The couple, who work for the nonprofit environmental group Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF), stopped at Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach on June 27 after they had completed a 2,000-mile cycle from Vancouver to Tijuana to raise awareness about a heavily polluted area of the Pacific Ocean known as the Eastern Garbage Patch. Eriksen and Cummins spoke with surfers and locals about their journey and mission and plan to return to give a full presentation to the nonprofit San Diego Coast Keeper in the fall.
The bike trip was part of a campaign called Junk Ride 2009 that gave Eriksen and Cummins the opportunity to speak at 40 events, meet with five mayors and deliver bottles of plastic-laden water samples that they took from the Eastern Garbage Patch in the Northern Pacific Gyre a year ago. The Gyre is a remote area of the Pacific Ocean approximately 2,000 miles from the coast where the confluence of currents sets up a slowly rotating mass of water larger than the United States that traps the plastic debris in a massive gyre.
“Message in a bottle was a three- phase campaign,” said Eriksen, who last year sailed from California to Hawaii on a raft comprised of discarded plastic bottles called the Junk raft. “Phase one was to go out and get these samples. Phase two was the Junk raft and phase three was to go out and give these samples away.”
Plastics do not readily break down in the environment. The material lingers in the oceans for decades where currents wash them up on remote beaches or congregate them into huge, slowly rotating garbage patches like the one found in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The debris is a hazard to fish, birds and marine mammals that become tangled in it and often mistake it for food. Seabirds die of starvation when indigestible debris clogs their stomachs, leaving no room for food. The AMRF argues that the problem is a threat to human health as well.
Persistent pollutants that don’t mix with water, such as oil, pesticides, PCBs and flame retardants, are attracted to plastic debris in the ocean.
“Tests have shown concentrations of these toxins on plastic debris that are a thousand times greater than the surrounding water,” said Cummins, referring to the study “Persistent organic pollutants carried by synthetic polymers in the ocean environment,” which can be found at Algalita’s website: algalita.org/research.html.
“Now we’re finding trash inside the fish we eat,” Eriksen said. “Our founder Capt. Moore is on our research vessel headed to Hawaii right now. He just caught a mahi-mahi, which is a fish that you find in fish tacos in local restaurants, and its gut was full of plastic. The fish that eat the plastic absorbs the pollutants into their flesh and we eat the fish.”
Cummins said AMRF doesn’t advocate abandoning plastics altogether but suggests that society abandon the throw-away culture that has spawned so many one-time-use plastic products. Plastic grocery bags, bottles, utensils, straws, chopsticks and to-go containers linger in the environment for decades after being discarded. Cummins suggested an extended producer-responsibility for the manufacturers who make plastic products that would force them to be responsible for recycling them at the end of their useful lifespan. Similar programs already exist in Europe.
“Recycling plastic is not as easy as recycling other materials like glass and aluminum,” Eriksen said. There are seven commonly used types of plastics and they cannot be recycled together. “Plastic has a low melting point, which means that pizza grease or soda on recyclables cannot be burned off during the recycling process like it can with glass and aluminum,” Eriksen said. In fact, recycling plastics is so expensive that much of the plastic collected in the U.S. is mostly shipped overseas for recycling.
Stephen Grealy manages San Diego’s Waste Reduction Disposal Division Program. Grealy said that most of San Diego’s plastics end up in Pacific Rim countries, where they are recycled into bottles or fabrics used to manufacture carpets. San Diego uses a processor that separates and cleans the plastic before it is shipped abroad. Grealy said the processor is charged if the items are found too dirty and so has an incentive to send clean products for recycling.
Eriksen said the problem with recycling plastic is that it’s “down-cycled,” meaning the recycled product is less valuable than the product it came from.
“They are not making a new plastic bottle from an old one like they do with glass or aluminum,” he said. “We think that it’s really important for people to know this because if you think that you’re recycling your plastics, there’s no incentive to cut back on your consumption.”
Besides carrying grocery bags to the store and avoiding one time use plastic items, Eriksen suggested scrutinizing the durable goods people consume.
“Our bikes are both reused bikes,” Eriksen said of the bike he just rode for 2,000 miles. “The point is that it doesn’t take a huge investment to get a bike and to start riding it.”