Happy World Turtle Day!

The photographer, Sergi Garcia, took away the plastic bag before it was ingested.

The photographer, Sergi Garcia, took away the plastic bag before it was ingested.

Plastic pollution is everywhere, and as such, is hard for marine life to avoid. More than 600 marine species are impacted by plastic, through ingestion and entanglement. This includes all seven species of turtles who are known for chomping on plastic bags, easily mistaking them for jellyfish. 5 Gyres Executive Director Anna Cummins underscores this problem, “We need to do away with our throw away culture - the bags, bottles, straws and packaging that we all see fouling our communities and oceans.”

5 Gyres spokesturtle, Mae West, agrees. When she was young she got entangled with a plastic milk jug ring around her middle. As she grew, the ring didn’t, and subsequently constricted the shape of her shell.  She provides a sad but valuable example of the impact of plastics on marine life. Mae West was adopted by 5 Gyres and now lives in Culver City at the STAR Eco Station, where she is visited by school children learning about the impact of plastics on our environment, and of course, 5 Gyres staff who drop in for a hello every now and then.

Meet mae west who now lives at the STAR Eco Station in los angeles.

Meet mae west who now lives at the STAR Eco Station in los angeles.

Today, May 23rd, happens to be a great day for Mae West and turtles everywhere - it’s World Turtle Day! Join 5 Gyres as we celebrate World Turtle Day with our partner, LunchSkins, bringing attention to the plight of turtles and encouraging people everywhere to take steps to reduce plastic waste and help turtles survive and thrive.

If you aren’t familiar with this environmentally conscious company, LunchSkins is a women-owned brand that has created a popular replacement for single-use plastic bags. Just one LunchSkins reusable bag replaces 500 throw-away plastic baggies. What started with a few moms as a way to reduce waste in their local schools has now grown into a collaboration of many people around the world committed to finding sustainable solutions for the fast-growing issue of ocean plastic pollution.

This year, LunchSkins designed a special bag with a turtle motif that will raise funds for 5 Gyres, as well as the Sea Turtle Conservancy. “We created our LunchSkins brand as a smart, sustainable solution to disposable plastic bags and as an example of how a socially responsible company can give back and guide the daily choices that impact our environment, our health and our future,” says LunchSkins Founder/CEO Kirsten Quigley.

5 Gyres is glad to partner with LunchSkins and celebrate Mae West’s big day! Happy World Turtle Day everyone!

Meet the Ambassadors: Orestis Herodotou

Name: Orestis Herodotou
Job: Software Engineer at TechCrunch 
Age: 30
Current City:  Oakland, CA
5 Gyres Involvement: 2015 SEA Change Expedition + 5 Gyres Ambassador

Orestis on the SEA Change Expedition in 2015

Orestis on the SEA Change Expedition in 2015


Like a lot of people, I learned about the issue after reading an article on Captain Charlie Moore in Rolling Stone Magazine. Soon after, I become involved with David Rothchild's Plastiki. I read online of it's very experimental-looking cabin, a geodesic egg-shaped dome designed by architect Nathanial Corum and inspired by one of my heros, Buckminster Fuller. It looked like a really cool sci-fi space mission and I was excited about the buzz they were creating around sustainability.

Being a budding sailor, I smelled adventure. When I found out that the Plastiki was being constructed in San Francisco, I immediately knew I had to get involved. I ended up volunteering at their visitor center and while interacting with the public at the center, I was shocked by how many people did not know about the issue of plastic pollution - people were dumbfounded. I kept getting more involved and eventually, I helped build Plastiki's hull that was made of plastic bottles. 


I first met the 5 Gyres team in 2012 through my involvement with the Spirit of the Sea, a small all-volunteer run project that connected underprivileged youth with the ocean by taking them out on the bay aboard a 60-foot sailboat called the Ocean Watch. Captain Richard Gillette had invited 5 Gyres educators aboard a few of our trips to help teach the kids about environmental stewardship and plastic pollution. I think it was really powerful for the kids to see and touch actual pieces of plastic that came from deep in the ocean, and get an opportunity to ask questions and voice their thoughts.

After one of our sails, we broke bread with Marcus at a BBQ place in Oakland to talk about future expeditions. I loved how Marcus and his team were all about collaborating and getting people together. I think becoming part of the community is such an important aspect that 5 Gyres really represents. I continued to follow 5 Gyres’ expeditions online and attend events, and was thrilled when I was offered a spot on the 2015 SEA Change expedition. 

What did you get out of the Expedition?

I got the experience of a lifetime. I know it sounds cliché, but seriously. Everything was fantastic from the moment I landed in Bermuda. It was also my first time sailing on the open ocean, and there really is nothing that compares. There’s way too many things to list here, but I’ll never forget gazing in awe as bursts of electric blue colored phosphorescent algae lit up our bow wake under a full starry Atlantic night sky, with distant lightning striking far off in the distance.

Orestis Analyzing ocean samples during the SEA change Expedition in North Atlantic Gyre

Orestis Analyzing ocean samples during the SEA change Expedition in North Atlantic Gyre

Nothing could prepare me how much plastic we collected during our trawls. Each and every time we put a net in the water, we pulled out little pieces of plastic. Picture this: you’re in the middle of nowhere, water on every horizon, many days from land, but you’re staring at a granola bar wrapper float by. 

Being part of the research really allowed me to better understand the magnitude of the issue and really feel what these numbers mean. That’s why I think getting people involved through citizen science is so important. The best part though, was that I got to hangout with some of the most inspiring people on Earth. It was like the all-star game of awesome humans, and I feel like the bonds we made are strong enough to outlast the most stubborn piece of polyethylene out there.

Together, we developed this idea of “Plastic Smog” which I think really resonates with the reality of what we are facing with ocean plastics, and provides a solid roadmap for how we might overcome its immense threats. 

WHAT programs/projects have you worked on with 5 gyres?

I love getting people out on the water, and love being on the beach! I’ve helped crew youth sailing programs and am working with Cal Sailing Club to reduce our plastic debris footprint and remove single use plastic items from the club. As an Amabssador for 5 Gyres, I've led a beach transect study with students from a SF State ecology class on a windy day at Ocean Beach. I’ve given presentations to community groups about my experiences on the Expedition and helped table and engage the public with 5 Gyres at several events like the wonderful San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival.  I’ve also weathered the rain to monitor trash with 5 Gyres, part of the Tracking CA Trash Project - a project to help cities work towards zero waste output. 

Orestis and Bekka at the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival

Orestis and Bekka at the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival

I've also tried to use my background as a web developer to engage people online. I’m launching a microbead counter website soon to let people know that we need to get #beadfree today, part of 5 Gyres most recent Action Campaign. I also participated in this year's Fishackathon, a sustainable fisheries hacking challenge sponsored by the US State Department.

WHAT inspires you most about the issue?

What interests me the most is the way that plastic pollution is not just about the seals and fish, but it's really connected to economics, technology and the way societies value resources and distribute resources. I think these things are connected and really important. Plastic pollution is a very urgent issue - it's related to habitat collapse, global warming, biodiversity ... It is interconnected with so many issues. There is so much going on. 

On a positive note, we are seeing progress everyday. More awareness. More people getting involved. We are seeing the community grow. But what are we really fighting for? We are fighting for it all. 

WHAT Is your favorite memory from your Expedition?

Orestis with SEA change Expedition Crew (leg 3, Bermuda to NY)

Orestis with SEA change Expedition Crew (leg 3, Bermuda to NY)

Can I give you my top three?

(1) Sailing! We were caught in a pretty big storm as we left the Sargasso Sea. I felt bad for everyone who got sea sick, but I honestly I it was so exciting to ride through. The boat was rocking all over and there were these enormous 20 foot waves. I guess I’m glad it didn’t get worse though. Just so powerful and terrifying!

(2) Music!  It seemed like everyone aboard was a musician, so we were constantly singing together and playing in jam sessions.

(3)  Getting my hands dirty with the trawls and beach transects.

I could give you like 20 more. 

ORESTIS CONTINUES TO BRING HIS "TECH" PERSPECTIVE TO OUR PROJECTS THROUGH OUR AMBASSADOR PROGRAM. After the SEA Change Expedition, he developed an online map of our sample locations and preliminary results. We are also very excited to have Orestis helping with our Action Campaign - he has developed an online counter that will help display the magnitude of the issue by counting the number of estimate beach that are entering our waterways...

Love for Peter Stranger

We lost a hero, a friend, and a champion this month. Peter Stranger was a rare individual – a spiritual, passionate conservationist and strategist who gave generously of himself to the world.  He served on our Board for the last 2+ years, and left a saddened and appreciative wake with his parting.

I’ll never forget the first time I sat down to chat with Peter. We’d met once through mutual friends, both named Larry, and then crossed paths by chance at a café.  He instantly engaged, and with his charming, easy manner, sat down to talk planet.

We talked about work and play, conservation projects, his travels in Africa, and beyond. He also talked about his treasured daily walks above his home in the Hollywood Hills, and of his dear wife Camille. I asked him to join our Board. All were instantly smitten with him. Who could not be? He joined our team with gusto, intellect and heart.

We also had a chance to glimpse Peter the artist. His eye for beauty, perspective, and fragility are memorialized in his photographs. Arresting, and indescribable. Like the artist.

Peter left us with so many gifts. One that stands out: a story he told a few times of the 3 words he found most powerful in developing relationships. TELL ME MORE.  And he would listen.

Thank you Peter, from our community, our planet, and from the bottom of our hearts. 

Meet the Ambassadors: Kayla Grattan

Name: Kayla Grattan
Job: Student
School: Michigan State University
Age: 22
Hometown: Cedar Springs, MI
5 Gyres Involvement: 5 Gyres Ambassador

Kayla at a beach cleanup in Fiji in 2015

Kayla at a beach cleanup in Fiji in 2015

When did you first learn about the global plastic pollution issue?

I was in my junior year of high school and read Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn. I became absolutely obsessed with recycling and reuse and was constantly talking about it to my parents and friends. I knew that I wanted to focus on helping solve the issue [of plastic pollution]. It’s not only an environmental threat, it’s a human health threat. I want others to understand how big the problem is. Moby Duck “changed/ruined” my life. 

How did you get involved with 5 Gyres?

I was in an Environmental Interpretation Class last year, where I was learning the art of interpretation (developing educational materials). We were asked to focus on an environmental topic and educate others on it. I used the 5 Gyres Education Kit to develop a program for talking about plastic pollution to the public. The kit really stimulates conversation with people. The microbead demonstration freaked people out. The demonstration is a quick activity where you squeeze some product that has microbeads into a jar, shake it up, and put the mixture on a black cloth that really lets you see the plastic beads.

I got in touch with 5 Gyres staff for information and was told about the Ambassador Program.  I ended up meeting the 5 Gyres Campaign Manager on one of the Ambassador Webinars. 5 Gyres helped me prepare to testify for stronger microbead legislation in Michigan. Michigan's bill was full of loopholes (that would just allow a different type of plastic) so I went in representing 5 Gyres and called them out on the loopholes while voicing support and a recommending a shift of emphasis to other state bills and the national legislation that did not have the loophole.   

Kayla working with volunteer to carry out the microbead demonstration.  

What projects have you worked with 5 Gyres on?

I have given multiple presentations to my classmates related to class projects, where I carried out the microbead demonstration. I received really good grades for both projects! I also did a tabling event at an Earth Day Festival. And this last summer, I did an independent study focusing on plastic pollution and island sustainability, while I was in Fiji for a study abroad program. 

I focused on microbeads because I wanted to make the school projects relevant. It just made more sense to focus on a policy to ban microbeads in Michigan.

What inspires you most about the issue of plastic pollution?

I think it’s really just that so many people don’t think or know about the issue or they think it's something we can easily clean up (which we know is not the case). The big thing for me is education: People don’t get it and we live in a throw away society. No one thinks about products after they leave their hands. This is a HUGE problem for our beaches and environment that stems from a mentality that we must change. 

After graduation, if you got to do anything, what would you do? (Assuming $ is not an issue)

I definitely want to travel. But I want to travel in a way where I can be productive versus just resort hopping. I’d love to go out and make new connections and do something to make a difference.

Maybe Kayla will be able to join one of our Expeditions someday soon! 

Meet the Ambassadors: Candace Gregg

Name: Candace Gregg

Title: College Student (Senior)

College: UCLA (Major: Anthropology)

Age: 22

Hometown: Kalispell, MT

5 Gyres Involvement: 5 Gyres Ambassador + Banned Microbeads at UCLA

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in a pretty rural area where my house was surrounded by wheat fields, and less than a half of a mile from the base of the Rocky Mountains. Glacier National Park was also very close. The area is full of rivers and lakes and forests and farmland and mountains. I was outside all the time. This created a huge and deep appreciation for nature for me. Nature was right in my backyard and I loved it. It was part of who I was.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I realized this is not how it was everywhere. I had never had to “go to” nature before and I’d never seen areas of pollution. Coming to California and seeing this was powerful. Seeing pollution and trash in public places and on beaches, and not being able to see the bottom of a river, was impactful. I wasn’t used to this. After seeing this, I really become interested in conservation.

When did you first learn about the global plastic pollution issue?

I definitely knew plastic pollution was an issue because I had made an effort to educate myself on environmental issues. But I became extremely literate after taking my Understanding Ecology Class at the Honors College at UCLA.  This was a class created by Professor Allison Lipman. At the very beginning of the class, Anna Cummins, from 5 Gyres, came to our class and pitched a project to us. Basically, Anna explained the issue of plastic pollution and what 5 Gyres does, highlighting the recent microbead campaign. Anna came to our class and wanted to work with the students to engage their peers. She did not have a specific project in mind and we came up with the idea of passing a microbead ban on our campus.

What programs/projects have you worked with 5 Gyres on?

I worked on the microbead ban – it was a group (of 5 students) effort. We had to pitch the idea to campus government, network with student government, and ultimately we had to convince the Board of Directors of Associated Students at UCLA to ban microbeads. We had to set up meetings and we educated everyone on the issue. We were invited to present to a committee and it made it up to the Board of Directors where they passed the microbead ban.

After the quarter, I got in touch with Anna and told her I wanted to be more involved. I followed the microbead ban through the entire process in California. And then I helped 5 Gyres staff write a step-by-step guide for other students to use to ban microbeads on their campus.

Last October, I traveled to New Hampshire with Lia Calabello to speak at the P.L.A.N. Conference, where I gave a presentation to over a couple hundred students.  My presentation was on my experience at UCLA and then I went through the steps for other students to follow to ban microbeads on their campus. We also tabled all day long and I talked to students about microbeads.

I also had the chance to give a similar presentation to the 5 Gyres Ambassadors on a Webinar and talked about what they all can be doing as Ambassadors.

What inspires you most about this issue?

I’m inspired to work eradicate plastic pollution because I love the places that plastic is polluting. I think these places are extremely valuable gifts that the world has. And I think they are worth taking care of. Not only for joy, but for food and all of the other reasons that the ocean is important.

Why are you proud to be a 5 Gyres Ambassador?

Working with 5 Gyres, allowed me to put myself into action to make a difference in an educational atmosphere. Having the support from an organization is empowering because I felt like I had a solid team behind me. This is important. It was bureaucratic to get this ban passed and it was helpful to have 5 Gyres backing me.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

I also think that as a student it is really cool to work with an organization that is on the forefront in a field. I love that 5 Gyres focuses on bringing people on Expeditions and to youth summit. 5 Gyres focuses on engagement and I want to be part of it. I also think my involvement has also helped me develop new skills. My communication and writing skills have improved and I gave a professional presentation. I was excited to be part of this professional setting, and it was a great learning experience.

I don’t even have a college degree yet and I think it’s so awesome that I can still get things done. My passion was valued [by 5 Gyres] and it didn’t matter that I didn’t have a bachelors degree yet.

Are you interested in going on a 5 Gyres Expedition?

I’d love to. If the opportunity arose, I’d jump on it.




SeaVax : Techno-Fix to Plastic Pollution?

Many of the open ocean techno-fixes have died down in the last five years, mostly because the science of plastic pollution tells us plastics fragment quickly, are mostly small particles widely distributed across the globe, and are highly toxic after time at sea - more akin to a smog of plastic rather than a consolidated patch. Recovery is much more challenging than we thought, and the ocean is rapidly beaching it and sinking the smallest particles.

One of the biggest issues around any cleanup contraption is by-catch, the unintended killing of passively floating organisms that can't swim away. The ocean is full of them. Another issue is that open-ocean recovery misses the majority of the trash washing down rivers and blowing off beaches, which typically don't make it to the middle of the ocean before fragmenting into microplastics. Another is the PR challenge of not letting post-consumer cleanup distract the attention of the public and policymakers from circular economy thinking, like upstream design innovations and policy intervention that prevent the problem in the first place.

The merit of open-ocean clean up is that it could capture persistent plastic products like fishing gear that's designed to last years or decades. Catching that before in fragments into microplastic is worthy. The biggest advantage to these clean-up contraptions is deployment upstream.  That's where the waste really is the worst. You'll get your biggest bang for your buck, and you will save our seas from The greatest source of contamination. The further upstream you go, the more success you will have.

Meet the Ambassadors : Genevieve Abedon

Name: Genevieve Abedon
Job: Waste Prevention Campaign Coordinator at Californians Against Waste
School: University of Vermont
Age: 34
Hometown: Newton, Massachusetts
Favorite Reusable Item: Chicobag and water bottle
5 Gyres Involvement: Viking Expedition Crew, 5 Gyres Ambassador + Partner on Microbead Campaign


When did you first learn about the global plastic pollution issue?
A little over two years ago, I spent over six months on a solo backpacking trip in South America. While traveling, I became hyper aware of how much trash was everywhere. In Costa Rica, I went surfing at a beach that was completely trashed. I couldn’t understand where it was coming from. This beach is where I had my “plastic awakening.”

I started researching the issue and learning as much as possible. This is where I came across 5 Gyres on the Internet.

After I returned, I continued my research and heard 5 Gyres was having an event at the Patagonia Store in San Francisco. I was one of the first people there, and so excited to hear about the Expeditions! Next thing I knew, there was an announcement for the Viking Gyre Expedition (Bermuda to Iceland). I applied to come along on the Viking Expedition and got a spot.

What did you get out of the Expedition?
I really wanted to be part of the solution and research. It took a lot of pre-planning and fundraising to make the Expedition happen, but it was the experience of a lifetime. I learned the methods for sampling plastic with a trawl and at a beach, along with learning to sail. I made lasting connections - lifetime connections. Ultimately, I attribute my involvement with 5 Gyres to where I am now, working in the field of plastic pollution.

Favorite memory from Expedition?
I have three! One, jumping in the ocean at 15,000 feet and exploring a netball of fishing gear and ocean trash. It was exhilarating and scary and exciting, all at the same time. Two, after 10 days of fog, which was a little difficult for boat moral, the sun and whales came out. It was a pretty amazing moment. Three, when we saw Iceland. It was such a calm morning, and just seeing land was very exciting.



What inspires you most about this issue?
I think it is an issue that affects the land and water and humans and animals – It’s an issue that affects everything and everyone, on so many levels. It is an issue with obvious solutions, even though they may not be easy to make happen. I think solutions are multi-pronged and have to do with both, the consumers and producers of plastic materials. While the higher up policy and infrastructures are difficult to change quickly, there are simple things that we can do as individuals to reduce our own plastic footprints. I think it’s important to walk the walk if I’m going to talk the talk. I worked over the last few years, since my “plastic awakening,” to make my life as plastic free as possible. It is not as difficult as people think. I refuse a lot of things! I also make my own toothpaste powder, cleaning supplies, face scrub, most of my food, and deodorant.

Tooth Powder

1/2 c baking soda

3 tsp coconut oil (liquified) - add more for more "pastiness"

1/2 tsp sea salt

40 drops food grade peppermint oil

Mix well and let dry. Place on toothbrush with small amount of water and brush away. 

Why are you excited to be a 5 Gyres Ambassador?
I really believe in what 5 Gyres is doing to mitigate plastic pollution and think the 5 Gyres team has so much to teach others. The Ambassador Program is full of like-minded people, who are passionate about the cause, and they are my new allies!

5 Gyres has ambassadors across the globe. The Ambassador Program aims to build and train a network of inspiring leaders around the globe to take community action that results in less plastic pollution in our oceans. Stay tuned to learn how these fearless leaders are making change happen.



Meet the Ambassadors : Lauren Silvera

Name: Lauren Silvera
Age: 17
Hometown: Jamaica
5 Gyres Involvement: Bahamas Youth Island Action Summit, 5 Gyres Ambassador

I never understood the whole plastic pollution issue until I attended the 2015 5 Gyres Youth Action Summit in the Bahamas where in-depth discussions furthered my knowledge on that issue. I was able to attend this event due to my passion for art. Earlier in 2015 I decided to have my own Art exhibition, ArtEXHI, where over 100 paintings were on display and sold. I was able to donate approximately $4000 USD to the Welfare Programme at my school- helping students in need of financial aid. Due to the success of my initiative, I was chosen as the candidate to represent Marley Coffee, who sponsored my trip, at the summit. After attending the summit my whole entire mindset changed for the better.


After the summit, the quote, “Be a part of the solution and not the cause”, fossilized itself in my memory, and because it was my last year in high school I felt compelled to promote change and awareness starting with Jamaica. Jamaica is a country that has a major plastic pollution problem. The plastic pollution problem also stems from poverty. During my time at the summit, I attended a beach clean up with the 5 Gyres team, Jack Johnson and many other activists. During this activity, I was alarmed to see large volumes of plastics washed up on the Bahamian shores. What struck me even more was seeing something familiar in Jamaica - plastic juice bags called “Bag Juice” in my country. These bags contain juices and sometimes water at an affordable cost. Each ‘Bag Juice’ costs about $0.20. At my school we sell thousands on a monthly basis and one can find them on every street corner and at every school. It was embarrassing to see these bags polluting the shores of Bahamas and I felt that for me to start promoting change I want to start by using these bags in an effective way.


"The Solution"

Art is my passion and based on my last exhibition, I was able to use my passion for art as the driving force to help others. I want to do something similar but for change - eco change. From this, I decided to name my next exhibition ‘ArtEXHI: Eco Change’. Being President of the Art Society at my school has made this initiative a lot easier as it is a group effort. In September 2015, I made the commitment to myself that I want to use the plastic juice bags as the main material for the art pieces for the 2016 plastic art exhibition, and so far we have collected hundreds of these bags with the use of wooden recycling bins placed around my school compound. Prior to the exhibition, I will be selling 100 RecoverBrand drawstring bags to raise additional funds for the cause while raising awareness at the same time. All funds collected will fund scholarships grants for high achieving students in school. ArtEXHI: Eco Change will be on April 15th, in my school’s auditorium.

The solution starts with a goal driven mentality and this has kept me and my art society on a steady momentum to raise awareness on plastic pollution while supporting the education for students in Jamaica.


To help support Lauren's efforts contact her at silvera.lauren@gmail.com + Instagram @laurensilvera.



5 Gyres has ambassadors across the globe. The Ambassador Program aims to build and train a network of inspiring leaders around the globe to take community action that results in less plastic pollution in our oceans. Stay tuned to learn how these fearless leaders are making change happen. 












The Seabin Project

The Seabin is a post consumer clean up technology that works in the last place viable to clean up our waterways before they reach the ocean. It's basically a floating garbage can with a pump on the bottom that sucks surface water in from the top. It is beautiful and efficient in it's simplicity.

It is not the first one like it, with earlier versions already in place in marinas around the world. The Seabin is great because of its small size and scalability to Be implemented in lakes, estuaries, and marinas everywhere. It likely would not work well in Rivers where plenty of natural debris is making its way down stream and would fill the bin quickly.  

It's not an ocean fix either. It requires a calm water surface in order to be efficient. It would not work in choppy seas. It would also wreak havoc on passively floating marine life. 

These are the same challenges that every proposed idea to capture ocean trash has had to face and failed. It proves the point that the last place to capture ocean trash is at the point of entry along coastlines. In the ocean, the economics and design challenges tell us that once plastic goes out to see we must wait for it to sink or wash ashore.

The Seabin is also a great tool to use in a waste characterization analysis. With this device you can identify the most polluting items, types of plastic and brands. Is fast food packaging clogging the net? Which company? Is it film, foam, pellets, or is it straws, cups, chip bags? This information is great data to drive campaigns to find upstream solutions.

These upstream campaigns are the solutions with a lasting affect that make downstream technologies like the Seabin unnecessary, but for now we need them.

Policy is Essential to A Circular Economy

While we’re still celebrating the Federal Microbead Free Waters Act, signed by the president in the last days of 2015, this report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Plastic Economy, barely mentions the role of policy in solving the problem.  Good legislative policy levels the playing field and opens the door for innovation to replace poorly designed harmful plastics from society.  If you remember, plastic microbeads are those pesky little microplastics added to facial scrubs and toothpaste and were found in the Great Lakes by the millions. Efforts to inform the consumer and negotiate with producers had not worked. The plastics industries demonstrated they are unwilling to do it on their own. It took a legislative act to protect the environment from the polluting products. 



In a circular economy there are biological materials, like paper bags and popsicle sticks, that can be reabsorbed by nature, and technical materials, like circuit boards and plastic bottles, which must be recovered, dismantled and remanufactured into new products.  The problem with plastic is that  it’s a technical material stuck in the linear economy, in what we call the “Burn & Bury” model, with recovered plastic being largely landfilled or incinerated, and unrecovered plastic leaking into the environment.  Plastic is designed to resist all of nature’s mechanisms to degrade it, yet is being used for products and packaging designed to be thrown away.  In the linear economy there is loss and persistence in the environment at every step along the way, from poor product design to mismanaged waste, resulting in a ecological catastrophe of microplastic toxification, global dispersal and severe ecological impacts.



This is where policy must intervene.  When plastic microbeads were discovered in the Great Lakes in 2012, we went to Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson soon after a public facing campaign brought attention to the discovery.  With clear evidence pointing to their products, the reaction was the hiring of the Personal Care Product Lobby to defend a poorly designed plastic product, rather than innovate a solution to an obvious problem.  A policy campaign was the essential driver of design change.  It wasn’t a consumer awareness program or industry innovation, although examples of both played key roles.  It took the hard work of policymakers and campaigners to make the legislation happen.  With policy restricting the use of microbeads in consumer products, companies can operate on a level playing field, where innovation can thrive in a space where no one has a competitive advantage of relying on the status quo.

In this figure you see the circular economy feedback loop, where technical materials are recovered through recycling, reuse, and recovery through waste diversion.  Single-use throwaway plastics cannot exist in a circular economy because there is ease of loss to the environment and no incentive for recovery.  The loss of biological materials, like toothpicks, is inconsequential because they are benign, whereas the loss of technical materials, like plastic straws, are valueless as waste and become toxic to the environment over time. 

Look at all of the red boxes in the figure.  They represent the one-way linear economy, where plastic is made, consumed and eliminated through incineration or landfill, making room for more production from virgin materials.  In the Linear Economy, the “Burn & Bury” model, poorly designed single-use, throw away plastics are lost as litter, combined sewage overflow, escape waste collection systems, fly and float away from trash cans and landfills, and absorb and release toxicants along the way.  And when captured in the waste management system, the small volumes of plastic in products and packaging, laminates of mixed materials, or fouling by food and filth, make them worthless to recover.



Legislative policy is necessary to do what plastics industries are unwilling or unable to do on their own.  Innovative plastic alternatives are often too risky to introduce to the market when competitors still reap the benefit of consumer habit..   Consumer behavior is not a efficient driver to disincentivize consumption in the case of convenient, single-use, throw away plastics. Leadership must come from the collective will of industry to eliminate poor design.

We strongly disagree that increasing waste management infrastructure and incinerators, as suggested by the Ocean Conservancy report “Stemming the Tide”, will curb the loss of single-use, throw away plastic products and packaging. In a recent expedition to survey plastic marine pollution in the North Atlantic, ending in New York City, the last sample collected in the Hudson River showed the inefficiencies associated with the most efficient waste management infrastructure on the planet.  Small plastics, including gum wrappers, ear buds, tampon applicators, industrial pellets, and plastic toothpicks were more abundant in this sample than any other sample from the middle of the North Atlantic. 

What we have found is that by eliminating the single-use throw away product and packaging design, then re-design with efficient recovery in mind or use environmentally benign materials, nearly all of the leakage points, those red boxes in the figure, go away.  Policy intervention at the point of product and packaging design has the greatest benefit down the road.