When we met on the patio behind a Santa Monica coffeehouse, local resident Anna Cummins, Education Advisor for Algalita Marine Research Foundation, pulled a jar from out of her bag. Floating in the sample of sea water were thick pieces of nylon rope, caviar-shaped fragments of old crates and toys in a variety of colors, and barely visible plastic particles that appeared like salt sprinkled through the concoction. This was one of several samples of ocean plastics, an example of what happens to disposable products after they are discarded, collected by Algalita on its recent excursion through the North Pacific Gyre.
“Now you’re seeing for real what it is, very thick particles of plastic and some large pieces and these super, almost microscopic pieces, spread out over a large area,” says Dr. Marcus Eriksen, Director of Research and Education for Algalita. “You see this jar, there might be a quarter-pound of trash spread out over three football fields of area, but keep in mind that there are well over five million football fields in the ocean, so it adds up to many, many millions of tons of trash.”
Cummins and Eriksen were two of six researchers who sailed on the ORV Alguita from Hilo, Hawaii to Los Angeles for a four-week study of the Gyre, an expansive stretch of ocean that functions as a vortex, allowing trash to enter but preventing it from floating elsewhere. Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita, first studied the Gyre in 1997 and has gone on several repeat missions over the years. A September 2007 expedition discovered that the amount of plastic debris in the Gyre had increased fivefold, “conservatively” Eriksen adds, in one decade. On the most recent mission, which began on January 20 and ended in Long Beach on February 23, the crew collected samples of debris to study. Cummins and Eriksen gathered additional samples for distribution. In addition, the crew collected several marine life samples for further study.
“The main thrust of this trip was quantifying how much is out there, but we also brought back a small sample of fish that we collected in our night trawls to analyze their tissue samples for chemical content,” says Cummins, who also blogged during the expedition. “The question is when they are eating these toxic pellets, are the chemicals that are adhering to these pellets then getting absorbed in the tissue? Will that affect them? Will it affect us when we are eating fish? That’s all research that is in the pipeline, and we brought samples back for that purpose.”
This 4000-plus-mile journey was the first step of a three-part campaign called Message in a Bottle. The second step of the campaign, coordinated by Cummins, Eriksen, and former marine debris researcher/diver Joel Paschal, will involve building a boat out of 20,000 plastic bottles, an airplane fuselage, fishing nets, a solar generator, and a bicycle generator. Large bottles will be filled with messages from individuals who wish to help sponsor the project. Named Junk, the boat is currently undergoing construction at the Aquarium of the Pacific and will set sail for Hawaii in late May. Eriksen has a substantial background in building and sailing boats made of plastic bottles.
“In 2003, when I finished my college degree at USC, I had a long promise that I made to myself to raft the Mississippi,” he explains. Eriksen’s first plastic journey lasted five months as he traveled from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, he has traveled down the West Coast and through the Los Angeles River by plastic boat. The Message in a Bottle excursion, however, will be his largest undertaking, with the vessel sailing over 2,000 miles through high seas, including another tour of the Gyre.
Later this summer, Cummins and Eriksen will embark on their third Message in a Bottle mission. The two will ride amphibious bicycles from Vancouver to Tijuana, making stops to give presentations and distribute samples of the Gyre’s plastic collection to educators and policymakers along the West Coast.
For the group, which supports Santa Monica’s proposed ban on plastic bags, educating others on the effects plastic debris has on the marine environment is an utmost priority. The group’s research estimates that in Santa Monica Bay plastics outnumber zooplankton 2.5-1. In the Gyre, where trash floats in from North America’s western edge as well as parts of Asia, that ratio increases to 6-1.
“As a society, we have an extremely disposable mentality,” says Cummins, who also founded Bring Your Own, an organization that encourages people to utilize reusable shopping bags, cups, and containers. “We use a tremendous amount of resources and products for things that we just throw away. This is clear proof that…everything has to go somewhere, either to a landfill, the street, or winds up in the ocean.”
She concludes, “We’re doing some fun and different things to draw attention to the issue and use it to educate people.”