The 5 Gyres Institute co-founders Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen discuss the plastic problem in the ocean, what needs to be done to fix it, and what they’re hopeful about in the fight to save our seas.
Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen, Co-founders, The 5 Gyres Institute
Raise your hand if you believe there's an island of plastic trash the size of Texas floating somewhere in the Northern Pacific Ocean. Now put it down—because you'd be wrong. Husband-and-wife team Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins of The 5 Gyres Institute are sorry to bust this media myth, if only because our plastic reality is so, so much worse.
Here, Anna and Marcus discuss the state of our oceans—and, more importantly, how we can help them.
Coastal Living: 5 Gyres currently quantifies plastic ocean waste at 269,000 metric tons, or 5.25 trillion particles, on the ocean’s surface. Could there be more hidden waste?
Marcus Eriksen: What’s on the ocean’s floor, we just don’t know. If you look on the research on the global distribution I published a few years back, we estimated a quarter million tons of trash on the ocean surface. A quarter million tons represents less than 1 percent of the global production of new plastic in one year. I wouldn’t say that’s a trivial amount, but it doesn’t represent nearly how much trash, how much plastic we make in the world. The ocean surface is not the final resting place. The ocean is not hanging on to [plastic waste]. It’s being eaten, and then, in that case, it either sinks to the sea floor in the bodies of marine life or it gets excreted as fecal pellets and then that sinks. Either way, the mechanism for the life of plastic is eventual sediment. Either deep sea, or it’s going to be on a beach where it’s washing up.
CL: Do you feel optimistic about humankind’s ability to save the oceans?
Anna Cummins: There are times when, walking into any supermarket, especially when I get out of California and when I travel overseas to places that don’t have the infrastructure that we have, I sometimes feel a little bit overwhelmed. How are we going to solve a problem on this scale? But then when I have chance to work with young people and see how much of a movement is building over the last 10 years, that gives me hope.
ME: I’m a cautious optimist. I see that industries, to some degree, have their hands tied to the systems they created. They created their own monster. A lot of these corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to make a profit. They put that above people and the planet. For those to shift, it’s going to take policy. It’s going to take a global movement to say, “What you’re doing is wrong. Your company, your brand, is not serving society.” That’s the biggest obstacle. Industry is very well funded. It’s hard to compete with that. But when you’ve got millions if not billions [of people] worldwide who are seeing a single vision [of a healthier planet], then we compete. And that’s where I’m very optimistic.
CL: What’s the best action we can take today to help the ocean’s plastic problem?
AC: We feel really strongly that the solutions to the downstream effects of plastic pollution must begin upstream. It’s really unsatisfying to tell people that we don’t really think we can clean up the oceans, that we want to just turn off the tap and do no more harm. That’s not to say that there isn’t validity in doing beach clean ups, river cleanups, trying to really stop it at the source before it really goes out into the oceans. But when I say upstream solutions, I mean going to the point or source of the problem, and that begins with design: The way we actually design products and design systems, changing the design of a product so that it doesn’t pollute our oceans.
ME: The ocean is so resilient. It’s dynamic, it’s resilient, it’s sinking our trash, it’s beaching it, it’s spitting it out, and organisms are growing constantly … the ocean is dealing with it, if we can leave it alone. If you protect space, if you become a culture of conservation, the ocean will come back. But we’ve got to stop the flow [of plastics into the ocean]. If we can stop the input, I am confident within 5 years we’ll see a dramatic drop [in the amount of ocean plastic]. Within 10 years, I think you’ll see a whole lot less.
CL: How can the use of alternatives to single-use plastics be promoted or made easier for people trying to reduce the amount of plastic they use?
ME: We can subsidize or create a market share for the alternatives [to plastics] that do already exist, for the paper products and the reusable products, and the systems that deliver what people need without the packaging. Here in the U.S., in the airports, I’m seeing these water stations for drinking water that also have bottle filling stations. Why not have those in every subway? At every bus stop? If every bus stop had one, that’d be awesome around the country. You’d have far less need for plastic bottles.
AC: Once people are able to successfully adopt one practice—like bringing your own cup, bringing your own bottle, bringing your own bag—once you start really making that part of your repertoire, I think it opens your eyes to the amount of packaging that we use and makes you more likely to move on to bigger actions like supporting legislation, getting involved with an organization, giving public presentations, becoming an ambassadors, some of those other deeper dives.
Related: The World's Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep:
CL: What’s more important, then—taking individual action or fighting for policy change to protect the ocean?
ME: You have to do both, but I think you have to prioritize policy, because policy makes it stick. And policy also, in groups of businesses, levels the playing the field. I wouldn’t want to try to convince consumers to stop using a particular brand [because they choose to continue to produce products that harm the environment]. If you have a blanket policy, then all [brands] conform, all have to do the same heavy lift, and there’s no competitive advantage for someone who’s not playing by the rules. Policy is, I think, good for business when it’s consistent across the board and everyone has to shift together.
AC: It’s really hard to tackle that as a consumer. When I think about solutions, I think about individual responsibility and personal behavior change and decisions. And that’s the thing we all do: not using water bottles and single use plastics and plastic straws and all those things. If we could scale our behavior change that would really make a dent, but you can make these changes but then go into any store and you see that it’s just awash in disposable packaging. So second is policy change, and that’s instituting these changes at a regional, statewide, or even national level.
CL: What role are young people playing in saving the ocean?
AC: I just feel that young people intuitively understand the problem. They understand. They have a deep sense of justice, they care about animals, and when they learn about this problem oftentimes they’re inspired to take matters into their own hands and champion a whole campaign at their school or get their family or their neighborhood onboard. That also gives me hope.
The 5 Gyres Institute helped push for the 2015 U.S. ban of plastic microbeads in skincare and cosmetics products. It now promotes a #foamfree campaign to educate the public about takeout coffee lids. Nearly all are made from polystyrene, which is almost never recycled, according to Cummins. Next time you order a latté, go topless.
Responses edited for clarity and conciseness