Black plastic balls on LA reservoirs may have untold dangers

By Marcus Ericksen, Research Director, 5 Gyres

Earlier this week Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles released 20,000 black balls with a cry “Balls Away!” bringing the total to 96 million plastic balls covering Los Angeles reservoirs. They’re like the ones you might see at Chucky Cheese- you know, those dirty little pits of multi-colored plastic balls that smell like kids. Those may be gross, but Garcetti’s balls have a higher purpose.

The Upside:

The pros, as the mayor explained, are that they reduce evaporation by up to 300,000,000 gallons per year when all Los Angeles reservoirs are covered, and will reduce algal growth in the reservoirs. Also, the black balls restrict UV light, reducing harmful reactions between chlorine and bromide that form Bromate, another nasty chemical that is apparently difficult to filter out. There is no question, access to clean tap water is much healthier all around than relying on bottled water. 

The Downside:

The cons are that plastic degrades in UV light, especially a dark color like black, which absorbs light rather than deflects it, as white does. The color accelerates degradation, as well as the heat on the sunny side, known as "thermal loading". These conditions set the stage for chemical oxidation. The LADWP claims that the balls do not leach any chemicals and should last 10 years. They state, "at some point they will lose their structural integrity and could split at the seams"

Lets be clear, this IS chemical degradation. 

According to one study (Hakkarainen and Albertsson, 2004) “More that 200 different degradation products including alkanes, alkenes, ketones, aldehydes, alcohols, carboxylic acids, dicarboxylic acids, lactones and esters have been identified in thermo- and photo-oxidized polyethylene.” What’s missing here is information about the city’s system of water ‘polishing’. Is it filtration, reverse osmosis, or chlorine treatment?  We know from our studies of plastic marine pollution that microplastic particles in the nano- and micro- range (<1oum) are appearing in zooplankton, which tells us that degraded plastic can be smaller than many water filter systems.

Our questions: 

Many of us have questions - not just in LA, but across the country. We plan to follow up with the city, and will report back when we have some answers:

What do you know about plastic degradation? How do you cleanse our water.  Had any benign alternatives been considered?  Hate to be a ball-buster, but as an organization based in Los Angeles, we know enough to raise concern.

Hakkarainen, M. & Albertsson, A. (2004) Environmental Degradation of Polyethylene.  Advanced Polymer Science 169: 177-199.

How 5 students banned plastic microbeads on the UCLA Campus (and how you can too!)

Left to right: Coralie, Lindsey, Jiwei, and Qi, Candace

Left to right: Coralie, Lindsey, Jiwei, and Qi, Candace

By Candace Gregg

August 7, 2015

In January of this year, I was one of five UCLA undergraduates to embark on a crash course in environmental issues. The five of us came from several different departments across campus, but we all had a keen interest in understanding the issues facing our environment today and a desire to be a part of the solutions. As a part of an honors collegium ecology class, we partnered with 5 Gyres and were presented with the task of inspiring education and activism for microbeads on college campuses. The best place to begin this work, we decided, was right on our own campus.

Having a microbead-free campus seemed like an ambitious yet attainable goal for our group, and so we set to work to create a campaign to this end. The Associated Students UCLA (ASUCLA) has a very influential presence at UCLA and operates student stores in six different locations across campus, including the large student union store. ASUCLA is the nation’s largest student association and we quickly found that the student body government of a major university is much like a smaller version of a complex state or federal government, and it’s many layers operate in much the same way.

To research for our proposed ban, we visited the stores themselves and documented just how many microbead products they had on their shelves. We then began to network as much as we could, reaching out to professors and students who would support our efforts. After several months of meeting with student representatives and members of ASUCLA and sharing our vision for a microbead-free campus, we were able to present in front of an ASUCLA service committee. Several months later, the ban was submitted for consideration to the finance committee, and finally the ASUCLA Board of Directors.

The Board voted on July 31st to pass the ban, and as soon as current supply runs out, will stock the shelves of their stores across campus with only microbead free products. This is a very exciting victory for us as students and for 5 Gyres, and it’s only just the beginning! We hope to see microbead bans passed on college campuses across the country and see students act in support of larger state and federal policy to reduce plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways.


Want to lead your own microbead free campus effort? Sign up to get on the waiting list to receive the 5 Gyres activist kit

5 Gyres Microbeads Free Campus Kit will contain a step by step guide for passing a microbeads ban at your college as well as educational tools, posters and handouts and more! It will be launched within a month, but you can register to be the first to get it now!

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Don't Contribute To Plastic Pollution In The Ocean: A 5 Step Plan

At some level, we are all ocean lovers, so it’s heartbreaking to realize that plastic pollution kills one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals each year in our seas.

How do we stop that? Your daily actions can make a difference. Here are five steps to ensure that you are not contributing to plastic pollution in the ocean.

1.     Start by measuring your “plastic footprint.”

Keep a personal plastic use diary and note every product you use in a day or a week that’s plastic or packaged in plastic. You'll be surprised! Once you know your baseline, you can set specific goals to reduce or eliminate your plastic waste generation.

One easy way to get started is to go digital: for example, there is no need for plastic CDs, DVDs and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online. Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to reduce plastic in our lives and the nasty impacts of plastic pollution, and get ideas from them about creative ways to cut out plastic. Remember: with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated (which has its own environmental issues), virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form.

2.     Cut disposable plastics out of your life.

Plastic often begins its journey to the ocean when people litter or the wind blows trash out of a garbage can and into a storm drain. From there, it travels through sewer pipes, into waterways, and finally it reaches the ocean. You can prevent this by never using those disposable plastics in the first place.

Replace sandwich bags and juice cartons with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a Thermos.

Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them, which is a great way to eliminate lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups from your life.

Seek out alternatives to the plastic items that you rely on. Simple options include bringing your own bag to the store and never using those thin plastic bags. Your produce doesn't need them. Refuse single-serving packaging, excess packaging, straws and other “disposable” plastics.

3.     If you must use plastic products, reuse them.

Fifty percent of the plastic in our lives is used once and thrown away. That's just crazy! Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at cookouts, potlucks or take-out restaurants. Carry a reusable water bottle and store food in non-disposable containers. Once you have reused a plastic bottle as much as you can, then at least be sure to recycle it. If you must use plastic, be sure to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled plastics.

4.     Take the pledge to boycott products with microbeads.

Cosmetics companies have flooded hundreds of products (mostly facial scrubs but also shampoo, toothpaste and lip gloss) with microbeads: tiny balls of plastic used to exfoliate our skin. One tube of facial scrub contains more than 300,000 plastic microbeads. When you wash off those tiny pieces of plastic, they go down the drain, pass unfiltered through sewage treatment plants into our rivers and lakes, and enter the ocean. Once there, they soak up environmental pollutants like DDT before unsuspecting fish gobble them up, to be eaten by other fish or by us humans. The microbeads used in personal care products are mainly composed of polyethylene and polypropylene, so check the labels to make sure you are never buying microbeads.

5.     Take care of the beach.

Some plastic pollution gets into the ocean via the beach or a boat. You can be sure you will never contaminate the ocean with plastic by always cleaning up after yourself, whether you enjoy diving, surfing, or just relaxing on the beach. If you're on a boat, never allow any plastic bags, straws, or cups to go overboard. Go even further by encouraging others to respect the marine environment or by participating in local beach cleanups.

Get started today! 

By Emily Logan

Emily Logan is Director of Acquisition and Retention at Care2, where her team works with member activists to spread the word about their petitions on ThePetitionSite, builds petition campaigns into full-scale organizing efforts, and helps keep current Care2 members happy and engaged. In her time at Care2 she has also worked extensively with hundreds of nonprofit organizations to help recruit activists and donors and build out their online strategies. Emily has a B.S. in journalism and a B.A. in music from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and currently lives in rainy Portland, Oregon with her cat, Ostrich.



Trawling for Plastic: Sketches from the Bermuda Triangle

I recently had the privilege of being a crew member aboard the 5 Gyres SEA Change research expedition to the Bermuda Triangle. The purpose of the trip was to capture and document the plastic floating on the ocean’s surface through the North Atlantic Gyre – a conglomeration of swirling ocean currents, which form a vortex that captures floating trash.

5 Gyres is a unique organization. Founded by husband and wife team, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, the organization has conducted research expeditions to all four corners of the globe, painstakingly documenting the size and scope of the problem that has come to be known as “plastic pollution.” Not content to only document the problem, Anna and Marcus built world class public education and advocacy components into their work to engage the world’s people in solving it.

As part of each expedition, 5 Gyres seeks to engage influentials to help conduct citizen science and become global ambassadors on the issue. My leg of the trip from the Bahamas to Bermuda was packed with a remarkable mix of people from B-Corp businesses, the media, music, adventure sports, and advocacy organizations. More on this later. First…

The Gyres

Generally when I speak with most people about the gyres, they usually say, “Oh right, those are the big islands of trash floating in the middle of the world’s oceans.” Some of the early media stories led to this concept of floating “garbage patches,” and the idea stuck. Contrary to conventional wisdom, plastic in the ocean more closely resembles the concept of “smog” than an island of garbage. Here’s why:

Our sewers, storm drains and rivers act like “horizontal smokestacks” that carry plastic bags, soda bottles, disposable cutlery, etc. into our oceans. A significant amount sinks to the ocean floor or washes up on beaches throughout the world. The remaining floating plastic gets carried out to sea, where ocean currents swirl much of it into the gyres. Gyres exist in every major ocean and act like giant swirling “blenders” that assist sunlight in shredding plastic debris into smaller particles called microplastics. These tiny bits of plastic are mostly what you find when you go into the gyres in search of plastic pollution.

The Research

5 Gyres research focuses on documenting the prevalence of microplastics in our oceans and supporting the efforts to understand how this affects the health of marine ecosystems around the world. During the 800-mile leg from the Bahamas to Bermuda, we trawled for plastic nearly the entire time. The research crew would carefully rig and lower a number of different trawls, which are essentially floating traps with fine mesh screens that hang several meters behind the opening. The duration that the trawl is in the water and the speed of the boat are tracked to estimate the amount of plastic being captured over a certain distance. Then comes the fun part.

The trawl is hoisted up and its contents sifted through a screen. All the organic material (mostly a floating seaweed called sargassum) has to be hand-picked to remove the plastic and then thrown overboard. After the sample has been collected and screened, the plastic is hand-counted – by the hundreds and thousands – and then recorded.

5 Gyres can then use the data to estimate how much microplastic is floating on our oceans and where it’s concentrated. What they’ve discovered is that these tiny bits of plastic aren’t just contained in the gyres, but can be found all over the world’s oceans, major freshwater bodies and on our beaches.

Throughout the marine food chain, organisms big and small are eating microplastics. What’s worse is that the plastic acts as a sponge for persistent organic pollutants in the environment. All the long-lived toxic chemicals – like DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, etc – that we’ve pumped into the environment over the last 50 years are absorbed by the plastic. Studies show that the concentration of toxic chemicals can be 1,000 times greater on the surface or marine plastic than in the surrounding water. So essentially, the plastic in our oceans is acting like a toxic conveyor belt, attracting and concentrating toxic chemicals up the marine food chain and into our bodies. That’s the bad news.

The Crew 

The good news is that over the last 10 years – efforts to combat marine plastic pollution have grown from a handful of scientists to a global movement with constituents ranging from community-based advocacy groups, to government and corporate actors, to powerful national and international NGOs. Thanks to the hard work of 5 Gyres and many other groups and individuals, plastic pollution is an issue that is starting to crest in the public’s awareness in the United States and around the world.

And the participants on this trip were a testament to that growing movement. Over all three legs of the trip from Florida to New York, 5 Gyres assembled more than 50 individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise to become “citizen scientists” during the voyage and lifelong ambassadors following. My leg included noteworthy crew like the musician and philanthropist – Jack Johnson, documentary filmmakers – Ian Cheney and Simon Beins, surf legends and brothers – Dan and Keith Malloy, professional free diver and spear-fisherwoman – Kimi Werner, acclaimed writer – Adam Skolnick, and bodysurfing icon – Mark Cunningham.

The expedition also included representatives from B-Corp businesses making products and contributing significant financial resources to solve ocean plastic pollution, including entrepreneur Andy Keller (a.k.a. the “Bagmonster”) from Chico Bag, Caroleigh Pierce from Klean Kanteen and Pearl Gottschall from Lush Cosmetics. On the NGO side, I was joined by Jeroen Dagevos, Program Director for the Plastic Soup Foundation, one of the major European organizations focused working on the issue, and Krystal Ambrose, from the Bahamas Plastic Movement, a remarkable young woman who is building an organization to stem the tide of disposable plastic on the islands she calls home.

There were also a number of other extraordinary people with a variety of backgrounds on board, including several engaged and passionate college students. Over the six days at sea, each person had to give a presentation. While mine fell into the “plastics geek” category, many of the talks revolved around people’s lives and their connection to – and love for – the ocean.

I was struck by how many of the people on board had made sacrifices to pursue their passion in life. And by how those singular decisions helped define them and create the circumstances for their success and life’s work. This was emblematic in Marcus’s personal story of diving into research and school following a difficult tour as a soldier during the first Gulf War. His choice to pursue science and find meaning in unraveling one of the great environmental catastrophes of our time has defined his success and even led to meeting his wife and partner, Anna.

Over the week at sea, I was deeply touched and humbled by the way the crew opened themselves up to the experience and to each other. A high point of the trip was an impromptu jam session after a wine-tasting on the deck as the crew watched the sunset over the ocean. The guitar players traded songs, while hand drums roared and the crew sang along for hours. We were bonded tight at that point, like kids at summer camp for the first time.

Next Steps

Well… I was committed before, but now, I’m hooked. Thanks to the 5 Gyres crew, I’m now a lifelong plastic pollution advocate. And as you may have read in earlier blogs, UPSTREAM is shifting more of our projects to focus on solving ocean plastic pollution. If ever there was an issue that is ripe for extended producer responsibility, it’s this one. We’ve just launched our new Plastic Pollution Policy Project (P4) to help align the movement around solutions-oriented policies and campaigns. This is the next evolution of our work to advance sustainable packaging, and we see this project as being the highest contribution our organization can make in this area.

About Matt Prindiville, Executive Director

Matt joined UPSTREAM in 2011. As a policy and campaign strategist, he has helped develop and contributed to many coalition efforts to advance safer chemicals policy, mercury reduction and product stewardship. Read more...

Blog first appeared here. Reprinted with permission from author. Bold text added 


It’s been about a week since I returned from my life-changing trip through the Caribbean, and I’m still processing everything I saw and the fantastic people I met. My leg of the 5 Gyres expedition, which sailed from the Bahamas to Bermuda to study ocean plastics, was exceptional. The people who joined me on this journey were no less outstanding; musician and ocean ambassador Jack Johnson, Patagonia ambassadors Dan and Keith Malloy, along with Kimi Werner and The Legend Mark Cunningham, were all there for the ride. Together, we were joined by an incredible gathering of youth activists, nonprofit organizations and responsible brands such as ChicoBag and LUSH cosmetics, all of which came together to learn more about the issue of plastics in our ocean, share our passion for the ocean and discuss ways that we can share this important story with the world. We had a documentary film crew with us and a journalist aboard the ship, both of whom captured great footage and conversations along the way.

Caroleigh Pierce and Jack Johnson on the SEA Change Expedition 

Caroleigh Pierce and Jack Johnson on the SEA Change Expedition 

We sailed 850 nautical miles while sampling the water’s surface for plastics, and we didn’t pull up a single trawl that didn’t contain plastic fragments; as many as 700 pieces showed up in a single sample!

None of this came as a surprise to me based on the information I have, yet this journey has moved me in ways that I never expected. I often give talks on plastic pollution, sharing the data provided to me by 5 Gyres. But this time, I was the student and not the teacher. I found myself often sitting in silence, watching and listening (not my usual demeanor if you know me at all), absorbing all the information and knowledge I could. Our days were filled with inspiring conversation and scientific research, and our nights with spontaneous jam sessions and laughter with newfound friends.

My trip also had land legs, and we were blessed to spend time on beautiful beaches and swim in the most crystal blue water I’ve ever seen. We spent time with local students on the beaches doing research and enjoyed the hospitality of the communities along the way, who are also very concerned about the issue of plastics and how it affects their islands.

Microplastics in a ocean trawl

Microplastics in a ocean trawl

So, what exactly did I learn while I was out there? Well, here’s my big takeaway…

What you see is not what you get.

The ocean and beaches look perfect at first glance. They are so inviting and appear so healthy. But time after time, with a closer look we saw the real damage and effect humans and our habits are having on the ecosystem. Sure, we saw some large pieces of plastic and things we recognized from our daily lives just floating about, but more often, we saw this confetti of sorts, a smog of plastic–both in the water and on the shore. What's more, this plastic confetti is too tiny to clean up with any machine or net, and too constantly flowing into our waters to ever really make a difference with clean-up efforts.

I don’t say these things to be a Debbie Downer or to make people feel there is no hope. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. This trip has left me inspired and hopeful. Our ocean will heal herself if we just give her a chance. We have to make a change in the way we live our lives and in the choices we make every day. We must shop smart. We have to refuse single-use items that live forever after we throw them “away." So, reuse and repurpose whenever you can. Teach what you learn and lead by example, and in doing so, we can all play a part in healing this BLUEtiful planet.

Klean Voice Contributor Caroleigh Pierce is the Nonprofit Outreach Manager at Klean Kanteen, and quite possibly the most naturally energetic human on the planet. Caroleigh is incredibly skilled at aligning Klean Kanteen with nonprofits that do incredible things, and her passion for fostering these relationships is simply beautiful. 

Plastic Smog and Horizontal Smoke Stacks: Representations of Pollution as Knowledge

Plastic Smog and Horizontal Smoke Stacks: Representations of Pollution as Knowledge

We’ve agreed to use the metaphor of plastic smog. It counteracts the incorrect yet popular image of a plastic island invented by the media almost 15 years ago. There is no island. We talk about how one member of our citizen science research crew thought there really was an island of plastic right until she joined us. She has now discovered first hand that what some of us have been researching for years: there are 5.25 trillion plastic fragments, 92% of which are less than 5 mm floating in surface waters

Read More

What Trash is Hiding In San Francisco Waters?

By Katie Strong

Monitoring plastic pollution in our waterways is vital to figuring out the impact of plastics in our environment. Our first field work for Tracking California’s Trash Project was in March and we hit the creek again in this April.

This go-around we were lucky enough to catch the very end of the first flush of the season, which allowed us to collect a lot more trash. We sampled the same Bay Area creek near San Francisco on April 7, during a wet weather event (a 24-hour period when there is at least 0.5 inches of rain). That morning's heavy rains created an increased amount of trash and debris.

The depth of the creek during this sampling event increased from our last dry weather sampling in March, and the creek flow rate increased. This depth and speed of the creek allowed us to catch 108 percent more trash than our March outing.

Our research thus far is important to help us understand monitoring techniques, and now we are very prepared to catch upcoming storms.

So what did we discover in the trash from the creek?

  • We found mylar (non-recyclable) film food wrappers
  • EPS disposable food & beverage ware
  • Other plastic items, including plastic hygiene products & micro-plastics
  • Cigarette butts

Our increased April trash sample is a reminder to be mindful about discarding our waste properly. Storm drains, gutters, and other outlets drain rainwater directly into our streams, rivers and bays, mobilizing and pushing trash to the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean. Stay conscious, our friends!

Katie Strong is the Data Processing Manager and Trash Characterization Coordinator for the Tracking California’s Trash Project. With over 5 years of experience as a waste management education coordinator and environmental public health researcher, Katie joined the project because she is deeply connected to water, the ocean, and all aspects of nature, and wants to preserve our planet for all to enjoy. During her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia, Katie witnessed the impact of our world’s trash epidemic, and her passion for stopping this epidemic was ignited.