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Marcus Eriksen And Anna Cummins

Researchers combine education and outdoor adventure to help combat plastic pollution

by Britt E. Erickson
March 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 12

Credit: 5 Gyres Project (both)
5 Gyres Project (both)
Credit: 5 Gyres Project (both)
5 Gyres Project (both)

The amount of plastic waste swirling around in the world’s oceans appears to be growing. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean has gotten a lot of attention, but plastic pollution is a global problem, according to Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, a pair of eco-educators, adventurers, and marine researchers with the nonprofit Algalita Marine Research Foundation, based in Long Beach, Calif.

The two outdoor enthusiasts are on a mission to document just how much plastic debris is in the oceans and, along the way, educate the public. After getting married last June, the couple started an ambitious effort called the 5 Gyres Project (

A gyre is a massive system of rotating ocean currents that acts like a whirlpool in which plastic trash tends to accumulate. There are five major gyres of the world, located in the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. The 5 Gyres Project aims to gather data on plastic waste in all of them.

Funding for the project comes from Blue Turtle, a San Francisco-based environmental group, and Pangaea Explorations, which is providing a 72-foot sailboat for the voyages. Other sponsors include Ecousable, the Quiksilver Foundation, the Surfrider Foundation, Keen Footwear, Patagonia, and Aquapac.

The project’s first voyage was to the North Atlantic Gyre in February. The couple and a handful of other researchers set sail from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, to Bermuda, and then on to the Azores by way of the Sargasso Sea.

C&EN contacted the husband-and-wife research team while they were on a short stop in Bermuda and got a lesson about why people should care about plastic pollution.

“Current studies recognize that 60–80% of marine debris is plastic,” Eriksen says. “Most of the plastic out there is polyethylene and polypropylene. This plastic is positively buoyant, made from petroleum, and never biodegrades.” The floating plastic breaks down into increasingly smaller particles when exposed to sunlight and wave action, but it doesn’t disappear.

Many marine species, including fish eaten by humans, ingest the plastic particles, presumably mistaking it for food. Plastic debris has been found in “44% of seabird species, all sea turtle species, 22 whale species, and a long list of fish,” Eriksen points out.

What concerns the researchers most are the potential health effects of plastic pollution on marine species and humans who eat them. “Plastic particles at sea act as magnets for chemicals,” including the pesticide DDT, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, flame retardants, and other persistent organic pollutants, Cummins says. More research is needed to know whether such chemicals accumulate in the fish that ingest the plastic particles and then travel up the food chain to humans.

C&EN followed the researchers’ trip to the North Atlantic Gyre via the blog on their website. During the journey, they collected 35 surface samples using a 333-µm-mesh net, which is small enough to capture all of the plastic and zooplankton. All of the samples contained plastic fragments. The researchers also collected fish, which they will take back to the lab and dissect to see how much plastic is in their guts.

As for the extent of plastic pollution, the team witnessed it everywhere they looked. On the shores of islands near the gyre, they found remnants of old light sticks, toothbrushes, combs, buckets, bottles, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, clothespins, and much more. The trash makes its way into the oceans through storm drains and watersheds, according to the researchers. It falls out of garbage trucks and trash cans or is littered by people.

Unfortunately, not much can be done to clean up the plastic in the ocean because the problem is so large, Eriksen says. “The amount of effort and energy would be a net negative,” he explains. “There is no island of plastic in the gyre. It’s a thin soup of microscale plastics that cover two-thirds of Earth’s surface, which is ocean.”

The solution must happen on land, Eriksen stresses. He and Cummins advocate banning or imposing fees on disposable plastic products such as bags, bottles, cup lids, straws, and utensils. They are also recommending legislation that would create economic incentives to recover plastic and encourage the use of reusable products.

In August, the researchers plan to collect samples from the South Atlantic Gyre, which runs from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa. This second trip will be followed by a yearlong public awareness campaign, which will include a 2,000-mile bicycling and lecture tour on the East Coast of the U.S.

By this time next year, Eriksen and Cummins hope to have data from all five gyres of the world.



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