Anna Cummins | More Ocean, Less Plastic || Radcliffe Institute


[MUSIC PLAYING] – Hello. Welcome. My name’s John Huth,
and I’m your host today. I’m Radcliffe Ventures’s
faculty member, which means I help Radcliffe
do a variety of programming here, most notably the
science programming. This is the last in a series
of lectures on the ocean. This is a thematic
year about oceans. We had a symposium,
a science symposium, on oceans in the
fall, and we’ve had a number of topics that
are pertinent to oceans throughout the year. This is the last of these. The title of this talk is
“More Oceans, Less Plastic” by Anna Cummins, who is the
co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute. And because I guess
I’m introducing, I get to blather on just
a little bit, so you’ll have to forgive me, OK? So this is a topic near
and dear to my heart. I’m a sea kayaker and a member
of the Main Island Trail Association. We have three
members over there. And every year we
participate in a cleanup of some of the main islands. So we go out on a skiff,
get a bunch of garbage bags. We scour the ground. And what we see is
a ton of plastic. I mean, you wouldn’t
believe how much there is. Lobstermen, they all
take a bleach bottle. They’ll rinse off
their deck and just toss it out in the Gulf
of Maine or oil bottles. And this is most of the
stuff that we clean up. And it’s rather amazing,
because they don’t even realize that they’re
tossing the stuff where they earn their living. And it’s a bit
unfathomable, but it says that they probably think
that is an infinite resource and it’s not exhaustible. So that’s one thing that
I found of interest. Another one was there
was a recent paper that was published that
was in the New York Times about the discovery
of large amounts of plastic in the Arctic Ocean were
being transported there through a kind of current called
a thermohaline current which is not a typical
surface current, but it has to do with salinity. And I should mention
that this was found through the work of,
partly, Chris Bowler, who I don’t think is here. But he’s a fellow at the
Radcliffe Institute this year, and he runs an
expedition vessel called the Tara that found this. And so as you’ll
probably hear, there are five subtropical
gyres in the oceans. However, there is a sixth
gyre called the Beaufort Gyre in the Arctic Ocean. So you might have to
change the name to sixth– – There are 11 gyres. – There are 11? – Yes. – OK. OK. Well I stand corrected. [LAUGHTER] This is why I’m here to
listen, and I should just keep my big mouth shut. Thank you. OK, so Anna, she’s
been spending 20 years studying and protecting
the oceans in undergrad at Stanford, master’s
from Monterey Institute for International Affairs,
a Sustainable Communities Leadership Fellowship. In 2009, she founded the 5
Gyres with Marcus Eriksen. And since the founding, she
spent a huge number of trips, and one in particular that I
look forward to hearing about is on a junk raft out of Hawaii. So without any
further ado, Anna. [APPLAUSE] – Well, thank you so much. Thank you, especially,
to John, and to Linda, and all the people, the
staff who made this possible and brought me out here today. I wonder how many
people can say that they were given the floor at
one of our nation’s most prestigious institutes
to talk trash. [LAUGHTER] But in all seriousness,
at 5 Gyres, we really appreciate
the opportunity to share some of our
research with your community, and hopefully not inspire
guilt, but hopefully inspire new thoughts and
ideas about solutions. So when I first was
exposed to this issue of plastic pollution
in 2001, it was barely a blip on the public radar. I was a student at the time
at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies
in Monterey, California, which is known as a hotbed
for marine conservation around the world. And it was at this time that
I heard a lecture, in 2001, from a man named Captain
Charles Moore who was a hero in my world
of plastic pollution. He was the first to really
go out into the gyre and bring this to the
public’s attention. But what’s really
interesting to note is that the research in
the literature on plastic predates Charlie
Moore’s work by decades. Some of the first reports and
observations about plastic impacting marine life date
back to the ’60s and the ’70s, the first major publication
in Science Magazine in the early ’70s on plastic
in the North Atlantic. But as never happens
in the academic world, these studies pretty
much sat on a shelf– oh my goodness– sat on
a shelf, gathering dust, until Charlie went out and
gathered the first samples, brought them back,
samples like this, and media really began
to pay attention. So that was in 2001. I left this lecture
absolutely horrified by what I was hearing– both by the content
but also by the fact that no one was really
talking about this in my graduate program. Nobody knew about it. So fast forward
now 16 years later, there is a global movement
now around plastic pollution. Major institutes from the
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to the United Nations,
to major corporations like Dell and Unilever, people
are now paying attention. There is a movement
called the Break Free from Plastic Movement, which now
encompasses more than 800 NGOs. So there really is
some traction now, and the awareness is
getting out in a big way. We’ve had federal legislation
passed and lots of wins. But at the same time,
as the movement grows and as more public
pay attention, and as there’s pushback
from the community, the opposition is right
there getting equally strong. To give you an idea of what
we’re up against, in 2014, we produced around 311
million tons of plastic, and those numbers are expected
to triple in the next 50 years. So we have a long way to go, and
some of the same interests that serve the most to profit
by this are the same ones that are using, at times,
some pretty dirty tactics to fight us. So with that, I
wanted to also mention that we’re now seeing new
signs of this opposition between industry and the
environmental movement that date back many, many years. But before I go further,
I want to do something that parents, especially
newly enamored parents, do a little too
often, and that’s share photos of
their little ones. I’ve managed to include her
in every presentation I’ve given for the last four years. So thank you for indulging me. But to me, she
represents what’s really at stake for the
next generation. What sort of quality
of life will we expect for the next generation? I love bringing her to nature. I especially love
bringing her to the beach. And I wonder how I will
explain this to her. So anyone who has
been to Los Angeles might recognize this beach. This was the same beach where
I used to play as a child. You can see the Santa Monica
Pier in the background. Now, it normally
doesn’t look like this because it is a very
popular tourist attraction. And immediately,
after a big rain, the sweepers and trucks will
be out there to make sure that the public
doesn’t see this. And as a kid, on
this same beach, I would go and
wander around looking for seashells and rocks. Today, I cannot walk this beach
or really virtually any beach that I’ve been to anywhere in
the world without finding trace levels of plastic. Now, we with 5 Gyres had a
chance over the last eight years to conduct 17 expeditions
around the world’s oceans, collect over 600 samples. And I have a few basic
observations I wanted to bring. And that is, where
there is sea water, there is plastic, which is
a pretty remarkable thing to be able to say, given that
plastics have only really been popular for the last 100 years. Of those 600 samples
I mentioned, only two have come up free of plastic. And this was at a time when
we weren’t using high tech research equipment to
look for microfibrils or nanoparticles of plastic. Second, that plastic
pollution is a design flaw, and I think this is really
important messaging. I’m going to share solutions
later, after I horrify you with all the gory bits. And it’s important to come
back to the messaging. How is the messaging about
plastic being portrayed to us? Who is responsible
or shouldn’t be responsible for
plastic pollution? Third, and this kind
of goes hand-in-hand with plastic pollution
being a design flaw, and that is that solutions
must begin upstream. We’ve taken this material,
fossil fuel based, incredibly valuable, and we use it to
make things that we throw away after one time. And that not only makes
poor environmental sense, it makes some very
poor economic sense. So how did we get here in
such a short period of time? I like beginning with this
image, because this really encapsulates our
thinking about plastic. So this was the cover of
Life Magazine in 1955. This article was titled
“Throwaway Living.” And the copy in
this article said, “The objects you see flying
around in this picture would normally take
40 hours to clean except no housewife
need bother,” because we can just
throw it all away. Now, we talk today about, where
is this place called “away”? Something I found recently,
after showing this photo many, many, many times,
is the cleanup that happened after this
photo, which I think is equally fascinating
and prophetic, when you think about it. Because this stuff doesn’t
just disappear into thin air. It all has to go somewhere. We began seeing evidence
of this as early as the ’60s and the ’70s. And no sooner did the first
examples of plastic pollution littering roadsides
start to become an issue when a trade
group came into being, a nonprofit group
came into being, called Keep America Beautiful
with funding provided by Coca-Cola and Pepsi and
some of the same interests that really wanted to
keep us from staying using a reusable,
refillable system, and moving to disposables. One of their first big very
successful ad campaigns, I’m sure many people
here will recognize. I want to show this photo not
to suggest that this didn’t have a great impact,
because there are a lot of statistics about
how litter abatement really improved. People were littering
less after this campaign. But coming back to messaging– I don’t know if you can see in
the bottom right hand corner. It says, “People
start pollution, so people can stop it.” And that messaging right
there diverted attention from the system, that
we were switching from a reusable system
to a disposable system. Instead it put the onus of
responsibility on the public. It’s a people problem. It’s people littering. It has nothing to
do with design. And here in lies a big
part of the problem that we’re still facing today. Now, starting in the
’50s, we saw an explosion of plastic being produced. It did start fairly
innocently in that some of the early prototypes for
plastic came from a response to things like precious
resources being overused, ivory from elephants
and shellac and rubber and all these different things. And then we saw a boom
during World War II, a boom for plastic production. And that coupled with
a lot of messaging about how we needed to
stimulate the economy with lots of consumption was
the perfect marriage for plastic and disposable
plastics to come into being. So you can see the
skyrocketing of production to, I mentioned before, today,
311 million tons of plastic expected to double and triple
in the next 25 to 50 years. But what has not kept pace
with this extreme explosion of production is our ability
to recover and recycle, and there’s a lot to
say about recycling. But starting there, so
out of that big number there, around 78 million tons
of that are for packaging. Of that, only 14% is
recovered, and I’m not going to say recycled. Of that 14%, only 2% is truly
recycled in a closed loop system. So where is the rest going? It’s going to landfills. It’s going to incinerators. And it’s being leaked out
into the world’s oceans and the environment. And that leakage
is where I’m going to focus for the next while. That’s really where are our
focus with 5 Gyres has been for the last eight years or so. I saw this in a big
way for my first time when I was on the
Big Island of Hawaii. Has anyone ever heard of or been
to Junk Beach or Kamilo Beach? Perhaps seen photos of it? Well, this is a unique
beach in that it lies right in the heart of where
a lot of currents that make up these ocean systems
just bring lots of debris. And it used to actually be a
forging ground for islanders looking for logs and
things like that. As I walked around
this beach, it was like looking at
Walmart washed ashore. You can find pretty much
everything that you needed. And as I looked at the writing
underneath a lot of objects here– shampoo bottles,
and detergent bottles– I saw writing in Spanish,
English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. So this is literally washing
up from the entire Pacific Rim. I would venture to guess
that very little of this is coming from local islanders. And it’s not just an
environmental ecological issue. There’s also a human
rights component here and a social justice component. As you see, I’m sure
many people in the world have had a chance to travel
to some areas that don’t yet have infrastructure to deal
with all of this waste. And here you can see a young boy
in Manila in the Philippines. This river here is so
choked with plastic you can’t even see the water. And he’s looking
for anything that he might find that has some value. So here we can look
to really the waste picker, this informal sector,
to inform what things really do have value. So going back to the oceans. There are five subtropical
gyres, 11 gyres total. But I’m going to show
you a current modeling study that really shows how
currents in the ocean travel. And this study was conducted
by some scientists at NOAA, using various modeling,
computer models simulations, to figure out where new
drifters travel and accumulate over a 20-year period. So I like to tell
people to imagine any one of those
squares is an object. And you can track
it around the oceans for the next 20 years, half a
year, one year, three years. You can see also how quickly
the currents from Japan are making a beeline for the
United States and then others sort of getting up
into that other gyre, the Aleutian currents. 10 years– so in 10
years, a single object can travel from California
all the way to Japan and back. And in 20 years, it starts to
pool in these concentrations zones that we used to
call garbage patches. And we’re now referring
to it as more of a smog, and I’ll get more into that. So you can see here the
five subtropical large gyres in the world. Now, I want to
focus a little bit on what are the
impacts of taking this non-biodegradable
fossil fuel material and saturating our oceans
with these products. So entanglement. Now as I mentioned before, some
of the studies on entanglement were first reported
back in the ’60s. So this has been going
on for a long time, and we’re only now really
beginning to wake up. This snapping turtle
does have a happy ending. She was found outside of the
swamps of New Orleans so, you know, common
snapping turtle. And a young boy found her. So for the young
people in the audience, you guys can really
make a difference. They brought this turtle
to the Audubon Zoo. They named her Mae West,
for reasons that some of us will understand. And they were able to cut that
ring off, and she did survive. We brought her back
to Los Angeles, and she’s now at a
wildlife rehab center where children can see her. Because she really tells a story
about how even the small stuff can have devastating impacts. And ingestion– this
is the other big way that plastic can
affect marine wildlife. Many different species that
feed and forage in the gyres are now increasingly
finding our waste competing with their natural food source. And the numbers are stark. These are likely
conservative estimates on how many marine
animals are impacted. Today it’s roughly
over 600 species. And the numbers are
probably increasing. I do want to show you,
though, that it’s not just marine animals. And I brought something
to illustrate that here. So my husband Marcus, who
co-founded this organization with me, had a chance to go to
the deserts outside of Dubai two years ago, visiting some
of the same places where, as a combat veteran, he
served in the Gulf War and saw a different side of
the whole fossil fuel issue. He brought this back
along with five others. The one I wanted to bring was so
large that I couldn’t carry it. This was inside the
stomach of a camel. I’ll show you the larger one. So there are now so
many examples of this. The first one that was
sent to us we thought was maybe the anomaly, but
we have five of them now. And according to some
camel researchers– they’re at the largest
camel center in the world– when you find a carcass
of camels today, you inevitably will find
plastic in their stomachs, plastic bags, plastic
packaging, ropes. Why do they eat it? They may be attracted
to food residue or maybe it mimics something
that they might naturally eat stuck in trees. It looks like leaves. So the point is that
this is a marine issue and a terrestrial issue. So I had a chance to see
this firsthand in 2008. I had been haunted by
this issue since 2001, and I finally got my chance
to join a research expedition across the North Pacific from
Hawaii all the way back to Los Angeles. And what we saw day
after day after day were samples that
look like this. This is actually a sample
from that very journey, mostly broken down
confetti mixed in with a lot of marine life. And when people talk about
the island the size of Texas, to de-bunk that, what
you see and here, it looks like maybe a
handful of confetti. We collected over an area maybe
two nautical miles inside. So it’s incredibly
diffuse, very spread out. But it was what we saw at
night that really struck me. We collected samples during
the day and at night. And at night, our samples
were full of life. We have the largest
migration of any species in the world in the
oceans every single day, creatures coming up to
feed on zooplankton. And now there are
so much plastic in their feeding grounds, that
this is what we’re seeing. This is a myctophid, also
called a lantern fish. We brought over 600
of these back to land and found that roughly
one third of them had plastic in their stomachs,
along with the zooplankton they should be eating. Scripps has also done a study
like this, and they found 9%. So discrepancy is
probably due to methods and how these fish
were collected. But the point being
we’re seeing plastic in the stomachs of fish that are
extremely important in the food chain. These fish make up 60% of
the ocean’s fish biomass. And why we know
this is a problem is that plastic in the oceans
can absorb contaminants at very high
concentrations, things like PCBs and DDT, flame
retardants, chemicals that are hydrophobic– won’t mix with water,
but only oleophilic. They’ll stick to
oily substances. And a single particle of
plastic, the size of a lentil, can have up to a million
times higher concentration of these pollutants than
the ambient sea water. So this was a pretty
profound realization for us. Two things happened
on that trip– seeing the food chain
impacts and then also one day when Marcus, who
I had known for a few months, fished out a piece of derelict
fishing gear on that voyage, made a little ring and
proposed right there. And so that was how our
personal and professional collided together. But he had one big
adventure he wanted to do before we got married. And that was to build a
raft out of plastic bottles and sail across
those same currents and use that as a way
to try and draw new eyes and ears to this issue. So there is JUNK. That’s the boat that we built.
It took two and a half months to build it. It took him three
months to sail it. He often quips that he could
have walked faster to Hawaii than sail in this boat. We collected 15,000 bottles
from all over Los Angeles and had schoolchildren all
over the state helping us with the materials. And the point was to ride
those same currents that would take any drifting object
from California out to Hawaii. It didn’t go as
smoothly as we expected. It ended up taking three
months instead of six weeks as we had predicted. They ran really low
on food, and they had their worst storm on day four. So I’m going to show
you a couple of clips from that voyage, including
what happened during that storm was that all the labels on their
canned food got washed off. And the last video shows a more
sobering look at the food chain impacts that I spoke about. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] – The ocean stripped all
the labels off our cans. They got rusted. Now we’ve got to eat them. It’s all beans and
corn– and peas. – Come on, corn! Give me corn. Give me corn. Give me corn. Give me corn. Give me corn. Corn! Beans! – One more? Hey, we’ll see what it is. – We have to asess the
scope of the task before us. More beans. – No wind. We’re completely “becalm” today. There’s no wind whatsoever. So we’re just going
to fish and eat. – Here fishy,
fishy, fishy, fishy. Oh, there he is. Right there. [LAUGHTER] – Lunch. – We are now skirting the edge
of the North Pacific Gyre, roughly 1,000 miles
east of Hawaii. And we’re finding
lots of plastic on the surface of the ocean. – It’s mostly small fragments–
blue, green, white, and black, among many different
kinds of zooplankton. Everywhere you go in North
Pacific Ocean, we find plastic. – So I filleted this fish,
thinking we’re going to eat it. And here’s what I found. It’s full of plastic. This is the whole reason
that we’re out here, to bring this to your attention. The plastic isn’t benign. The fish won’t pass it. The plastic is full of
persistent organic pollutants, things like PCB,
DDT, PAHs, things that are known human
carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, things you
don’t want in your body. But they’re in the
fish that we eat. – I don’t want
plastic in my sushi. [END PLAYBACK] – So that was a very long summer
for the fiancee back on land. I was mission control and
doing the weather reports and raising the
funds back on land. This is what really shocked us. Because we’d seen plastic in the
stomachs of these small fish, those myctophid fish
that I shared before. But this was the
first time we’d seen plastic in the stomachs of fish
that people would normally eat. Marcus didn’t end
up eating this one because of what we know
about that transfer, that plastics
absorb contaminants and that those can then desorb
into the fatty tissues of fish and other organisms. But the science is going
smaller and smaller on this to where we’re now seeing
fragments of plastic in the bodies of
zooplankton, very important at the base
of the food chain, and even nanoparticles
of plastic inside the circulatory
system of mussels and clams and other bivalves. And there have even been studies
looking at common shellfish eaters and seeing the sum
total of microplastics that they’re ingesting, because
you eat the whole organism. You don’t take out the stomach. Which brings up the question– what impact is this
having on you and I? And the science here
still needs a lot of work. There are a lot of points in
that puzzle that can be proven. But looking at the
whole link to see how are humans affected by
plastic is challenging still. What we do know is that
there’s enough evidence to suggest that we
proceed with caution. I was personally interested
in this after Marcus and I got married and
thought about having a child. You saw the results of that. She’s healthy and
everything came out fine. But when we took a
sample of my blood and sent it off to a lab to
be sampled for contaminants, we found all four contaminants
that we were looking for. We were finding PCBs, DDT, PFCs,
and flame retardants, higher levels of flame retardants. And it was really interesting
when I got those studies back, because a toxicologist
helped me color code them for where I fell on the national
spectrum– green for good, or orange for so-so,
and red for not good. And I was green for three
out of the four contaminants. And at first I celebrated. It was almost like getting
good grades back on an exam. But then I thought
this is just crazy that this is the new baseline. This is the new normal
that every single one of us has these contaminants
in our body and that the flame retardants
were slightly higher being a Californian. Now, again we have so much that
we don’t understand about this. It’s very difficult to say that
there’s a cause and effect. We also don’t know how do these
chemicals interact with one another inside the human body? There are studies looking at
those chemicals and isolation. But again, my personal
feeling, and a lot of sentiment shared by
people in this field, are that we have
enough information to suggest that we
proceed with caution, that the burden of
responsibility for proving that these chemicals are safe
should be put on industry and corporations
and should not be placed on the general public. So these ideas were
swirling around for us when we decided we
need to get more information about this issue. We’d seen a lot
of research thanks to Captain Charles Moore about
plastic in the North Pacific, but there was zero
research on plastic in the southern
hemisphere gyres. So this was our inspiration
to launch a new organization and sail around
the world looking at this issue of
plastic pollution. So part of what we did was
invite the public to join, and this is something that
we still do, is invite other scientists, filmmakers,
students, teachers, artists, musicians, and even
heads of companies, including people from the
industry, to come with us, roll up their sleeves,
get their hands dirty, participate in the
science, and then go back to their communities
to be ambassadors. So I’m going to share
another short video, very low production quality. This was iPhone and
laptop on a boat. But this gives an
idea of what it’s like to be out in the
middle of the ocean and see evidence of
plastic contaminating some really remote regions. This was also our honeymoon. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] – Let’s bring it in. – Found some larval
fish, sargassum, and little plastic particles. Look at that. – We’re in the middle of
the North Atlantic Gyre, also called the Sargasso Sea. It’s called the Sargasso
sea because of sargassum. It’s a kind of seaweed
that filled our nets. But it’s also full of
small particles of plastic. – Ah, there we go. – What you got, Anna? – It’s a mouthpiece,
I think, for a boxer. It’s got some barnacles,
some sargassum. This is 45 minutes of scooping
through another windrow in the middle of
the Sargasso Sea. – [INAUDIBLE]. – Yeah. – It’s going to flop out. So we just pulled out
this plastic bucket, and we found a
triggerfish inside that’s so big that it looks
like it can’t get out. – I think its entire
life is in this jar. – There we go. Oh my god. – He’s still alive. – Here’s a triggerfish. Look at these teeth. Now look at this plastic bottle. Now, we find these all around
the North Atlantic Gyre, bits of plastics chewed
on by marine life. – 10 degrees to Port
[INAUDIBLE], about 100 meters. – [HUMMING “ROCKY” THEME] – You know how gross that is? [END PLAYBACK] – Very salty. Probably pretty clean. So I could show
hundreds of photos that all pretty
much look like this, and this is a typical sample. This one is from
the South Atlantic. You can see just this mixture
of life, Portuguese man-of-war, mixed in with these
fragments of plastic that are impossible to really
attribute to any source. We can’t tell what
product these came from, what country they came from. So coming up with solutions
can be challenging when you’re looking
at microplastics. But when we took all of our
data from all five gyres and other hot spots
around the world and paired it with data
from seven other scientists from regions around
the world, we were able to come up with
the first global estimate of plastic floating
in the oceans. Now, this is very different from
plastic entering the oceans. But this is what we found,
roughly 270,000 metric tons made up of 5.25
trillion particles. And that, I think, is
the important part. Who can visualize 5.25
trillion particles? None of us. But the point is that we
can’t go out to the oceans to clean up this problem. You can’t skim the ocean
of 5.25 trillion particles without removing so
much life that you’d be probably doing more damage. We’ve got to go upstream and
solve this problem closer to the source of
the problem, which really with any
environmental problem is a much more efficient
way to go than cleanup. So this caused us to
look at it differently. Instead of calling
it a Garbage Patch to call it a Plastic Smog. And we would apply the
same kind of thinking to dealing with smog. You wouldn’t clean it up with
vacuum cleaners in the air. You would look at
smarter, emissions, and smarter vehicles,
and smarter technology, better ways of design. Really, it’s about design. So I want to share
one example of how we can use science,
in this case, to actually drive a solution. And we’d been around
the world looking at plastic in many of
the world’s oceans. And engaging people who don’t
live directly on an ocean can be challenging. Even though we all know that
we need oceans for health, it can be hard to engage
people to care about the coasts if they’re not right
connected to an ocean. So that inspired us to go
into the Great Lakes in 2012 to do the same sort of research. We spend 2012 and
2013 serving all five of the Great Lakes
in partnership with a great scientist from
SUNY Fredonia, Dr. Sam Mason. And I’m going to share
with you what we found. It wasn’t at all
what we expected. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] – There are a lot of reasons why
we should protect our oceans. They give us oxygen. They
regulate our climate. Our oceans give us food. But what’s really going on
is we’ve turned our oceans into a plastic smog. [MUSIC PLAYING] We set out with a mission to
research plastic pollution in all five oceans and then
leverage those findings back to land to drive solutions. – We began in the
North Atlantic, was our first
expedition in 2010, did the South Atlantic
across the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific,
Chile to Easter Island, then up to North Pacific,
finding microplastics in 21% of the planet’s surface. Out there in the
oceans, you really can’t identify the product,
because it’s so broken down. I mean, how do you solve
the problem with this? I can’t point to a company. I can’t point to a country. You’ve got to get
closer to land, into our rivers and lakes. – So we went into
the Great Lakes doing the same research,
the same methods that we’ve used in all five oceans. – There we could
point to a country– if we found something,
Canada and the United States share those waters. We began to find these
small, perfectly round little spheres, one
third millimeter in size. I had never seen that
anyplace else in the world. We had a hunch what they were,
went to your local pharmacy. We got the facial
scrubs, the one that even say microbeads
on the front, put them through a sieve. And there they were. They matched. Polyethylene and
polypropylene– it’s a designed microplastic
that goes on your face, down the drain, out to our
rivers, lakes, into the ocean. [MUSIC PLAYING] The ocean’s surface is not
the final resting place for microplastics. It’s settling to the
sea floor, but it’s also disappearing via the stomachs
of animals that consume it. – A tiny particle of plastic
the size of a microbead may look like a fish egg for
many different organisms. Each one of these
particles of plastic is like a sponge
for contaminants, things like PCBs or DDT. Many different toxic
chemicals can be absorbed by plastic in the ocean. – It’s not just, you know, one
bird, one whale, and one fish. It’s ecosystem-wide. They’re eating
all those plastics that go up the food
chain back to you and I. – Whether or not
we’re a fish eater, we all depend on the
oceans for health. Everyone has a local
lake, stream, or a river, or a watershed that
they care about. – We can change our
throwaway culture, the way we treat each
other and the environment, and make it much better
than it was last century. You start with these, facial
cleansers and toothpastes. These microbeads, these designed
microplastics which you cannot recycle at all, that’s a design
that needs to be changed. That starts with us and
our purchasing power. So zero waste your
plastic footprint. [END PLAYBACK] – I’m going to skip
the ending part. This is the sample that
caused us to really pause. This one sample had more plastic
than any of the ocean samples we’d looked at
anywhere in the world. And now you know the
rest of that story. We published those results
in a peer reviewed journal, and we thought that
that would be enough. We called the vice president
at Procter & Gamble and presented our findings. And what they said was, you
need to do more research. Until you can prove that
it’s our products going into these waters, then we’re
not going to do anything. What was really interesting
is that during this time, I found out that they’ve known
about this for a long time. I found an internal document
that was on the web. I saved it, because
it’s not there anymore, basically saying that we
recognize that these beads may be entering the
aquatic environment and that we will probably
need to do something about this at some point. Well, we didn’t want
to wait for that point. When we heard you need
to do more research, we decided to go legislative. We hired an attorney
in San Francisco. We co-drafted a bill, and we
presented it in California. And in 2014, we came
devastatingly close, lost by two Senate votes. Meantime, Illinois passed
a bill that everyone jumped up and down and
got all excited about, and the same bill language
was spreading from state to state to state. And what people didn’t
know is that this had a huge loophole,
that basically changed the entire spirit of the bill. Way down in the draft,
that very few people read in the definitions, how they
defined plastic microbeads was any intentionally added
non-biodegradable– so just by putting in that
non-biodegradable piece, they opened up the door
to put in bioplastics. PLA does not break down. PLA is one kind of
bioplastic made from corn. It does not break down in
the marine environment. It needs a high heat
municipal composting facility, and even then, a
lot of recyclers tell us that they
don’t want them. So that was pretty underhanded. We kept on with the
battle, and what really made a difference in 2015
was getting a full coalition on board. And this, again,
just underscores the power of collaboration, when
lots of NGOs and policymakers come together. And students played a role here. These students at UCLA
spent three months getting microbeads out
of their student store. And that made a difference
as we were fighting this fight in California. And then finally, after we
passed the bill in California, this really laid down the
momentum for a federal bill. And in the final
days, weeks of 2015, President Obama signed the
Microbead-Free Waters Act, a federal bill. So that was great news,
but it’s not enough. The plastic pollution movement
celebrates these victories. We ban bags. We ban beads. But how are we really
going to move the needle? And I want to share a couple
more examples of solutions. How are we going to move
towards a circular economy? And this is a concept that’s
now really getting traction. Instead of the way
we do things now, we take products
that are largely toxic in the environment,
in a linear fashion, we produce products that
mostly go to the landfill. And how can we change that idea? So we thought instead of
picking off products one by one, we came together
with a couple of NGOs and produced a first
draft of the ban list. And that was taking
available data on coastal cleanups
and waste management and trying to pair it
together to come up with, what are the 10 to 15 worst products
that we just need to get rid of and redesign and back
it up with good data? And one of the things we came
to is a large majority of those were polystyrene. So this is a campaign
that we are launching now, and a lot of groups
around the world are really looking
at polystyrene due to its high toxicity and
due to its low recoverability and recyclability. And so this is just an example
of what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to
really facilitate people taking local action. And I think especially now with
our current political status, it’s reminding us of why we
need to get even deeper involved in our local politics. And I was pleased to see that
you have a number of bills here in Massachusetts,
including a statewide bill to ban polystyrene. Another key part of
the solution is really putting the onus, as I
said in the very beginning, back on producers. So producers need to
take responsibility for what happens
to these products after they leave their hands. And there’s a big fight
here, you can see, this map that shows where
we have EPR as of 2015. And there seems to be a little
bit of a desert in the United States. But fortunately, there are new
bills being introduced now. There’s a lot of
opposition to this because they don’t want
to pay for the recovery of these products. But the fight is on, and
I’m hopeful that this will happen in the coming years. Better design– how can
we engage corporations in involuntary design? No one wants to spend
five, 10, 15 years, fighting these
legislative battles, which we’ll continue to do. But when companies–
like this is a product that Rainbow Light put out. It’s. A 100% post-consumer
recycled plastic. And if we can incentivize
the recovery of that, that’s a great place to start. I came across this recently. It’s just in the concept
phase, but the idea being, create packaging that
when you’re done with a product doesn’t exist anymore. So this concept of
disappearing packaging, this is one example of where
the package is the product. This is a thesis
project from a student. I’m really hoping that
this will come to fruition. But this is the kind of thinking
that we need really to get out of our packaging dilemma. Better systems– can we
come up with new systems in how we deliver goods? For example, sharing–
this is a project to New York to the left. Not only is there a
bikeshare happening here, but there’s a vessel share. The company is called Vessel. And the idea is, you
go to a coffee shop. You pick up your vessel,
and you can return it at the next coffee
shop, because we’re all busy forgetful people. We don’t always remember. Can we come up with
new ways of doing this? Same thing in Portland, where
this similar concept with to-go wear, with to-go packaging,
where you can pick it up at one place, return it
at another, and get rid of all that packaging waste. And refillable, of course– coming up with new ways that
we can avoid packaging entirely and just bring in our own
containers and get our goods. Some post-consumer examples–
you know, again, none of these alone are going to
move the needle. But together, if we can come up
with more creative approaches– to the left is a
company called Bureo, that are taking
back fishing nets from all over the coast
of Chile and moving on to other countries,
grinding it up, and turning it into products like
skateboards, and sunglasses, and other durables. On the right, I put an example
from a bigger corporation that I haven’t
thoroughly vetted. So I don’t yet know how
they’re defining beach plastic, but this is a new product
that Head & Shoulders has put out that is, in
theory, 100% recyclable and made with beach plastic. More research there needed,
but I did want to share this. And moving away from fossil
fuels entirely as a feedstock– putting more research into
truly compostable, biodegradable plastics that can be made
from mushrooms or from algae or from shrimp or from compost. The point being, we will need
to get away from fossil fuels. And finally, getting
the community involved– the power of artwork. So when we were doing
the microbeads campaign, Marcus, who’s also a
sculptor, created this piece called “Anthropocene.” It’s pretty massive. It’s a big steel ring
with the Vitruvian Man, four bikes power LED
lights, and water that is inside, that is
filled with microplastics. And the tubes of water go
in and around the man’s body to show this connection between
microplastics and human health. And some artwork that you
will see out in the lobby here– wonderful group that
you’ve heard a little bit about from the [INAUDIBLE]. We were so enamored of
that photo on the right that we ended up using
it to make a t-shirt, and I was really excited to
see that the original is out in front. So I highly encourage
you to go take a look. The student art
here is phenomenal. And we all respond
to different things– science, art, et cetera. Wrapping up here–
this is an example of what you can do, just
on a personal level. As John mentioned the
beginning, reducing your plastic footprint. Our friend Lauren
is able to save all the garbage she produces in
a year in one small Mason jar. So it can be done. And the role of
influencers a new campaign from Adrian Grenier and
the Lonely Whale Foundation to try and combat
our straw obsession. And the campaign
is #stopsucking. So influencers can
play a great role here. And finally, what we do in
our home, on our campus, in our family, can really
have ripple effects that we might never anticipate. And that was the case
with these students from a middle school in Los
Angeles, in Silver Lake. They decided to get
rid of Styrofoam trays. They created that long
piece of all the trays that they used in one week. They got rid of
the tray, and they saved their school $12,000. This is a public
school in one year. That got the attention
of the district, and they banned Styrofoam trays
across the entire district. So again, these actions can
have far-reaching consequences that we might never imagine. Now, I hope I shared some
positivity in addition to the negativity. One final short clip
from a wonderful place that I know Linda Cabot has
been a big supporter of as well called the Island
School, where we had a chance to engage youth in
really talking about solutions. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] – When I heard about
the plastic problem, I never really noticed,
but then when you actually start to see it,
there’s a lot of trash. Like, there’s literally
like trash right there. So. – When I was a child,
you’d walk on the beach and pick up shells. Now you pick up
pieces of plastic. It’s everywhere. – It’s everywhere. – And this is where it starts
to come back to you and I, because we’re now seeing
no shadow of doubt that plastic is getting
into the food chain. – As plastic is out there
floating in the ocean, it never biodegrade,
which means– – It never fully goes away. – Animals are eating
these plastics because they think they’re food. – We go out and we
fish for these fishes. When we eat them,
the same toxins that the animals were
eating gets in our bodies. – It’s not an issue
we can ignore anymore, because it’s right in our face. [CONCH SHELL BLAST] [CHEERING] – We’re here at the 5 Gyres
SEA Change Youth Summit. Sea Change stands not
only for sea change but also for science,
education, and action which is what we’ve been up
to for the last three days. We have an amazing
crew of people, people like Jack Johnson. We have Jordan Howard here. With Celine Cousteau. We have David Stover here
from Bureo skateboards. – He uses old nets, like
he recycles it and makes it into a skateboards. I really thought that was cool. – We actually made
some toothpaste, some environmentally
friendly toothpaste. – My favorite activity was
the storytelling exercise. – The kids started
telling their stories, and then they started building
on each other’s stories. That’s where we see activism
spread like a grass bushfire, you know? That’s what we want to
happen at a summit like this. – I get inspired because
I meet young people, like here at this
youth summit, that say, I know it’s a problem. This is what I’m doing. This is the one
change I’m making. And the ideas are pouring
out of these young minds. – Well, it’s World
Environment Day. We’ve collected a bunch
of plastic pollution. You got some? And now we’re
taking a look at it, kind of seeing what we find. – This is the turtle bite. – Yeah. – And this is like
the triggerfish bite. – Yeah. – This is representative
of one of the quadrants that we sieve through
the surface sand. So this is one square
meter of beach. – (SINGING) Got to get home. There’s a garden to tend, all
the seed from the fruit buried and begin there. There own family trees teach
them thank you and please. Spread their own
roots then watch the young fruit grow again. – So yesterday, we collected
a bunch of plastic pollution on the beach. And today, we decided to make a
community art piece out of it. – (SINGING) So I
try to understand what I can’t hold in my hand. And whatever I find, I’ll
find my way back to you. – So one person
can tell another. That person tells two. Two turns to four. Four turns to hopefully 4
million, who knows, you know? I’m optimistic. – So we have to see the what? – Change! – Seek? – Change! – I see change every day. – I see change in the way
the world sees the future. – I see change when we take
responsibility as individuals. – But I also see
change in the youth. – In the Bahamian youth. – I see change when a
youth finds their voice and knows that they can be
a leader in our community. – Things that our generation
would have never dreamed of. – I see change in all of us. We all can make a difference. [MUSIC PLAYING] [END PLAYING] – OK, thank you so much. [APPLAUSE]

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