This week’s New Yorker issue features an article on David De Rothschild and the Plastiki Voyage. In writing the article, the journalist (naturally) called Marcus to fact check a bit on our JUNKraft project, a similar voyage with a similar mission. We were extremely disappointed with the portrayal of JUNK – downplayed as an “adventure project” on a raft quickly thrown together with junk. We only have to look to our thousands upon thousands of comments from touched readers, our coverage on channels like Martha Stewart and Good Morning America, and the outpouring of interest from legislators and media to know our project was a success. Here’s a response from Marcus.
Far from an adventure story, our expedition on 15,000 plastic bottles floating across the Pacific is to “End the Age of Throw Away Plastic.” John Colapinto’s article about the Plastiki sadly ignores the issue at hand and ridicules what the JUNKraft crew accomplished. The New Yorker had an opportunity to present a meaningful dialogue about the global distribution of plastic waste across the world’s oceans, yet chose a tabloid-esque drama to report. Here’s what your readers lost.
I want my fellow Americans to understand the true life cycle of our plastic trash. Our “Throw Away” society produces 120 billion pounds of plastic in the U.S. alone, and recovers less than 5%. That recovered post-consumer plastic waste (bottles, caps, bags, straws, etc…) is not typically recycled in our country. I recently visited America’s greatest landfill in Puente Hills, California. Of the 1300 tons of trash they receive daily, they recover plenty of plastic, but when asked, “Where does it go?” the reply was, “China.” On top of that, we lose much of our plastic waste out to sea. The JUNKraft expedition was my third time visiting the Eastern Garbage Patch. I’ve had the privilege of working with Captain Charles Moore to see first-hand the rapid accumulation of plastics in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as far from land as you can get in the world. We found fish full of plastic. Years earlier I had pulled hundreds of bottle caps, lighters and toothbrushes out of the carcasses of Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll. The environmental costs are enormous, and then there’s human health.
On the JUNKraft expedition, as our food reserves dwindled, we caught fish, specifically a Rainbow Runner. Joel Paschal, co-navigator, and I discovered their stomachs filled with plastics. We know that plastic as sea is a sponge for pollutants, like DDT, other pesticides, PCBs, and PAHs, from the incomplete burning of fossil fuels. Ingested plastic carries these toxins into the food that we harvest, and you and I eat. I don’t want garbage accumulating in my body from what’s on my dinner plate. I don’t want these synthetic compounds accumulating in my tissues and organs, or the bodies of my family, or my future children.
Anna Cummins, my fiancé and partner in the JUNKraft project, will soon conduct her own body burden analysis. It is sad that every American currently carries a body burden of synthetic chemicals in his or her tissues and organs. Anna and I about to embark on a 2000-mile cycling/speaking tour about plastic waste down the west coast of North America, called JUNKride. Somewhere along the way we will marry, and someday start a family. It is a sad note that the surest way to unload your toxic load is to give it to your newborn child through breastmilk. We are terrified of this, as every American should be. The true lifecycle of throw-away plastic is that it is to wasteful to value.
When I talk about the entire lifecycle, I need to include the raw material for plastic, which we all know is petroleum. In 1991, as a U.S. Marine, I stood in the desert outside Kuwait City covered with oil falling from burning wells. I understand very well the price average Americans pay for our ‘written policies to go war to secure access to the energy reserves of the Persian Gulf’ (I’m quoting James Baker here, former U.S. Secretary of State). This is the beginning of the lifecycle of plastic. Then we create billions of pounds of plastic and distribute it around the world, knowing that recovery and recycling are largely inefficient, and knowing that the chemistry of plastic is bioactive in the marine environment and in our bodies. This is the true cost of throw-away plastic on society, which we unknowingly pay so that we may have the convenience of throw-away plastics. I truly believe that if every American understood lifecycle of plastic waste, then we as a nation would do the right thing. My first bottle boat, “Bottle Rocket” built in 2003, carried me down the Mississippi River, where I rediscovered the beauty of my country and the goodness of us. With the right information, we make the right choices.
This is the full story of plastic, from its origin to its final resting place. This is the information I gave to the New Yorker during the interview. I’m sorry that it was ignored. I have had the opportunity to talk with David de Rothschild several times. David and I both understand that we independently came up with the idea for a raft named Plastiki. JUNKraft was my 8th plastic boat, and the biggest so far. Long before I had even heard of de Rothschild I had been telling everyone about my ultimate bottle boat. David has the same story. But we differ in our message. David’s boat is an exploration of technical possibility. JUNKraft is about cultural change, in response to the science of plastic marine debris.
Advocating more recycling as the solution to throw-away plastic is not going to solve the problem of trash accumulating in the world’s oceans. Glass and metal are efficiently recyclable, but more importantly, are benign when lost. They don’t really affect other living things. Glass becomes sand, aluminum oxidizes, but plastic is bioactive and persists for years or decades. The solution is not to simply advocate recycling of plastic waste, but to find alternatives to throw-away plastics: there is no such thing as away. It makes no sense to us a non-biodegradable material designed to last forever, and make products from it designed to be thrown away. The Age of Throw Away Plastic must end.
To the Platiki team, I wish you a safe journey ahead. I know your expedition will highlight new technologies and perhaps bring new innovations to the table. Best of luck, fair winds and following seas.
Marcus Eriksen, PhD