, and what we can do about it. 

Christian Coleman: You set off on a boat made from garbage and airplane parts to help raise awareness about ocean pollution. Did you have any hesitation about taking to the ocean on a raft made of plastic trash for two months, knowing the dangers that might lie ahead?

Marcus Eriksen: I had some hesitation for sure, since the voyage had an element of no turning back, and little chance for rescue. This was unlike my earlier trip on the Mississippi river, where I could climb on land at any time. But when we rafted the ocean, I had crossed the ocean with Captain Charles Moore a few months earlier. It was my first ocean crossing, and I felt confident that the currents would take us to Hawaii. To be honest, I think our trip also had some degree of intentional ignorance. If I had known what I know now, I might not have done it. Sometimes it’s important not to know everything, and just dive in.

CC: What was a favorite part of the adventure for you?

ME: The solitude was quite amazing, as well as the wildlife interactions. I watched predator chasing prey underwater, seabirds diving in, flying fish traveling great distances, even squid launching out of the waves and hitting my co-navigator Joel in the chest.

The solitude slowed my mind down. Staring at the sea endlessly for the entire day is quite calming. I had a motto: “Nothing to do, nowhere to be.”

CC: You write that word choice is important when talking about plastic pollution. Tell us what the distinctions are between “litter,” “debris,” and “pollution.”

ME: What word you choose betrays your politics. Industry chooses the word “litter,” because it implies a behavior, and that puts the blame on the consumer.

Scientists choose the word “debris,” because they think it is benign, but in reality it advocates the industry position.

Plastic in the ocean is “pollution,” because it is petroleum based, like an oil spill. No one calls an oil spill “oil debris” or “oil litter.” Those sound ridiculous, so call it what it is and get beyond the political use of words. It’s pollution, and that’s that.

CC: The media coverage of the “Texas-sized island of plastic” was hyperbole, but it brought people’s attention to recover plastics from the ocean. Do you think media hype can help or hinder ocean cleanup?

ME: What the media hype has done is distract the public from the real solutions, which are difficult changes to make upstream to stop the source. What the garbage patch myth has given the public is a belief that cleanup of the ocean will solve the problem. This has resulted in much time wasted and millions of dollars directed at crazy schemes. But the real work is being done now by hundreds of organizations working toward zero waste. While the garbage patch myth made headlines, it’s now the work on land that is truly solving the problem.

CC: Four to twelve million tons of plastics are polluting the seas annually even though corporations and advertisers say they support recycling. Why is this? How come dropping off plastic bags at the supermarkets to be recycled isn’t doing the job?

ME: Recycling is a convenient myth that has been promoted by the plastics industry for decades, primarily through organizations they fund, like Keep America Beautiful and The Ocean Conservancy. Recycling rates in the United States are reported by the EPA, and in 2013, they were at 9.2%. That’s it. In the US, 9.2% of the plastic we make gets recycled. It’s a failure.

This is because the design of products and the systems to recover plastics have not been set up for recycling. It would require regulations for how products get made, and it costs cities millions of dollars to improve recycling infrastructure. The plastics industry refuses to accept these kinds of regulations and refuses to pay for upgrading recycling systems. So the result is abysmal recycling rates.

CC: In what ways is plastic pollution as much a danger for us as it is for marine life?

ME: Plastic can entangle wildlife, but much of the harm comes from ingesting microplastics. Single-use products that leave our land are shredding in the oceans to form microplastics the size of grains of rice or smaller. These absorb other pollutants, like pesticides and industrial chemicals, in high concentrations. The literature is showing that these chemicals then migrate into the bodies of marine life when ingested. Plastic is proving to be a vector for pollutants to get into the food chain, which much of humanity harvests to feed itself.

CC: How can producers of this plastic be held accountable for their actions?

ME: Extended producer responsibility is the key. We need standards for product and packaging design so that recovery and recycling can be more efficient. But there are some products that can never be reinvented in a way that recovery can improve. Things like plastic bags, straws, cup lids, and hundreds of other single use disposable plastics, simply need to be made out of something else. They are the “escape artists” that even the best recovery systems can’t capture.

In a nutshell, it’s about the industry owning up to making smarter products, and agreeing to illuminate the throw-away culture of plastic.

CC: What are some measures we can take to better deal with “junk” and keep it out of our oceans?

ME: There are three things: improve waste management, better public education, but mostly it’s about extended producer responsibility to make smarter products and their throw-away culture of plastic.

But what I tell people they should do today is to zero waste your shopping list. When you buy any product, you are also buying the packaging. Think of where your stuff goes when you're done with it. If it’s destined for a landfill, or if your city is going to ship bulk plastic to Asia or India, then don’t buy it. Don’t contribute to the environmental and social justice harm that happens from our culture of consumption.

We can do a whole lot better by setting the example of a zero waste life and living more simply with people and the planet in mind.


About Marcus Eriksen 

Marcus Eriksen is the cofounder and director of research for the 5 Gyres Institute, with firsthand experience from more than twenty ocean-crossing expeditions, and he has written and published research on the impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. He is the author of My River Home: A Journey from the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico. Visit his website.