An Interview with 5 Gyres Founder Marcus Eriksen And His Vision For a Plastic-Free Future

Marcus Eriksen founder of the 5 gyres institute

We talked to 5 Gyres founder Marcus Eriksen about how his foundation is using science to study and combat plastic pollution. Eriksen has led over 18 ocean expeditions around the world – he wrote this as he was on a boat heading to Ghana – and in the 10 years since founding 5 Gyres, he's honed a laser-focused vision for a plastic-free future. He shares his insight on the impact of plastic on our oceans, how beach cleanups are not a long-term solution, and how 5 Gyres is working with communities to create data-driven solutions to combat plastic waste.

Why did you create 5 Gyres? Was there a specific moment, an event, or an experience that sparked it?

5 Gyres was created to fill gaps in the science, and to use that knowledge to solve problems. We were at sea with Captain Charles Moore in the middle of the North Pacific gyre. He’s the man credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  We were with him sailing through it, when Anna and I had a conversation about who is going to survey the other four gyres. We soon stepped up to it. Since we founded 5 Gyres in 2009, we’ve lead 18 expeditions to answer questions about where the plastic is in the world, and how much of it is out there.  More importantly, what do we do about it?

There are many organizations out there fighting plastic pollution. What is unique about the 5 Gyres approach?

We do science, which is not easy to do.  There are many organizations focused on education and advocacy, and some doing science. We do all of it, using science as the foundation of our education and advocacy programs.

For the newcomers, what damage does plastic cause to our oceans and how does this affect human health?

We know that plastic is ingested by organisms on land and sea, from camels to zooplankton. The impacts include entanglement in fishing nets and line, which can be horrific. Ingestion of plastic can lead to toxification, as chemicals that adhere to plastic while at sea can leach into tissues and organs.  

Currently, one of the frontlines of research is to understand how whole populations of organisms are impacted by plastic pollution at ecologically relevant concentrations.  We are finding, for example, that some shellfish like oysters and clams, can have reduced growth and reproductivity when ingesting microplastics and microfibers.

For humans, there’s not much known about the physiological effects of plastic, but there are impacts from the chemistry of some consumer products. Chemicals like phthalates and Bisphenol-A are found in products and have been links to endocrine disruption.

But, there’s a larger impact of plastic waste socially on communities worldwide that lack waste management infrastructure to deal with the linear economy of overpackaged goods. We have trashed low-income communities in the developing world. This is the major frontline fight for advocacy on the global stage. There is work on zero waste cities, extended producer responsibility, and alternative delivery systems that is happening around the world.

This summer you’re leading an expedition in the Galapagos to study plastic pollution. What are the goals of this expedition and what are you most looking forward to?

We want to research floating plastics near the islands, but also near the mainland. However, that data is not enough to drive any land-based changes. We are also working with colleagues in Guayaquil to conduct a TrashBlitz, which is a comprehensive survey of plastic pollution in a city or region. With that data, combined with ocean data, we can target specific products, packaging or systems that are causing a problem, and address them with focused solutions, whether it’s policy, corporate responsibility, waste management, or public education.

Can you walk us through some specifics of how you will gather data during the expedition and how that research transforms into action within 5 Gyres?

Data at sea is collected using a 333 micron mesh net to skim the ocean surface, like the way you clean leaves out of a pool. We then count the particles in our nets and use that data to estimate regional abundance of plastic pollution.

TrashBlitz is about surveying plastic pollution along beaches, rivers and roadsides using linear transects to document everything on the ground between two points. This data tells us what products/packaging are used and how much is present. The data is then used to engage the public in solutions.

In 2008 you (Marcus) built a raft that sailed 2,000 miles to get to the heart of the North Pacific Gyre. That sounds both inspiring, and scary. What was the objective of that trip and what was the experience like?

That’s a big question, so I’ll simply say it was a bigger experience than I bargained for. We wanted to increase public awareness, as well as build support for the new 5 Gyres Institute.  It worked on both fronts.

If you want the whole story, pick up a copy of my book JUNK: An ocean voyage and the rise of activism to fight plastic pollution here. There’s also a short documentary about the voyage, which you can watch here.

You’ve achieved many impressive milestones as an organization. What are you most proud of and why?

We’re proud of the microbead ban, which began with the publication of our research discovering microbeads in the Great Lakes. An enormous coalition of nonprofit organizations, filmmakers, artists, schools, politicians, and policy advocates, worked tirelessly to bring the Microbead-Free Waters Act to former President Obama’s desk in 2015.

We’re also proud of our published work describing microplastic pollution in the five subtropical gyres, Great Lakes and in San Francisco Bay. These studies show that the narrative of “Garbage Patches” is misleading to the public. The better analogy is a “Smog of Plastic” which conveys the size, distribution, abundance and toxicity of plastic around the globe. To access 5 Gyres publications, click here.

What has been the most challenging thing about fighting plastic as a nonprofit and what has been an advantage if any?

Trying to counter a very wealthy industry that can influence public perception and national policy through intensive lobbying and strategic communications. We have the science to back up our claims, and we are not beholden to the profit motive, and that gives us tremendous confidence and commitment to doing what we do. We prefer to work with companies that don’t compromise on values.

How can we enable lower-income and marginalized communities to shift away from single-use plastics since it isn’t always accessible, may cost more and requires upfront investment in reusable goods?

We have an opportunity to support grassroots organizations and start-up businesses that meet the needs of those communities but without the legacy of waste. We have seen the most amazing entrepreneurial minds finding ways to give the public the same service as other over-packaged goods give. Helping them to scale their efforts is key. At the same time, we often work with grassroots organizations in those communities as equal partners in campaigns that engage corporations and government leaders to hear their voices.  

What will it take in your opinion for the plastics industry to become fully circular and closed-loop?

They must invest in the business models that are circular and build market share in these alternatives, while they phase out highly polluting products, packaging and linear economic systems. For example, companies like BP are investing in solar energy or chemicals from modern plants vs. fossil fuels. I believe Dow Chemical is an investor in Braskem, a company making plastic from sugar cane fiber, which also decouples plastic from fossil fuels.

But, there are companies like Dart for example, that have not diversified. As a result, they only make Styrofoam, so they defend Styrofoam till the bitter end. They are the biggest lobbyists in the fight against Styrofoam bans. They could have invested in smarter alternatives, but they don’t and the anti-plastic movement is really hurting their bottom line.  We wish they would lead on finding alternatives rather than defending the polluting status quo.

With that said, what are your thoughts on reducing plastic waste by intercepting plastic at the source (design) vs. post-consumer purchase and recycling? Which is more realistic and effective?

The linear economy is where the future needs to be. The plastics industry projects making 1 – 1.2 billion tons of new plastic per year by 2050, which is three times what they make today.  Where will it all go as waste? The world cannot absorb this volume of waste produced from fossil fuels – old carbon. There will be a planetary crisis of CO2 and waste emissions. We must transition to a circular economy.

Downstream fixes, like recycling and cleanup, are not long-term solutions. Recycling doesn’t work unless you design for efficient recovery and dismantling of products, otherwise, in a practical sense the value chain breaks down. Currently, in the US, we recycle less than 10% of the plastic we produce (EPA “Facts and Figures”, 2013).

Cleanup is not a long-term solution.  Although, we do advocate beach recovery so that stranded trash doesn’t wash back in. But if you don’t stop the flow of trash from land to sea, you will have a trashed beach the next day.  You’ve got to stop the harm through prevention.

We also know that cleanup at sea is largely unproductive, as the sea surface is a dynamic place where plastic is rapidly transported from the sea surface to the seafloor or seashore rapidly (less than 10 years nearly all floating macro debris would leave the sea surface, if we shut off the tap of further inputs.)  We must focus on stopping input, rather than cleaning up output.

Environmental issues have been present for a long time. Why do you think our current generation is much more proactive about fighting for environmental causes? What makes us different from previous generations?

Yes, because the threats are imminent. The near future will see overpopulation, resource scarcity and pollution as global crises.  There is no precedent for this reality. In the past we always had somewhere else to go, someone else to conquer and take their land, water, oil, food, industry, etc. Now there’s no place to go. This generation realizes this in a HUGE way. But, we must show a path to a better future, otherwise, we kill hope. The circular economy is that path.

What does a typical day at the office look like for you guys?

We have a very flexible office space. As I write this I’m on a boat heading to Ghana. We travel and share our work a lot. We are becoming an org that’s finding its role to be one of supporting a network of like-minded scientists, activists, educators, policy-makers, corporate leaders that share our values. We are part of a fast-growing global movement.

In the office, we’re working tirelessly to develop a program called “Trash Blitz”, whereby we work closely with a community to develop measuring tools to understand their plastic pollution footprint, then use the data to create focused campaigns to prevent the problem in the future. That’s where the global movement is now – stopping the flow of trash to the environment and into low-income communities.

What are some reusable items you can’t live without?

All the replacements for single-use throw away items, like bamboo utensils, stainless steel bottle, but if you think about it, most stuff is reusable. My mind goes to clothes, car, tools, toothbrush – if you buy all of these things as quality products in the first place, then they remain reusable, repairable for a long time. This is the heirloom culture we want in the future. Repair, remanufacture, reuse, are all concepts that should be part of the design phase.

We are proud to be official partners with 5 Gyres and to support your cause. How can individuals get more involved with 5 Gyres and plastic pollution overall?

Become a 5 Gyres AmbassadorJoin our global network of like-minded individuals and take action against plastic pollution!

What is one thing people don’t know about you?

Personally, that I dig dinosaurs every summer and take college kids to the field to learn about extinctions while knee-deep in fossils. It’s a blast and this summer we’re digging up our eighth Triceratops skeleton.

As a team, I don't think people realize how small in numbers we are, but as a network, we’re huge. We are all very passionate about this issue, and each of us probably wakes up thinking about how to be more effective in fixing the plastic pollution problem.


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