Talking Turds with Surfers - A recap of the Global Wave Conference

Take all of the surf conservation organizations (Surfrider, Surfers Against Sewage, Save Our Surf, etc...), throw in a handful of scientists, artists, filmmakers, and some of the top surfers and big wave riders on the planet, and put them all in the water at one of the best surf spots in England, - you get total stoke mayhem.  The conversations were as much informative as they were direct calls to action—from buying coastal land to spearheading legislation. What was clear from this conference is that surfers are united and their collective power is growing.

The image of the stoned bohemian in a VW van is replaced today by lawyers, teachers, engineers, CEOs, politicians with sandy wetsuits drying in the trunk of their cars. Surfers are a collective force, with saving our seas in their hearts and minds.

On the last day on the conference I had the opportunity to interview Ramon Navarro.  Ramon is one of the world's most talented big wave surfers with a mission. He is working with Save the Waves to conserve as much of the Chilean coastline as possible within his lifetime, starting with "Punta Lobos".  Their goal is to acquire and protect 23 coastal acres, and it’s working. Learn more about supporting them here.

As Ramon and I stood on the beach, the tide flowed in at the pace of a slow walk, and a woman in her 70’s climbed out of the water holding a wooden board.  "This was my mothers surfboard," she explained, " it’s around 80 years old and doing just fine.”  We marveled at the simplicity and efficiency of this pre-plastic invention. 



Now the conference was over and like clockwork, at 5 pm EVERYONE from the conference got in the water; sometimes 20 people on the same wave surfing and laughing.  The sunset followed by pizza, beer and a few guitars in the hotel bar.

At 8:00 am 30 of us were on the bus for London, dressed in suit and tie for the House of Parliament, where two MPs are supporting legislation to protect more British coastline, but also to stop the horrible discharge of raw sewage into the ocean called "Combined Sewage Overflow" or CSO.  In the UK it's the folks from Surfers Against Sewage, known for their inflatable turd, that are fed up with getting sick from being in the water and are working to flush this problem away.



5 Gyres is well aware of sewage overflow. Our 2015 Sea Change expedition, we sailed 3,000 miles in the N. Atlantic and collected our biggest and ugliest sample in the Hudson River.  It was full of condoms, tampon applicators, cigar tips, plastic toothpicks, a few straws and little drug baggies – really nasty stuff.



Sick of this $H!T? Are you finding these objects washing ashore on your local beach?  Then is possible that your city has a century-old sewage treatment system and is dumping raw sewage into your local waterway.  Here’s what you can do:

1.    Contact your local sewage treatment facility and ask them if they discharge combined sewage overflow, when do they do it, under what conditions, and if they have a system to warn the public.  Also, ask if there are future plans to update city plumbing to treat all waste.

2.    What’s the common plastic item you see?  Why is a tampon applicator with a high likelihood to be flushed down the toilet, made from plastic?  Why a plastic toothpick, or Q-tip?  These are design flaws and are objects to target because of the design flaw.  These products are where campaigns can start.




Plastic research in the Artic

As the co-founder of 5 Gyres Institute, I’ve seen trash in the world’s oceans, but there are huge data gaps, like the Arctic.  Our team decided to make a dozen copies of our research equipment and now loan this equipment to other scientists and sailors. One couple, Matt Rutherford and Nicole Trenholm, founders of the Ocean Research Project, have a trawl. They report here from the Arctic, with photos of trawling around Icebergs and the realities of waste management in the most remote human settlements on the planet.  Read more below.

By Matt Rutherford

I hear the leaves are starting to change color back in Annapolis.  There are no trees in Greenland (except the far south) but it is starting to get dark at night.  The darkness brings the cold and it’s not uncommon to wake up in the morning and have ice on the boat.  Our heaters are all in a state of rebellion so we live with the cold, unless the engines on.  My friend Micha told me to buy and install a car heater from Summit racing, which I did before we left. Just like your car, when our engine heats up we can heat our boat, but when the engine is off it gets cold again.  Nikki told me “I’ve been colder spending the winter on a boat in Annapolis” so she’s fine with the situation. Next year we will have different heaters.  

The darkness completely changes how we can operate in the Arctic.  Normally sailing at night is nearly the same as sailing in the day, I’ve spent more nights at sea than I can remember.   Mix the darkness with ice and now you have a very dangerous situation.  So we get up before the sun and get underway as it rises, then we drop anchor before it sets.  We have been reduced to doing day hops from one anchorage to another (I just make up the anchorages day to day depending on wind direction).  At best we can only make 50-60 miles a day so it’s been slow.
We have also been getting stronger winds which makes it difficult to trawl for micro plastics.

Like most research when trawling for micro plastics you really want calm conditions.  If there is a strong sea state the waves hit the trawl and splash water in front of its mouth pushing away the micro plastics which float on the surface. This will completely screw up your “how much micro plastics per square kilometer” average.  We have had a little success.  It’s impossible to say exactly what we have found at this point as the samples will need to be processed by Nicole in a lab back in the states, but we have found lots of bits of Styrofoam in the water. 

A research trawl gathering microplastics

A research trawl gathering microplastics

Styrofoam is horrible stuff but it’s cheap to make and therefor cheap to buy.  We love when things are cheap and convenient, hell we’re obsessed with it. I think we should ban Styrofoam, is it really that bad to spend a slightly larger amount of money on a less destructive material?  
The bits of Styrofoam are not coming from Greenland but some of the floating trash is.  They really struggle with waste in Greenland.  Most of the trash gets burned locally and most of the trash dumps are right on the water.  A strong gust of wind comes and there goes some trash in the water.  They really are trying to deal with it but it’s such a difficult landscape and for thousands of years they didn’t produce any waste. In Greenland we only throw away our trash in the larger towns that have better trash burning facilities.  To throw your trash away in a small town would be disrespectful. 

The issue of waste is tied directly to one of the most difficult issues we have, over population.  Over population is so difficult because there is no good strategy to deal with it.  You can’t say “you can only have one child” to the entire world.  There are twice as many people on earth as there was in 1960 when JFK was president.  Every single person uses resources and produces waste.  Some people are worse than others, but every person has some impact on this planet.  In the end we might use so many resources and produce so much waste that billions of people die because of it, but that’s a terrible way of dealing with over population. 

Over consumption is also a big problem.  In the United States we consume so many resources and produce so much waste that if the entire world lived like we do it would take three planet earths to sustain the current population.  We are the most influential country on earth, we could use that influence to teach the world to live in a state of equilibrium with our environment, but we don’t. 

All of this has very little to do with us.  It has to do with our children and grandchildren.  What kind of world do you want to leave the future generations of your family?  We have been lucky to live in a time when the earth is still relatively pristine but things are changing for the worst very quickly.  I don’t have a bleeding heart and I don’t hug trees but I can understand the damage we are doing to our planet. 

It wasn’t that long ago that I read in the news that there are 50% less mammals, birds, and fish on earth than there were in 1970.  Things are already changing but it’s not about saving the planet. The planets not going anywhere, it will continue to turn. We need to save ourselves from ourselves. 99.9% of all life that has existed throughout the history of our planet is now extinct. If we don’t want to become a statistic we need to use that big brain of ours and figure out a way convince people to live more responsibly.  If we don’t start making changes things are going to get very bad for our future generations.
Fortitudine Vincinimus

4 controversies in fixing the plastic pollution problem


Everyone agrees that plastic doesn’t belong in the oceans, but once it comes to solutions there is a Great Divide, like a rising rift between to tectonic plates. The producers and manufactures are on one side and environmental NGO’s, policymakers and scientists on the other, with a few exceptions on both sides.  It doesn’t have to be this way, but until a great shift occurs in the core values of the biggest petrochemical companies in the world, these two camps will persist.

One month ago, following our published estimate, the 5 Gyres Institute was invited by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to meet in their Washington DC headquarters to discuss where we stood on future research and solutions. Anna and I are the co-founders of the 5 Gyres Institute, and sat with 4 wonderful people, but quickly we had each other pegged.  The ACC is the largest lobby group representing the interests of over 200 plastic producers and manufacturers.  Akin to an awkward blind date, we let the conversation wander from one subject to another, identifying what we didn’t have in common, though there was some agreement over river systems that capture plastic before it reaches the sea.  Lines in the sand were drawn on recycling, product phase-outs and extended producer responsibility (EPR).


While the ACC says, “We represent plastic producers, not the product,” they actively spend millions of dollars to defend products, like plastic bags. They also repeatedly said, “We strongly favor increased recycling opportunities,” yet they do not demand their member companies design recyclable products.

Recycling is undeniably part of the solution, yet there are thousands of products that by design are either not recyclable or escape recovery. Though we agree we should increase recycling efforts, there must also be a design overhaul for hundreds of products and their packaging. Foamed polystyrene in food packaging is both a health concern and an unrecyclable material on all practical measures. Laminates of paper, plastic and metal are worthless to recyclers. Plastic bags, straws, plastic coffee stirsticks, cup lids, and a long list of single-use throw away products, are both costly to taxpayers to cleanup, and are poorly represented or non-existent in the recycled waste stream. They don’t get captured. These bad designs slip through the cracks of the most efficient waste management systems on the planet and become environmental pollutants.  If the ACC could commit to requiring their member companies “Design for recovery”, or choose environmentally harmless materials, which we call “Benign by Design”, then we would have plastic waste back in the loop and not in the sea.

Recycling only works when you build systems that incentivize recovery.


When I’m asked, “What can one person do to make a difference on this issue?” I always say, “Look at your grocery list and only buy what you can sort into compost and recyclables.” Waste diversion begins with commitments from municipalities and citizens to support the infrastructure to sort waste. Cities like San Francisco and Portland are witnessing lower costs to taxpayers and less hazardous waste to deal with, as their waste diversion rates increase.

On the other hand, some cities are choosing to co-mingle and incinerate waste as a short-term solution with big-picture and long-term higher costs. Waste to Energy typically begins with high-heat combustion of trash, resulting in the formation of hazardous compounds, like dioxins and furans, which are either captured by scrubbers or not. 5 years ago we sailed to Bermuda and asked the incinerator manager, “Why don’t you have scrubbers on your smokestacks?”  He explained that if he filled 55-gallon drums with the hazardous by-products captured from burning waste, what would we do with it?  Where would we put it?”  It’ the pollution solution by dilution, which doesn’t work with 7 billion people on a small planet. The long-term cost of Waste to Energy is the undesirable choice of either “release and pollute”, or “capture and store” those compounds.

The Big Picture cost is the loss of material from a circular system. Paper, plastic, other organics become atmospheric CO2 instead of recaptured materials, and metals are either lost as useless slag or a mixed metal alloy that’s more costly to separate than sorted cans. In the long run, building infrastructure for sorting pays off in cheaper waste management and cleaner, healthier communities.


In Oct. 2014 I joined Expedition Plastik departing from Bali, Indonesia, and witnessed a steady stream of large plastic objects, including bags, bottles, caps, utensils, straws and flip-flops drifting into the Indian Ocean.  Undeniably, there is a need for waste management here, including waste & recycling bins, modern MRF’s and landfills, and citizen education.  As one billion people living in China and India will join the middle class by the first quarter of this century, they want the same opportunity, comfort and convenience Western societies have enjoyed for the last half-century.  Improved waste management is essential, but the best waste management systems in the world today will not capture the worst designed products.

The company Unilever celebrated the ‘sachet pack’, which looks like two business card-size sheets of plastic with a small portion of product sandwiched in the middle, ranging from a pinch of coffee to a few drops of shampoo. The benefit of delivering product to a below-poverty market that cannot afford large quantities of anything, is overshadowed by the mountains of trash from billions of sachet packs in the rivers, gutters and empty lots in communities across Asia, India, Africa and S. America.  A great idea in delivering a product failed to deliver it in the right package, when considering its full lifecycle. This is a perfect opportunity for change, where a phase-out coupled with an X-prize for an innovative replacement would have a huge impact.

The ACC has a motto, “Plastic: Too Valuable to Waste.” To be true to this motto, they must phase-out product and packaging designs that evade capture in waste management and recycling infrastructure.  Last year in Delhi, India I shadowed a wastepicker on a bicycle all day to learn what he does and does not pick up.  We stopped when he saw a bottle under a bush, but rode past straws, chai cups, sauce packs, and sachet packs. The list of products that need to be phased-out is easy to assemble. He’s the sanitation engineer that can tell you what plastics are worth picking up, and which ones are “Too Wasteful to Value.”


You could say it began with a crying Native American, Iron Eyes Cody, the one in the Keep America Beautiful adds in the 1970’s, a program funded by the same companies who made the plastic stuff along roadsides he was crying about. The tagline in the print add reads, “People start pollution. People can stop it,” with the blame effectively placed on the citizen. The term, “litter bug” evolved here.  At the same time, soda companies began to centralize their bottling operations and switch to plastic. They began shutting down glass bottle redemption programs, while also shifting recycling efforts to municipal solid waste management. Instead of getting a nickel per bottle, the consumer/tax-payer now gets taxed that nickel back and more to manage city-run recycling and waste management programs.

Today, despite the tremendous success of bottle redemption programs, CocaCola aggressively rises against bottle bills worldwide. Simultaneously, the American Chemistry Council fights EPR legislation, with their messaging focused on consumer behavior being the problem. Their descriptor of plastic in the ocean as “marine litter” and not pollution, is indicative of a perspective skewed toward diverting responsibility to the ‘behavior’ of the consumer rather than the ‘design’ of the product itself.

What ideal producer responsibility looks like is incentivized recovery. If you ‘Make It’ then you’ve got to ‘Take It’ back from your customer. This could be a subsidized refund, for example: 5 cents per kilo for mixed, dry and clean plastic of any kind. Or the product becomes the currency for the next same purchase, like an old shoe becomes a % discount for the next one.  Whatever the scheme, if it doesn’t work, then a commitment to environmentally harmless materials must prevail. That means no plastic in some design applications.


As companies begin to feel the squeeze, that’s the pressure from resource scarcity and public scrutiny of social and environmental abuse within their supply chain, they determine their fate by their reaction.  Andrew Winston says in clearly in The Big Pivot (2014).

“I’m not against markets, making money, or even making a lot of money.  But we can’t prioritize short-term profit maximization and an idealized version of markets over ensuring our prosperity and survival.  If we don’t make solving the problems of climate change and resource scarcity the core pursuit of business and society, we won’t be maximizing value, or even profits, at all – we’ll be ensuring a great deal of pain, scarcity, and human and financial loss.”

There is tremendous leadership out there.  Products like ChicoBag and Klean Kanteen show that heirloom products that replace the Throw Away culture can be thriving companies. Packaging 2.0, a producer of PET plastic products has put the health of the ocean at equal concern to the profit motive, and can also claim to be the first B Corporation (Benefit) in Rhode Island, with a mission to support innovation, education and prevention efforts that keep plastic out of the sea.  In 2010 Anna and I had the opportunity to meet with Robert McDonald, former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, where we learned that they were working with Brazilian companies turning sugar cane fiber into bioplastics in order to decrease their dependence of fossil fuels to make their plastic bottles for hundreds of products.  These are steps in the right direction.

What we ask of the ACC is to consider the changing values their member companies are aspiring to live up to and adopt them as the requirement for membership.  The ACC’s stated mission is “to deliver business value through exceptional advocacy using best-in-class member performance, political engagement, communications and scientific research,” but the definition of ‘business value’ is changing fast.  Nations and corporations are moving toward Zero Waste economies, carbon neutral, and even environmentally and socially restorative. Specifically, we ask the ACC to:

Will 5 Gyres meet with the ACC again? Why wouldn’t we? But let's begin the conversation with core values.  It all starts there.

Fragile Fiji: Plastic pollution in Pacific paradise

by Kayla Grattan 

This past May, I had the incredible opportunity to study abroad with an amazing group of fellow students and faculty from Michigan State University on the remote and pristine islands of Fiji. Here we looked at tourism, marine ecosystems, and agriculture through the lens of climate change, and saw firsthand the extreme effects the South Pacific is experiencing. These are issues I am incredibly passionate about, and I started getting involved with 5 Gyres this past March to help spread awareness and implement local policy changes. I learned more about the global issue of plastic pollution than I ever thought I could, including unforeseen twists and the multiple layers of this environmental problem.    

The group of 14 Michigan State University Students before embarking on a snorkeling trip to Rainbow Reef, just off the coast of Taveuni island. 

The group of 14 Michigan State University Students before embarking on a snorkeling trip to Rainbow Reef, just off the coast of Taveuni island. 


Fiji is an absolute paradise.  With lush rainforests, spectacular waterfalls, gorgeous mountains, and beaches that one of my classmates accurately likened to a “real life Desktop wallpaper” it was hard not to fall in love immediately.  When we arrived in country, our first week was spent on the island of Taveuni. We stayed in the rural village of Waitabu, where we got to immerse ourselves for 6 days in real, raw, beautiful Fiji. This is the third largest of the archipelago’s 333 islands, and known as the ‘garden island’ due to its lush vegetation, fresh, clean air, and productive soils.  Taveuni’s coral reefs are home to some of the absolute best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world, with over 390 species of coral and 1500 species of fish, a dream come true to the marine inclined.  But unfortunately, we had to snap back to reality. As the ominous plastic bag I spotted floating near the hull of the ship on our way to the island foreshadowed, it did not take long to discover that this otherwise pristine country was no exception to the way the rest of the world is looking: littered with trash. It was tucked everywhere, from the tiniest pieces and fragments to the most conspicuous of elements.  Along streets, in rivers and forests, and of course, on beaches.  

While helping with coastal erosion control projects, we had to dig through plastic debris to plant trees along beaches and river banks.

While helping with coastal erosion control projects, we had to dig through plastic debris to plant trees along beaches and river banks.

One of the nights in the village, I was strolling the beach and began to pick up small plastic fragments.  Rapidly these small pieces turned into finding much larger items like beverage containers, shoes, and buckets, so much that my classmates had to help me carry it all back.  Upon my return I asked one of our guides what I should do with it all.  She then informed me that in Fiji, the method of disposal for plastic rubbish was to burn it, and my heart sank.  I felt so stupid: how was I expecting to properly dispose of the plastics I found?  This wasn’t a popular American beach where you can simply take the recovered items to a nearby recycling center.  Burning plastic waste creates toxic fumes, which I learned from one of our guides has been linked to birth defects in villages.  What was I supposed to do?  Leave them in the water to meet the same fate as all ocean plastics?  Or bring them to shore only to be burned as if they’re firewood.  I was at an environmental and moral crossroads, and learned that studying this problem here was going to require me to look at the situation a little differently, and perhaps more positively.  

On the brighter side

Fijian women holding their handcrafted purses made from strips of plastic snack packaging.

Fijian women holding their handcrafted purses made from strips of plastic snack packaging.

One thing I noticed in Fiji that I certainly did not expect to see was the country’s incredible ability to reuse.  Plastic containers that would certainly be considered “single use” and “disposable” by our standards were used over and over again.  I saw water bottles used to pot plants and store knickknacks, milk jugs as canteens, and assorted plastics used to carry water.  My personal favorite example of reuse and upcycling were small purses and pencil cases made by weaving strips of potato chip bags that local women were selling.  (I, of course, had to buy one)  It got me thinking about this underlying reuse mentality – a spirit of sustainability and that we’ve long forgotten in the states.  This spirit replaced by our throwaway culture, which is quickly catching up to us and our oceans.  What if we all used our things like the people in Fiji?  To use and value our things to their chemistry given potential, rather than to toss them as soon as their design constitutes that they become garbage?  As a fortunately growing number of people are realizing, this is a question that the world needs to look into.


A photo of myself from the landfill on Taveuni. 

A photo of myself from the landfill on Taveuni. 

To cap off our stay on Taveuni, and the bulk of my independent study, we participated in a group cleanup effort sponsored by Nakia Resort and Dive, an ecotourism operation run by the Kelly family, of whom we got so spend some very quality time with on the island.  The Kellys started the informal ‘Keep Taveuni Clean’ movement 8 years ago and it has grown from its humble beginnings to an island wide success.  They host regular town cleanups and environmental education programs, and each year it is topped off with an annual music festival themed around sustainability and environmental appreciation.  
Our group of students and staff joined locals, Nakia staff, and other tourists to help cleanup downtown Somosomo, filling two truck cabs full of rubbish that we took later on to the island’s landfill.  This landfill is the only one of its kind on the 434 kilometers of Taveuni, and is nothing compared to what we are used to seeing in the United States.  Only a few years old, the Kellys actually used their own excavator to create it, after intensely lobbying the government for permission to use the area.  By regularly taking the town’s waste to this landfill, they are changing old trash-burning and ocean-dumping mindsets, and making a huge difference in how the locals see litter and garbage.  The Kelly family, Nakia Resort and Dive, and the Keep Taveuni Clean movement are making great strides to help preserve the country’s unmatched natural beauty.  

My experiences studying in Fiji were absolutely unforgettable, and I was able to look at the plastic pollution problem in a dynamic, cultural, and global way that I was never able to do back in the states.  Before embarking on this journey, I thought I knew all there was to know about plastic pollution and its causes.  At home, it seems the hot topics that the plastic crusaders like myself are focusing on are microbeads, Keurig cups, straws, and other examples of senseless single use plastics. (Focusing on these for good reason, of course)  While in Fiji and many other countries, it’s totally socially acceptable to burn garbage or throw it directly into the ocean, something unheard of to us in the states.  As a whole, we are not all on the same page when it comes to this issue, and this is easy to forget.  No matter where you are on our earth, there is room for improvement and change, for the sake of the oceans, the land, and all of the creatures that call this planet home.  Through studying one of humanity’s ugliest problems, I came out of it having learned a beautiful lesson.   

The Spartans once more, this time pictured with Julie Kelly, bottom right in green, Robin Kelly, far right in blue, the driving force behind Keep Taveuni Clean, and the locals and tourists that helped with the cleanup that day. 

The Spartans once more, this time pictured with Julie Kelly, bottom right in green, Robin Kelly, far right in blue, the driving force behind Keep Taveuni Clean, and the locals and tourists that helped with the cleanup that day. 

5 Gyres invited to Chile by US Embassy

Santiago, Chile

Santiago, Chile

The 5 Gyres Institute, upon invitation from the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile, was able to tour three cities in Chile to share our research findings and strategies for solutions. We spoke at two universities, two international schools, had meetings with WWF, ASIPLA (plastics industry), Cambiaso (plastic bag recycler), Fundacion de Chile, Fundacion del Mar, Harvard Rockerfeller Center for Latin American Studies, and the Chilean Antarctic Institute. These meetings have opened doors for future high-level collaborations on education and research objectives. Research may include ecological impacts of plastic pollution along coastal Chile, citizen science monitoring of microplastics, and exploration of microplastic migration into coastal Antarctica. Education opportunities may include an International Youth Summit in Coquimbo in 2017, which would bring 100 youth from across Chile and the US to learn about plastic pollution solutions.  

Here in Punta Arenas, Chile, on the bank of the Strait of Magellan, you can almost see Tierra del Fuego, the "End of the World". A little further south and then next landfall is Antarctica. These waters are where the S. Atlantic and S. Pacific meet, where one subtropical gyre pours into another. I took a short walk along the bank of the strait after this morning's talk at the University of Magallanes. What I'm struck with is how ubiquitous the problems of plastic pollution are around the world.  There are problems of waste management, problems of poorly designed products and problems of poor public awareness.  It's the same triad of responsibility: government, industry, people.

I sat with the Chilean director of WWF Ricardo Bosshard at the university to talk about plastic pollution with an audience of students.  I was impressed to learn more about the Chilean national EPR bill.  Referred to as Responsabilidad Extendida del Productor (REP), it is hotly contested, but a huge step above many countries around the world.  REP puts the industries that create plastic packaging and products responsible for the recovery of their materials.  The challenge, everyone says is, "People are so geographically spread out over the country, that it's difficult to get waste or recyclables back to where they can be managed."  This echoes a comment from Susan Collins, director of the Container Recycling Institute, who told me in a meeting last month, "Recycling isn't a problem of technology.  It's a problem of transportation.

While Punta Arenas has banned plastic bags, they have almost no recycling infrastructure, which frustrates some of the student groups I met that want to start programs on their campuses but don't want to see their collected and sorted materials go to the eventual dump.  But the REP has the potential to be a nation-wide game changer.  One element of it seems to be able to address the problem of transportation from remote places, like Punta Arenas, by holding producers of goods  responsible for the recovery of a volume of plastic relative to their production.  The idea is that a company monetarily incentivizes recovery of plastic, which would give anyone anywhere the motivation to collect and store their plastic until  there's enough to deliver to where it can be managed, likely in capital city Santiago.

What this aspect of REP will also do is motivate producers to design easier systems of recovery or design products with less packaging so that they simply don't have to deal with recovery. Either way, REP stands to be a potential model for the International community to deal with plastic pollution.

Should companies have to recover their plastic? An EPR discussion.

By Marcus Eriksen

5 Gyres sat with the president of ASIPLA, the Chilean version of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the company Cambiaso, the largest plastic bag recycler in South America to hear how they want to frame the National Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bill. We heard familiar arguments about waste management and recycling and opposition to product bans. The big questions is: is the role of brand manufacturers to get their stuff back.      

The bill is called “Responsabilidad Extendida del Productor” (REP) and was generated when Chilean government proposed a “Green Tax” applying to consumer goods, but with little clarity on how funds will be spent. Plastic producers and manufactures got ahead of the game by aggressively promoting REP. 

In 2012 Chile made 16.5 million tons of total waste. 10 million tons was industrial waste from leftover material from manufacturing and packaging. 90% of that plastic was recovered. But of 6.5 million tons of consumer waste, a dismal .35% was recovered. In Chile, landfills and illegal dumping appear to be the norm. 

The Chilean REP bill will hold retailers responsible to get a quota of their brands' product back. Than means CocaCola, Pepsico, Walmart, Unilever, etc. must get back a % of their stuff, otherwise there are steep fines. This is expected to drive two ideas – increased recovery and increased valuation. 

1. Increased recovery means your company is required by law to meet a target quota for product and packaging recovery, and that incentivizes companies to make the recovery of their product efficient. 

2. Increased valuation means that once companies have their hands full of their post-consumer products, they have to dispose of it. There’s value if it’s designed for easy material recovery, otherwise there is going to be a disposal cost. 

ASIPLA suggests these two concepts in REP will drive innovation. Small plastic items difficult to recover, like microbeads in cosmetics, plastic bags that are lightweight and subject to wind, or small sauce packets, will need a design overhaul. This also applies to multi-material packaging that’s difficult to separate, like laminates of paper, metals and plastic found in tetra paks and bubble packs for medicines, or plastic/paper composites found in coffee cups. REP favors innovations like uniform materials in products, or designs that do not escape into the environment easily. ASIPLA and Cambiaso say this makes product bans unnecessary.  

5 Gyres disagrees. We’ve just witnessed microbeads become banned in California, sure to create a market ripple around the world for a product that pollutes the environment with no plan for recovery. The other, and more contentious, are plastic bag bans. A ban is necessary for two good reasons:

1. The cleanup cost is too much for municipalities. When San Francisco banned the bag, they figured it cost them 17 cents per bag to pull them from trees, out of storm drains and off of beaches. With a very modern waste management system and a high public awareness of the problem, the plastic bag, by design, still escaped the system.

2. Escaped bags in the environment are dangerous. Plastics in the ocean shred rapidly into microplastics. They absorb toxins, and scientists agree ocean plastics should be labeled as a hazardous substance. The distribution of microplastics is global and the impacts are ecosystem-wide. They are too dangerous to tolerate their loss to the environment, and that means bags must go.  

In anticipation of REP, some companies are developing voluntary and incentivized recovery systems to capture plastic waste in order to help companies meet their future quota. One company, Triciclos, has created over 60 kiosks across Chile to collect and sort branded products and packaging. I visited one Triciclos kiosk, where a steady stream of consumers voluntarily deliver their plastics, paper, glass and metal. You dump your stuff in a dozen holes in the wall, of which 6 are for plastic. Look at the white square in the middle of this photo centered on the orange panel labeled “PS”. It says, “Yogurt containers are not permitted.” I asked a rep from Triciclos, “Are you talking to the yogurt companies about meeting their quota with a better design?” He pointed to a sign that lists what they do and do not take. “Once REP happens, these companies will figure it out on their own. In the case of yogurt cups, they only need to change the glue on the label.”    

Chilean REP has the potential to be and international model, but that depends on how it meets the bottom line. Will there be reductions in volumes of landfill waste? Will changes in product and packaging design affect the type and abundance of trash in the environment? Will those two innovation drivers (Increased recovery and valuation) actually work? 

I took this photo of bags in the trees 5 days ago in Punta Arenas, next to the Strait of Magellan at the southern end of the world. When I return to Chile, which I certainly will do again and again, will I be able to take the same photo bag-free? We’ll see.

Why the Ocean Clean Up Project Won't Save Our Seas

Decades-old notions of mythical plastic islands and garbage patches invoked hundreds of cleanup schemes, like the Dutch organization ‘Ocean Cleanup Project’s’ (OCP) 60km-wide Net Array. While the media sensationalism in the early 2000’s created plenty of public outcry, we still today battle misconceptions about the efficacy of ocean cleanup. The latest effort of OCP in the N. Pacific and the subsequent public messaging warrant a reminder of the latest science on the issue and some constructive feedback moving forward. 

Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Project’s “Net Array.” Photo credit: Ocean Cleanup Project

Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Project’s “Net Array.” Photo credit: Ocean Cleanup Project

While capture and reclamation of ocean plastics are attractively simple, and can be justified for recovering navigational hazards from lost fishing nets and line, our research has ultimately led us to believe that these types of concepts are not an effective approach to deal with plastic pollution. The 5 Gyres Institute with 8 other colleagues have conducted 24 ocean expeditions (more than 100k ocean miles over 7 years!) producing the first global estimate of all plastics in all oceans. As a result 5 Gyres strongly advocates upstream design and policy solutions to clean up the oceans. 

You’ve got to love the Dutch and their marvelous technical approach to managing the ocean, with dams, docks and dredges making their life below sea-level warm and cozy. We met one such engineer, Dutch astronaut Wubbo Johannes Ockels, back in 2010 aboard the Stad Amsterdam studying plastic in the middle of the Indian Ocean Gyre. We listened to him describe giant man-made plastic trash islands in the shape of pinwheels that would spin with the aid of large wind-driven parachutes, catching more plastic and creating more real estate for people to live on. Boyan Slat, founder of OCP, explained his alternate idea to us over dinner in Amsterdam two years later as a 60 kilometer-wide net and boom system that passively captures drifting plastic. With wide public support he remains undeterred, despite wide criticism from the scientific community on mechanical design and ecological impacts. OCP has now completed a journey across the N. Pacific with 30 vessels, called the Mega Expedition.  We respect and admire innovation, but feel the need to offer some important suggestions. 

1) Ecological Impacts MUST be thoroughly evaluated.

After our meeting in Amsterdam with OCP, then again in Long Beach, we both participated in an online webinar to discuss the efficacy of the Net Array, with it’s 60km sweeping arms.

OCP’s feasibility study acknowledges that neutrally buoyant marine life will sink and go under the net. When asked during the webinar about the passive floating organisms that do not swim, Mr. Slat was not aware of them. The potential for ‘bycatch’ is too great to be ignored.   Organisms like the beautiful purple janthina snail, rafting barnacles, and numerous jellies, like the wind-driven velella velella, could amount to tens of millions of organisms captured over a short time.  

Janthina snail with a common jellyfish called “By the Wind Sailor." Photo credit: Peter Parks / Norbert Wu Productions

      Gooseneck barnacle on it’s own raft

The solution here is to produce a proper Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from an outside agency. Though we’re thoroughly impressed with Slat’s ‘big picture’ thinking, he must conform to the ethical standards of any structural development of this magnitude. Knowing the full environmental impact of his project is currently missing from the OCP plan.

2) New science calls for new directions.

There are no islands of plastic, rather a smog of plastic pervades the oceans. The last four years have produced more research publications on plastic marine pollution than the previous 4 decades. We understand the problem differently. Our study estimates 269K tons from 5.25 trillion particles globally, of which an astounding 92% were particles smaller than a grain of rice, or microplastic. An earlier global study of microplastics showed a 100x less on the sea surface than expected, supporting our understanding that the sea surface is not the final resting place. Researchers have now found microplastic and synthetic fibers frozen into ice cores, abundant on the sea floor, and on every beach worldwide. Along the way it passes through the bodies of billions of organisms.  We now understand that the ocean is moving our trash toward the subtropical gyres, shredding it into microplastic, and then distributing it worldwide above and below the waves.

Map of 5.25 trillion plastic particles in the world’s oceans. Photo credit: Laurent Lebreton

Map of 5.25 trillion plastic particles in the world’s oceans. Photo credit: Laurent Lebreton

3) Ocean recovery efforts are “too late” in the game to capture most of the trash.    

The OCP’s Net Array is "too late" in the pathway of trash. The science of plastic in the ocean shows us that the plastic entering the ocean is shredding rapidly into microplastic.  It's mostly small stuff out in the gyres, except for large persistent fishing gear.  OCP will mostly capture fishing gear, which is designed to persist at sea (the Mega Expedition has demonstrated this). 

Nations are clamoring to stop the flow of trash in their rivers, based on a recent study by Jenna Jambeck identifying the individual contributions of plastic pollution from 192 countries. Jambeck estimates 4-12 million tons of plastic washing down the world’s rivers.  OCP’s recovery innovations, if brought upstream, will capture more plastic before it degrades and impacts marine life, and more than likely at less cost than the Net Array.

What’s out there now is leaving the gyres faster than we think.  Drifting balls of tar give us some precedent to understand this.  Tarballs were polluting beaches worldwide a lot more in the 1970s than today. As soon as international Maritime Law in the 1980’s stopped oil tankers from washing out oil residues into the sea, we witnessed a rapid decline in tarballs on beaches. The plastic out there now will not be on the surface forever, with the likely endgame being the seafloor.

4) It is worthwhile going after the MACROplastic that’s out there now?

Yes, the navigational hazards created by derelict fishing gear costs the maritime industry 100’s of millions of dollars annually and warrant some action.   At the same time, large plastics are rapidly becoming microplastics, with horrible repercussions for marine life.

From our global estimate research we found that only 8% of the plastic objects in the ocean are macroplastics larger than a grain of rice. Although that 8% represents most of the weight of trash in the ocean, more than 70% of it is derelict fishing gear (lost nets, line and buoys). It’s useful to capture what’s out there before it becomes microplastics or damages vessels.  In the recent 2015 G7 meeting in Germany, plastic marine pollution solutions were put on the table, including Fishing for Litter as the only viable ocean cleanup program, and described as “a useful last option in the hierarchy, but can only address certain types of marine litter.” (

World leaders at the 2015 G7 meeting in Germany. Photo credit: AFP

World leaders at the 2015 G7 meeting in Germany. Photo credit: AFP

When Mr. Slat and I had our webinar last summer I asked him at the very end, “Of the $2 million you’ve raised so far, would you consider funding a small incentivize recovery program, like Fishing for Litter in the N. Pacific to see if fishermen could collect more trash at sea, more efficiently and cheaper, than you can?" What we know is that similar incentivized recovery programs are proving to be successful in the North Sea and around Scotland.  In Korea a $10 incentive per 100 liter bag of trash picked up by fishermen is working. But again, this is only a temporary solution.  

We advocate solutions to derelict fishing gear that create Extended Producer Responsibility - EPR, like net tagging or lease programs for fishing fleets, where nets, buoys and lines are borrowed and returned, and heavy fines if lost.

Mr. Slat replied to my question with "no."

5) The Mega Expedition’s claims need to be revisited

All data is useful data. Based on an idea suggested by Charles Moore last year when we all sat down in Long Beach, CA, Slat has arranged for 30 boats to sail from Hawaii back to the west coast of North America. OCP claims is has collected more data than all previous science work in the last 40 years and will provide the most updated analysis of plastic in the world's oceans.  Both of these statements need clarification.   First, the last 40 years amounts to 11,000 samples. There is simply not enough time for 30 boats in 3 weeks to closely match this.  Second, this is not a global analysis.  It is a snapshot of the ocean in one place, in one month, in one year, and is heavily biased by the 2011 Japanese Tsunami.

OCP is surveying the one place in the ocean where oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko has predicted the debris field from the 2011 Japanese Tsunami now resides. OCP is measuring the effects of a catastrophic event – a plastic pollution anomaly.

When 5 Gyres and Algalita teamed up to sail from Tokyo to Hawaii in 2012, we studied the sub-surface debris field of tsunami debris, and found plenty of it.  Thanks to modeling work done by the IPRC, we knew very well that by 2015-16 all of what we saw would be in the accumulation zone between Hawaii and California, where the Mega Expedition has surveyed. 

2011 Tsunami debris movement mapping. Credit: International Pacific Research Center

2011 Tsunami debris movement mapping. Credit: International Pacific Research Center

The one significant scientific contribution that OCP can make is to compare the 2015 Mega Expedition snapshot data to all previous data in the same region to see how early levels of plastic marine pollution compare to the catastrophic event that he is sampling now.  

Constructive Suggestions for OCP

1.  Consider moving the Net Array upstream to capture trash before it fragments.

Many countries around the world deploying structures of all kinds to catch trash downstream, from nets to waterwheels, with the last stop at river mouths. OCP could contribute their engineering expertise to the growing industry designing systems to tackle waste upstream. 

Downriver plastic waterwheel collection system in U.S.

Downriver plastic collection net system in Australia.

2.  OCP must produce a thorough Environmental Impact Report. 

There is the potential for the Net Array to capture significant bycatch, therefore a thorough EIR from an outside agency is necessary.

3.  Examine alternatives. 

It would be a cost effective exercise to support an incentivized program for fisherman to recover plastic pollution in the region where OCP plans to deploy the Net Array. It may prove to do a better job.  It is likely that Hawaiian fisherman would gladly collect derelict fishing gear if given 1 euro/kilo, which is a fraction of OCP’s 4.5 euro/kilo anticipated cost/benefit of the net. It's worth a try. 

Also, consider supporting a net lease program with a commercial fishing fleet. Because derelict fishing gear is the most abundant and most damaging to marine life and ocean navigation, this upstream solution is long-term and only beginning to be implemented.

4. Support Design Change and EPR

Consider supporting other upstream solutions, like EPR and product design, in order to reduce the trash load heading downriver. One of our Dutch heroes are the Plastic Soup Foundation, which were the first to campaign for the removal of plastic microbeads from consumer products. 

We want to encourage innovation from people like Boyan Slat, but with the guidance of good, open-minded, pragmatic science. What we know about the problem has changed drastically since OCP first proposed the Net Array. We believe that the public will support a shift in priorities if presented well and reflects wide scientific agreement and collaboration.  Willingness to change course with new information is admirable, and I think OCP’s funders will appreciate that.

In the meantime, we welcome a dialogue, even another public webinar like the one we had last year to address these concerns.

What's next for California's microbead ban?

California's Microbead Ban, AB 888, was approved by the State Senate Friday. After several democratic Senators abstained from the first vote of Thursday - leaving the bill 2 votes shy of the 21 needed for passage - 5 Gyres and fellow co-sponsors of the bill launched a last minute citizen outreach campaign, generating thousand of emails and phone calls to key legislators.  The relentless pressure worked! When the final vote was tallied, 24 Senators cast their vote in support of the ban.

Because the bill was amended after being approved by the Assembly earlier in the year, it goes back to the Assembly for a concurrence vote this week. It will then head to the Governor's desk for approval. We're confident that the bill will pass these next two steps and become law soon.

AB 888 provides the strongest protections from plastic microbead pollution in the country. Unlike bans in states like Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, Illinois, and Indiana, AB 888 bans all types of plastic microbeads, including so called "biodegradable plastics", many of which do not biodegrade in the marine environment. The bill will encourage companies to shift towards more sustainable, naturally derived alternatives like sea salt, apricot pits and walnut husks. AB 888 would ban the sale of products containing plastic microbead by 2020. 

Since CA is by far the largest market for consumer care products in the country, it is likely that Federal Legislation currently under consideration (HR 1312) will follow the CA model. 

Thank you to our community of ocean enthusiasts, all of the co-sponsors of the bill, including Story of Stuff, Clean Water Action, Californians Against Waste, and the California Association of Sanitation Agencies. Also a big thank you to Assemblymember Bloom and his Legislative Director Guy Strahl for their commitment to passing this historic legislation. 

Our research estimates their are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world's oceans. AB 888 begins to address this by stopping a significant source of plastic pollution at the source, before it ever has a chance to reach the oceans.

For more ocean, And less plastic.

Blake Kopcho

California Senate Approves Bill to Ban Plastic Microbeads

September 4, 2015   

SACRAMENTO – Today the California State Senate passed legislation to ban the sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. AB 888, authored by Assembly Member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) and sponsored by The 5 Gyres Institute,  Californians Against Waste (CAW), The Story of Stuff Project, Clean Water Action and the California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA) and is supported by over 75 environmental and health advocacy organizations, clean water agencies and green businesses throughout California. The bill now heads back to the Assembly for approval of amendments made in the Senate.

Left to right: Andria Ventura, Program Manager Clean Water Action, Allison Cook, Director of Community Engagement, Story of Stuff Project, Kathryn Phillips, Director, Sierra Club California, Genevieve Abedon, Waste Prevention Campaign Coordinator Californians Against Waste (CAW), Nick Lapis, Legislative Coordinator CAW, Teresa Bui, Legislative and Policy Analyst CAW, Mark Murray, Exec. Dir. CAW, Assembly Member Richard Bloom, Blake Copcho, 5 Gyres Campaign Manager, Guy Strahl, Legislative Director, Asm Bloom

Left to right: Andria Ventura, Program Manager Clean Water Action, Allison Cook, Director of Community Engagement, Story of Stuff Project, Kathryn Phillips, Director, Sierra Club California, Genevieve Abedon, Waste Prevention Campaign Coordinator Californians Against Waste (CAW), Nick Lapis, Legislative Coordinator CAW, Teresa Bui, Legislative and Policy Analyst CAW, Mark Murray, Exec. Dir. CAW, Assembly Member Richard Bloom, Blake Copcho, 5 Gyres Campaign Manager, Guy Strahl, Legislative Director, Asm Bloom

“Toxic microbeads are accumulating in our rivers, lakes and oceans at alarmingly high levels. We can and must act now,” said Assembly Member Bloom. “Continuing to use these harmful and unnecessary plastics when natural alternatives are widely available is simply irresponsible and will only result in significant cleanups costs to taxpayers who will have to foot the bill to restore our already limited water resources and ocean health.”

“Our research estimates that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans. AB 888 will eliminate a significant source of plastic pollution at the source, before it ever has a chance to reach the oceans,” said Anna Cummins, 5 Gyres Executive Director. We are proud to cosponsor legislation that would give California the strongest protection in the country against the dangers of plastic microbeads."

“We’re extremely pleased by the passage of AB 888,” said Roberta Larson, CASA Executive Director. “Plastic microbeads can pass through some wastewater treatment plants and make their way into the environment, where they can be harmful to marine life. Controlling these microbeads at their source is simply good public policy.”

Microbeads on a penny, photos 5 Gyres

Plastic microbeads measure less than 5 millimeters in diameter and are added to facial scrubs, toothpastes and other personal care products as colorants or exfoliants. A single product can contain over 350,000 microbeads. They are designed to wash down the drain and are so small that they escape wastewater treatment, and up in local waterways and eventually the ocean. Research indicates that over 471 million plastic microbeads are washing each day into the San Francisco Bay alone. They then attract chemicals such as PCBs and flame retardants to their surfaces, which can pose a threat to human health when fish and other organisms mistake them for food and the toxins make their way up the food chain.

Many natural alternatives, such as apricot shells and sea salt, have successfully been used instead of plastic microbeads in personal care products for years. If signed by the governor, AB 888 would keep 38 tons of plastic pollution out of California's aquatic environment every year. The law would take effect on January 1, 2020.


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                   

CONTACT: Blake Kopcho (805) 708 - 3435

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.