Plastic Pollution in the Ocean: The Real Story from Dr. Marcus Eriksen

Seal cut in a plastic ring

Seal caught in a plastic ring

Dr. Marcus Eriksen will quickly tell you the island of plastic in Pacific, the size of Texas, is a story created by the media. Then he will tell you – the problem is actually much worse.

Eriksen studies and leads expeditions through the plastic pollution in our oceans. Eriksen, so dedicated to the cause, has also built boats of plastic bottles to go down the Mississippi River and to sail from California to Hawaii solely to bring awareness to the plastic that is slaughtering our oceans.

Here is a bit of his story.

I think everyone who knows of the plastic problem in the ocean envisions an enormous area with nothing, but water bottles, bottle caps, plastic containers and lighters. What is the reality?

You do find those but they are few and far between. The idea of the island of trash does not exist. If it did exist the plastic problem in the oceans would be fixable. What we have is this massive plastic field of tiny plastic particles that is covering a quarter of our earth’s surface. This plastic field is peppered with small plastic particles of varying concentrations. These small plastic particles are a much more insidious problem than an island of trash we could just go pick up.

The media created this Texas sized garbage patch. This story is not coming from scientists.  There is not one patch of garbage.  There are 7 of them. There is a continuous flow of trash between gyres. If you look at each of the five gyres on the planet they all have this micro-plastic soup that covers the surface of the ocean for many, many 1000s of miles.

How is a water bottle I buy at the gas station now a plastic particle in the Ocean?

It is a small percentage of plastic used that is lost to the ocean. The plastic that ends up in the oceans can be the bottle cap you drop and don’t feel like picking up or it falls somewhere you can’t get to or it is the bottle or plastic bag that gets blown out of the garbage can or truck. If you walk down the street you are not going to see lots and lots of bottles, but you might see one or two and those are the bottles that are ending up in the storm drains.

Then when it rains these bags, bottles and bottle caps end up in the ocean. The sun and ocean breaks them down and then they end up being tiny particles that look like fish food in one of the world’s five gyres.

Imagine if every American has lost one cup lid or one bag or one straw in the last year — multiple that times 300 million Americans and then every person in the world — that is how all of this is ending up in our oceans.

How have you seen plastic impacting wildlife?

I have seen whales with ropes around their necks. Six pack rings and the pull caps off milk bottles around animal’s bodies. We’ve seen a plastic bag around a shark, a fish caught in a pair of sunglasses, whales wrapped in old fishing nets. I spoke with a colleague that studies sea turtles. He said that it is not a matter of how many turtles are affected by plastic. It is that every turtle is affected by plastic. Half of marine mammals have plastic around or in their bodies. Half the sea birds have it around or in their bodies. It is not one poster child for the cause. It is all of them. Our plastic habit has impacted the entire marine ecosystem.

When I was sailing from California to Hawaii I caught a  Rainbow Runner for food, and when I cut open its stomach little bits of plastic poured out. That surprised me. I did not expect to see that. This is a fish species we see in fish markets and menus in restaurants, and it’s eating our trash.

So what does the majority of the sea of plastic really look like?

You see it when the seas are calm. You will not see it when the seas are choppy and it varies in concentration. It is thickest in the middle of the gyres and more diffused on the edges. Where it is thickest you may get a Coke can of fragments for a football field sized area of the ocean. It is not as thick as the media portrays it to be. The problem is these little pieces are found everywhere around the globe.

You build a boat out of plastic bottles and spend 3 months sailing from California to Hawaii. You did all of this to bring awareness to what specific aspect of plastic?

People need to know about the full life cycle of plastic. People need to know where plastic they use for single use – bottles, forks, knives and cup lids sometimes end up. These things have a very long lifecycle from production to consumption and the eventual landfill, incinerator or bobbing in the ocean.  The time we actually use the product may be only a few seconds.  It makes no sense to use plastic, invented to last forever, and design a product to be thrown away. These one-time use things hang around forever in landfills. If they get burned, they release extremely harmful toxins, furans and dioxins, into the atmosphere. If we lose them, they can float out to sea.

How is the plastic you see in the ocean different from what you saw when you went down the Mississippi River?

You see harder and more durable plastics in the middle of the ocean, more so than foams or films [as you do in our rivers and waterways]. A plastic bag will break down in sunlight really fast. You do see plastic bags out in the gyres, but as little flecks of plastic. When going down the Mississippi River you see other things as well. I counted seven refrigerators. But when you get in the ocean it is all plastic. You may see a light bulb go by or a metal clip attached to a cigarette lighter, but the persistent materials in the ocean are these little pieces of plastic.

Why aren’t you seeing other materials in the oceans?

If you lose metal that is not great, but it will oxidize. But also metals do not have this insidious lifecycle that plastic has.  There is incentive to go get these metals – copper, aluminum and steel – they are money. Glass is just sand. It is benign. It is the most benign of all the things we consume. Paper is biodegradable.  Plastic is not biodegradable. It is not easily recyclable in a technical and economical sense. It persists in the environment. It does not oxidize. It absorbs toxins and it is by far the wrong material to use on consumer materials and products that are used once and thrown away.  I mean, plastic is great for use in technology, hospital applications, and safety equipment, but a cup, straw or thin bag?   It’s just nonsense.  There are smarter ways of having a bottle, cup or bag, and many businesses are taking on the challenge.  The problem is that the plastic industries fight hard to keep their market share, even though the public pays dearly for the full lifecycle of their waste.

Plastic never biodegrades?

There is some evidence of very, very small degradation about 1 – 2% a year on polyethylene. However if plastic is in a landfill there will not be any degradation. If you burn plastic it is extremely toxic. A bottle cap floating across the ocean may take 5 years to break down into smaller particles, about the size of fish food, and that is what they become.

What happens to humans that eat fish that have digested toxic?

That is what we don’t know. Those connections are hard to make. We know these chemicals exist in the environment and we know that they exist in our bodies, but we don’t know just yet if that connection is through the plastic ingested by the food that we eat from the sea. We do know that laboratory studies show that fish that consume plastic are able to absorb some of the toxins that stick to the plastic. That has been shown in the lab. That has not been shown in the wild just yet.

One thing that surprised me was 20% of the ocean’s plastic is from the fishing industry. What is the garbage you are seeing from the fishing industry in the oceans?

You mostly see buoys and nets. Fishermen do not want to lose their nets. They are really thick, designed to be in the ocean for months and months, and quite expensive for the fisherman.  But they do lose equipment sometimes.  A net that is lost from the fisherman doesn’t stop fishing.  It’s not unreasonable to imagine a lost net catches more fish when it’s lost than when it was initially used.

What has changed between when you set off to go sailing to Hawaii in June 2008 and now, February 2012?

Some legislation has happened to curb the use of plastic bags. Cities have made some fixes to better control the waste that goes out to sea. There are bans and fees and there is better consumer education. You are seeing better waste management. You are seeing tools being employed to keep trash from going down storm drains. We are seeing a reaction for sure, but there has not been a measurable reduction in the amount of plastic being created.  What’s next in line is EPR, Extended Producer Responsibility.  This will ensure that a company that makes any product takes responsibility for the full lifecycle of that product.  It’s just the right thing to do.  With 7 billion people on the planet there is simply no room for waste, as a concept and literally as a place.

Do people absorb toxins from eating and drinking out of plastic bottles and containers?

Yes, if you take a rubber duck or a sippy cup, they are soft. They are soft because companies add phthalates to the PVC to make them this way. Phthalates are known carcinogens and they also mimic hormones in the human body. If you exposure your child to super lose doses of phthalates, it can change the way their body develops.  This low-dose effect has been known for a long time, but petro-chemical companies are able to stall legislation by creating their own internal studies that show no ill effects.  This tactic of confusing policy makers with competing studies has worked very well for them.  It’s unethical, but persuasive.

These phthalates can be found in pacifiers or toys?

Yes. I would keep your child as plastic free as possible.

Why isn’t recycling the solution?

The plastics industry will say over and over the only thing we need to do is recycle more. They are just pushing the entire problem onto the consumers. They take no responsibilities for badly designed products or for the lifecycle of their products.  Less than 5% of plastic consumed in the US is recovered.  That is a failure.  Better designed products would increase the chance of recovery.  Using just one type of plastic, like PETE for consumer products, would increase recovery.  We also need to pass legislation like EPR and product bans to eliminate the worst uses of plastic from society.

I think a lot of people are really overwhelmed by this issue, what they can do and where they fit in. Do you have any recommendations?

Overall it is reducing consumption of plastic. All of those single use disposables plastic products that we use once and throw away we have to stop buying. Plastic is the wrong material for these one-time use products. Why would you make a product that was designed to last forever and use it to make a product that was designed to be thrown away? It doesn’t make any sense.  Here’s what you can do today.

  1. Get a reusable mug, water bottle, and grocery bag.
  2. Support smart legislation to curb stupid plastic products.
  3. Get your local school off of plastic in their lunches.  A strong PTA can do that.
  4. BE PLASTIC FREE.  It’s better for your pocketbook and your health, especially your kids.


To learn more about Dr. Marcus Eriksen, his research and his expeditions:

6 thoughts on “Plastic Pollution in the Ocean: The Real Story from Dr. Marcus Eriksen

  1. Believe it or not, many people still don’t know or don’t believe there is plastic pollution. I speak to people almost every day about it.

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