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Plastic ‘smog’ spreads in the ocean

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Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and director of research for the 5 Gyres Institute, shows the knotted mass of plastic he once found in the stomach of a camel corpse in the Sahara Desert. Eriksen collected the plastic and placed it in a bag to bring along to lectures to show the impact of plastic pollution around the world. He discussed his book “Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution” Friday in LaFetra Lecture Hall. / photo by Sara Flores

Aryn Plax
Editor in Chief

Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of 5 Gyres Institute, sailed from Long Beach to Hawaii on a raft kept afloat with plastic bottles to raise awareness about plastic pollution in marine environments.

Eriksen shared his story, the organization’s discoveries about plastic pollution, and its effect on marine life with an audience of 40 people Friday in LaFetra Lecture Hall as part of the annual Robert and Mary Neher Global Sustainability Lecture.

Before Eriksen became an environmentalist, he served in the Gulf War in 1991 and witnessed the burning of oil wells in Kuwait.

“I remember sitting in a fox hole, covered with oil, seeing these burning oil wells around me,” Eriksen said. 

“I was in the Marines, sitting between them. I was actually sitting in a hole in the ground, laughing and talking to a guy next to me, saying ‘If we survive this mess, let’s build a raft like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.’”

Eriksen first became an environmentalist when he rode a raft down the Mississippi River only to find trash throughout. He said his trip along the river reignited his connection to nature.

“I fell in love with the river, and I fell in love with the goodness of people,” Eriksen said. “I lost that during the Gulf War. You come back with an experience that makes it hard to connect in this real world. That reality shifts based on your experience. But when I was on that river, my relationship to nature was so powerful, I fell in love with the river. I saw all of this trash, and it struck me as deeply wrong.”

To raise awareness about plastic pollution, Eriksen designed a raft with pontoons made from 15,000 plastic bottles, and he sailed on it from Long Beach to Hawaii for a 13-week trip in 2009. 

When Eriksen and his crew started to run low on food, they tried to fish in the middle of the ocean. At the time, they were on international waters, outside of any country’s exclusive economic zone.

“I got hungry, I got a fish out of the ocean, and I open the stomach, and plastic particles popped out,” Eriksen said. “I’m in the middle of what should be beautiful, sublime nature, and our trash is there. Our trash is inside the stomachs of marine life.”

Eriksen said that there are more than 1,200 species identified with plastics in or around their bodies. 

Larger pieces of plastic in the ocean can degrade due to exposure to the sun, causing them to disintegrate into smaller fragments. Small fragments of plastic in the ocean absorb chemicals such as pesticides and industrial chemicals and become highly toxic. 

“Some scientists call plastics at sea a hazardous substance,” Eriksen said.

Eriksen said that after the Second World War, plastic was increasingly mass produced, and by the 1970s, plastic production boomed, with the arrival of plastic bottles, bags, and straws.

“The ‘throw-away’ culture went ballistic,” Eriksen said.

While the Great Pacific garbage patch did much to raise awareness about plastic pollution, plastic “patches” do not constitute the whole story, Eriksen said. While sailing in the subtropical gyres, he discovered that plastic garbage patches were dissolving into small microplastics, which he later found in the remote waters of the Arctic. He called the spreading of microplastics “plastic smog.”

“This confirmed our suspicion that plastics migrate from land, go out to sea, fragments, disintegrates, and then goes deeper, where deeper currents take it worldwide,” Eriksen said.

Eriksen’s organization discovered that plastic microbeads were polluting the Great Lakes. Those same microbeads were present in facial products made by Johnson and Johnson, Lush, Proctor and Gamble, and Unilever. While some companies stopped using microbeads, Proctor and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson “put up a fight.”

Eriksen’s organization drafted legislation to stop organizations from using microbeads. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act as a result of the collaboration of 50 organizations.

Eriksen also praised student environmental protection efforts at the University of La Verne, singling out Kevin Ledyard, junior math major and member of Students Engaged in Environmental Discussion and Service.

“People in this generation want change, and when I go to campuses, that’s when I get the most inspired,” Eriksen said. “We need young people like Kevin that are making it happen, saying ‘here’s the right thing to do! Here’s the right fight!’”

Ledyard reached out to Huerta del Valle, a community garden in Ontario that takes waste from universities like Pitzer College and composts it. Ledyard arranged with Huerta del Valle to pick up ULV’s waste and compost it for the garden’s use.

“We got a pre-consumer compost program, so anything they cut up in Davenport, whatever waste they have, that gets composted,” Ledyard said. “I want us to get into a zero waste program and make sure that we don’t contribute to landfills and plastic pollution.”

Jay Jones, professor of biology and biochemistry, said he and Matthew Witt, professor of public administration, met Eriksen at a retreat in Utah hosted by a think tank called Pando Populus. 

At the conference, Jones and Witt decided to invite Eriksen to speak at the University.

“He took less than his normal honorarium,” Jones said. “He’s a very committed man. He exhibits that ultimate state of intellectual development, which is that state of commitment to a cause.”

SEEDS president Erik Bahnson, junior environmental ethics major, helped advertise the event through the club.

“I didn’t know about Marcus’ history with the military and how that impacted his view of humanity, which was important because, in telling his story, he gets into how reconnecting with nature, where he grew up was instrumental in regaining respect for humanity,” Bahnson said.

Aryn Plax can be reached at

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