Junk Rafting Across the Ocean
No doubt you have heard a lot about what is going on with the world’s oceans, especially all the junk floating around in them. Perhaps the most famous example in recent memory was the sea turtle with the straw sticking out of its nose. I’m also old enough to remember concern over fish and other ocean critters getting caught in the plastic six pack holders that were almost all over the place. Now you hardly see them anymore, showing that sometimes you can get something changed, even if it is something small.
Marcus Eriksen is one of those people trying to get a whole lot changed. Marcus is an environmental scientist who has been working for years to not just bring awareness, but actual change that will reduce the amount of plastics in our water. While there are many accomplishments we could list here, his most well-known endeavor was sailing from California to Hawaii back in 2008 on his homemade raft, lovingly named JUNK. Why? Because it was literally made out of junk, including 15,000 bottles and a Cessna fuselage for a cabin. He published a book about the experience named Junk Raft, published in 2017.
When asked why he does unusual things like that, the scientist points out that just the science, the raw data, doesn’t reach as large of an audience as art, or a good story like sailing across the ocean on a raft of junk. Those things have a much larger impact on people. There is a reason Plato wrote dialogues. Aesop wrote fables, and the Bible is full of parables instead of systematized theology, these things hold the attention better than numbers, graphs, and syllogisms.
Speaking of things that get attention, when asked about why he cares so much about the ocean, Marcus brings up a video he made during his Pacific voyage. Having fished a fish, he was getting ready to clean it and noticed the stomach was weird. He touched it with his fillet knife and the stomach popped open, revealing seventeen bits of plastic. Yes, that’s a bit gross. On the subject of plastic in stomachs, he has also examined camels with plastic bags in their guts just outside of Dubai. A local vet had a lot to say about the suffering of the camels. It doesn’t matter who you talk to, that is not a good thing.
What kind of plastics are getting found in the oceans? Where do they come from? Not surprisingly, they largely come from fishing activities. Buoys, nets, bottles, fishing line, and anything else associated with fishing is found in abundance in the ocean. Now, that doesn’t mean that those things are just carelessly tossed overboard, but lines break, a bleach bottle bounces out in rough seas, and things get lost. There are plenty of other things out there too, car tires, textiles, and more are currently littering the oceans of the world. How much of it is actually out there? Up to a quarter million tons according to a 2014 study. What is it now? Marcus doesn’t have another weight estimate but the trends are that the problem is getting much, much worse.
So, what do we do about it? The standard response has always been to just go clean it up. However, that is not necessarily the best use of resources. The best bang for the buck, and where the trend is finally heading is to focus on prevention. If we can convince people not to use so much plastic in the first place, or dispose of and reuse it in a responsible way, then we don’t have to worry so much about cleaning them up at all. That reflects a circular economy, one that has little waste, instead of our highly inefficient linear economy. Fortunately there is a lot of innovation and out of the box thinking going on that fits in the circular mindset. That is happening on the corporate and the individual level. Just think of the brisk second hand business that happens on Craigslist. Or I just saw a backpacking video where a company is repurposing gelato containers as cold soak jars. Make the space for some innovation and a little profit and it’s amazing the different solutions people will come up with.
Naturally, there isn’t any one silver bullet solution. Which is exactly why Marcus works so hard to let people know what is going on, sharing the solutions that people have found, and encouraging others to find even more. Perhaps together, we can actually work to get this done.
What’s your plastic worth?
Alexander McCaig (00:08):
The didgeridoo calls and you are all here. Thank you, everybody, for joining us all across the globe. If we want to consider something that interconnects us all and we can't live without, that would be water. And we throw a little bit of salt in it, you got yourself the ocean which accounts for 70% of this Earth and is something that is feeding the biodiversity, cleaning our oxygen and interacting with our land much more than you could have ever imagined. We brought in the world's expert and I would say plastics research pioneer in oceans, Marcus Eriksen, to join us here on the podcast today to talk about data behind the research of analyzing our impact in the oceans with our waste and what that means for ocean biodiversity and the effects of humanity moving forward on our climate. Marcus, thank you so much for coming in to join us today.
Marcus Eriksen (01:03):
Thank you. Thank you for having me. Glad to join you.
Alexander McCaig (01:06):
So you build a raft at a junk. First of all, I appreciate the ... I do like to fly airplanes, so [inaudible 00:01:13] airplane on there and look. Absolutely, phenomenal. [crosstalk 00:01:17] You have a great eye also for artwork. So your ability to repurpose things that people would otherwise see as waste and turn it into something meaningful that carries a message and can emotionally connect with someone I think is fundamentally important and symbiotic to the research that you do because you do have a PhD around these statistical surveys within the ocean and the effects of our waste within that. So I want to kick it off to understand why is it the connection between art and the waste itself? What is that attraction for you?
Marcus Eriksen (01:59):
I think first of all, I don't like throwing anything away. So we just bought a farm a few months ago. It comes to a 4,000-square foot little warehouse and I packed it full of things because I had things in storage across the country. So I actually have two Cessna aircraft fuselages. One was the raft. Other is my daughter's clubhouse, sitting in an avocado tree. The creativity, if we call it that, is I think like many people just being resourceful with the materials that you have. So making use of that. The raft that we mentioned, the JUNKraft, those are 2008. Our first ocean voyage as an organization, a Cessna 310 Aircraft, 15,000 plastic bottles tucked into fishing nets under a 26 sailboat mass, cut and made into a deck. And we sailed from Los Angeles to Hawaii on this homemade junk raft called Junk.
Marcus Eriksen (02:57):
But the relation between the art and, in this case, adventure and science really trying to communicate the issue of plastics, understanding that science by itself doesn't reach as vast an audience as art might. Art reaches a much more general audience. So combining the two, we can reach a broader audience with our message. And in 2008, the message was quite simple, just that there is trash in the oceans, it's abundant and to also answer, "Where is it? How much would they impact?" So through art, through science, through adventure, we're able to tell that story.
Alexander McCaig (03:39):
When you think about, well, for most people, a lot of them have never seen the ocean. And to tell somebody that what they're doing on land thousands of miles away can have an impact on something completely unseen that could be quite dramatic to a biodiversity of life. That's like a hard bridge or connection to make because you're essentially so disassociated geographically from the effect of your causes. So have you found that art as a medium in the book and the speaking that you've doing is helping to bridge that awareness that we do live in this world of a closed system? And within this closed system, just because you don't see the effects firsthand right in front of you and they are quite far away, what you are doing is having a decentralized effect for the positive or negative on life as a whole.
Marcus Eriksen (04:36):
Yes, so I would say all those different communications medium, the art, the science, the adventure, are vehicles to connect people through something that's very abstract and really unknown. I've given talks quite a bit to inland communities and frequently they will ask, "Why would I care about the ocean?" One of the first thing I say is that, "Well, your body mimics the ocean concentration of water and salt. So you are an ocean within your body and your rivers, your streams all connect to the sea. Everything rolls downhill and the ocean is downhill from everywhere," so to make that connection. There's another layer of this and that is the emotion behind it.
Marcus Eriksen (05:22):
When I did that rafting voyage across the ocean, when I got halfway across, I remember I saw this fish and it's a fish I've been watching for almost a month and a half because I watched it being born, a little thing called rainbow runner. And when I first saw, there were 300 of them, but an inch long yolk sac still attached, month and a half later, there were maybe five or six of them and they were about a foot long and we were out of food. And I fished one just for sustenance and I made a video of opening its stomach because I saw this very taut, almond shaped stomach. I touched with the filet knife. It popped open and 17 particles of plastic popped out.
Marcus Eriksen (06:03):
And it was this aha moment. It was disgusting at the core level. And that video, that photo needs so much attention much more than any other image from that voyage. So there's an emotional connection to other life. And when we talk about art, I've always been interested in the relationship between humankind, human psychology and the biosphere. Humans have this connection to other life. When you see other life suffering, it draws you in. So in addition to adventure, science and the art, there's emotion, emotional connection to nature. So in the middle the ocean, I find when you can connect people to the wildlife there, the kinship to every living things and you really talk about the suffering, people pay attention instantly.
Marcus Eriksen (06:56):
For example, I just published a paper four months ago on plastic bags in the stomachs of camels. I went back to Kuwait. I'd been there back in 1991 in the first Gulf War. Went back in a whole different mission to survey the Gulf of Arabia. And I met a veterinarian in Dubai who said, "Well, come with me. Come see this." In the desert, we found five camel skeletons, each had a mass of plastic trash, mostly plastic bags in their gut, in their chest cavity. I pulled out one the size of a large suitcase. At least two to 3000 plastic bags in this camel stomach.
Marcus Eriksen (07:33):
And when we described the suffering of these animals, went back to the hospital where this veterinarian did his work and there was a dead camel lying there on the gurney with plastic trash in its gut. The guttural emotional response, in addition to, I'd said the art, the science and adventure to show this emotional connection of living things, it draws people in. So to connect folks to the ocean, I find connecting to our kinship to wildlife is extremely powerful.
Alexander McCaig (08:09):
I know that your relatives in where you are now, there's a lot of books, a lot of literature behind you. Have you ever read anything on Albert Schweitzer?
Marcus Eriksen (08:19):
I know the author, but I have not.
Alexander McCaig (08:22):
So I'm going to bridge a connection here. Some time ago, he wrote a book called The Reverence for Life. And this same thought process that you're carrying right here is the same realization he had deep inside at that moment. When he began to witness pain of animals and how that pain had a direct effect on himself, he realized that all life at that moment was interconnected not only on the physical realm for him, but also a very emotional one. And by having a reverence for life itself allows us to open up our perspective to how we want to view our interaction with nature as human beings because we are a part of nature and you felt the pain emotionally. And this physically was the detriment of this living animal that didn't have to die.
Alexander McCaig (09:14):
And it's almost like the choices we make as humanity are having these secondary and tertiary effects that are actually killing life. We're indirectly removing beautiful things from this planet that want to coexist with us, but we prevent that sort of coexistence. And I love that match and that perspective that you are carrying is one that I hope as we as a collective of human beings evolve into in the future, is having that reverence for what is going on and realizing these greater systemic effects of the choices that we're making. Like it's a plastic bag.
Marcus Eriksen (09:56):
Yes. And when I think about, I mentioned I was a gulf war veteran, this back in 1991, if you remember the burning oil wells. If you were just a kid or weren't alive, it's easy to find those images. I was there. I was in a hole in the sand among burning oil wells thinking about, "What are we doing? What is the true cost to preserve our access to fossil fuels and secure the energy and chemistry we get from those?" That's part of the big picture. So when you say a plastic bag, the chemistry of that comes from petroleum, from fossil fuels. I don't think anybody can deny that we haven't engaged in resource wars.
Marcus Eriksen (10:40):
That's happening throughout history. So that's the beginning of the cost. On the backend, what I study now is the impact, ecological, social, economic impact of plastic trash in the environment. So that's the other side of things. When you put all those costs together, including the intangible suffering of other life, due to our hubris, our single-used plastics, you have to say, "Is that convenience of a plastic bag really worth it, the true cost from the beginning to the end?" And the answer, I have not seen anyone that says yes. Everyone says, flat out no when you really lay it out that way.
Marcus Eriksen (11:23):
But I want to add one more thing about the conversation about the relationship to other life. I've been interested since grad school to present about that relationship. And there's one author Edward O. Wilson coined a term called biophilia, the affinity humans have for life and lifelike systems. And there are nine characteristics of biophilia. There's one utilitarian biophilia, the exploitation of nature for material gain. That has been the dominant relationship we've had with nature, what can we take from it, but the moralistic, the humanistic the aesthetic relationships, kinship, all these other relationships take a backseat to the exploitive utilitarian relationship to nature.
Marcus Eriksen (12:11):
So I think what I heard, as you were speaking, was expanding our horizons to understand the value of that relationship and all of those other characteristics that is essential to our valuing nature going forward.
Alexander McCaig (12:33):
Because for instance, if I know ... Jason's here on the other side of the table. If I ignore the relationship of him being in the room, I'm losing out on a lot of data, and essentially, I create this biasy in what I think is my reality here, when in fact, it's not true. I do have another human being here that is in this interaction of this conversation. And if I don't receive the input of something that is a part of this system, then I go around, assuming I have all the facts, but really the great emotional detriment, because maybe I want to completely ignore Jason and think that he's of no value or that this conversation is just for me to feed my ego. And I want to take, take, take, take, take and that's probably that utilitarian biophilia that you were speaking of where I just want to manipulate nature or my surroundings around me strictly for my sole material benefit.
Alexander McCaig (13:30):
It's not so much the petroleum industry that is the problem. It's our choice, I think, collectively to support that industry through our behaviors and the fact that we are not coming together collectively to say that this is something we do not want anymore and we choose not to use it. The only reason they continue to perpetuate these things is because we afford them the opportunity to do so. Just because something's cheap and easy doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. And how could ... Jason that we've talked about this, fossil fuels, right? They're dead things. They've created from an anaerobic process. And then we're burning something that's anaerobic to create it as a fuel source or refine it into other goods which we're using.
Alexander McCaig (14:22):
We're using dead things to create more dead things to hold our material things. That process doesn't seem like a self-sustaining system just in itself, right? That whole just from point A to point B, that doesn't work. So we look for options, new options. And we start to look at this data and I understand that when you did your research any of these gears in the ocean ... They're called gears, right?
Marcus Eriksen (14:47):
Alexander McCaig (14:48):
Gyres. Gyres like a gyroscope. These gyres, these swirling thermal pools of water that are moving through these currents, 75.4% of it is macroplastic. Could you define what macroplastic is?
Marcus Eriksen (15:05):
It's actually based on just the size differences. If you begin with microplastic, that's anything from a couple 100 microns to 5 millimeters. Then 5 millimeters to the size of water bottle is mezzo. You get above that up to a beach ball size is macro. Bigger than that is mega and there are folks talking about giga. Gigaplastics being things the size of consolidated landfills. Then you go down even smaller to nano and pico and then the smaller ranges. So macroplastic something means anything bigger than a lentil. That's so the mezzo-macro range. That's the big stuff. And that's where you can actually identify what things are.
Marcus Eriksen (15:53):
So when we published our paper back in 2014, it was the first global estimate of all plastics of all sizes. We were trying to get some data to really understand what is the characterization of ocean waste. And we found by far, first of all, 58% of the large macroplastic were fishing buoys. Large thick polyethylene, polypropylene, thick-walled spheres that keep nets afloat. They get lost from maritime activities all around. Next was 12%, was fishing nets. And the rest were things you might find in maritime activities. It's a fishing line and rope and laundry detergent bottles, bleach bottles used to bleach and clean fishing decks.
Marcus Eriksen (16:40):
Another researcher, Lauren Lebreton, and his colleagues in their macroplastic study in North Pacific alone found 46% were just fishing nets. That kind of data, it really narrows the conversation. I can't tell you how many times I've been at conferences, in the room with people and we're talking about plastic pollution. You got one person talking who's very passionate about fishing gear, one person passionate about textiles and other persons about tires, car tires and tire crumb. Another person is single use plastics. You get those folks in the room and we're talking about different polymers, different types of products and packaging, different inputs to the environment, different environments where it resides, different impacts, different outputs and therefore a whole different solutions conversations.
Marcus Eriksen (17:32):
So what we're finding, and this is watching the data emerge over the last 15 years, 15-20 years, is that this issue of plastic pollution has become specialized. It's no longer just only oceans centric. We're looking at 13 different sectors of plastic use in society and thinking, "Okay, which environment might that go?" When I say, "Sectors, if you're interested in tires, where does tire crumb exist in the environment? And is there sufficient harm that warrants putting a lot of attention there right now? Or is it fishing gear? Where's the fishing gear? I don't see fishing gear in the desert or in the mountains. It's almost only oceans, but how about things like textile, textile fibers?" Well, we find those ubiquitous around the world, but one point source might be effluent from treatment plants.
Marcus Eriksen (18:22):
So when we talk about these sectors, that's where the conversation is shifting right now. People are thinking for the upstream preventative solutions we want, it's got to be tailored per sector. So we talked about oceans. It's most of the fishing gear sector, as you identified and what's the preventative upstream solution we want for that maritime sector?" And that's where data is really-
Jason Rigby (18:50):
Well, Marcus, you have a white paper and I encourage you to go to your website because you have a lot of white papers on there. And one of them says, "Plastic pollution is ubiquitous throughout the marine environment, yet estimates of the global abundance and weight of floating plastics have lacked data particularly." So when you use the words lab data, and then I know you just said 10 or 15 years, you guys are getting a lot of data, what does that look like? Is it just because there's awareness now? And then this is a two part question with the data. And then number two, from what you're seeing now, to put into perspective, how many tons of plastic is in the ocean? So an average person could get this and understand the severity of it.
Marcus Eriksen (19:31):
Sure. And it's interesting, you ask that question because that is precisely we're working on right now. That's one paper that we're hoping to submit soon is another global estimates. We did one back in 2014. And those numbers were 5.25 trillion particles and estimated a quarter million tons. And that was based on getting as much data as we could. Our own data, we had just surveyed each of the five subtropical gyres. For example, North Pacific is one gyre. North Atlantic is one. South Pacific, South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, these accumulation zones.
Marcus Eriksen (20:07):
And then we had that data and added data from a few other public sources. There wasn't much. We had under 3,000 data points and we made that estimate. And that estimate was also based on ocean modeling studies, understanding how does a plastic bottle cap or a fork, how does it move in those ocean currents? So we took our data and extrapolate to other parts of the world, but now this recent study, we're looking at a trend analysis. What if we take everything we knew back in 1975, '80, '85, '90, '95 and five-year increments and do another snapshot in time? What does that trend look like?
Marcus Eriksen (20:45):
What we're finding is that it's extremely difficult. We tried so many modeling efforts and statistical tricks to understand the trend. What we got was a very coarse trend, but a significant one that shows a very steady, steady stabilized up until the end of last century in the last 15 years, a very drastic increase in the number of particles in the ocean surface. And our data said, "Now, it's almost four times what we had six years ago," tremendous amounts of data. So even though we can get resolution on the current snapshot over time, there's such huge data gaps. We got this trend analysis. And with this trend analysis, we were able to make another estimate for what there is right now. It's well over 100 million tons right now, we estimate floating the world's oceans.
Marcus Eriksen (21:37):
The particle count, I haven't got that number just yet. We're still tweaking the model a bit, but simply, it's a whole lot more than we found six years ago. And that's driven by an abundance of data. What it also tells us, like I was mentioning before about these multiple sectors is that the ocean going forward, we need to pull away from this being only an ocean centric issue. Oceans are great, if you're studying just fishing gear and want to mitigate fishing gear, but the other sectors, focused on tires and other things, e-waste, durable goods, you're not going to go the ocean. You're going to look at other places in the environment where they might reside to try and find a solution for those. And that data is emerging as well.
Marcus Eriksen (22:24):
There was a great paper, a study we're involved in in San Francisco Bay where they looked at just the bay and they're looking at microplastics on the surface, in the water column, in sediment, nearshore, offshore, in fish and all these different places where it might reside and we find we're surprised how much tire crumb was just offshore, actually just right along the shoreline where the effluent pipes were pouring from stormwater runoff into the bay. Full of tire crumb. So if you're going to study tires, that's the place to go, right there or the roadside. So as more data comes in, we can get a better resolution, better tools to aid policymakers in their efforts to find a preventative solution per sector. You had a second question-
Jason Rigby (23:17):
No, you answered both of them.
Alexander McCaig (23:18):
You're trying to essentially conceptualize the size and the weight of the waste for individuals to process that mental relationship. Now, when I hear trends, Marcus, I think lagging indicators, you guys see the damage after the fact and then you're trying to analyze it. And if it's a human-caused thing, I would want to know, I would want to go to like you, Marcus, and say, "Marcus, do you use plastic bags? How often? From how many sources? How do you dispose of? How many through no fault of your own happen to get carried away in the wind by accident and you could not retrieve?"
Alexander McCaig (24:00):
These would help, I would assume, with these data gaps that actually end up leading to what goes into the ocean. Or even asking the question, "What is your consumption of fish that would be supporting the marine industry that may have these larger macroplastics, right? Or how often do you buy new tires, change your tires, drive your car on the road?" Because these are leading indicators that would again drive to those specific sectors. And I think to close those gaps would be having those data conversations with individuals that are essentially the drivers of those systems of waste. And when I think about this altogether, it's not really just plastic waste. It's the idea of how humanity is dealing with the waste that we create.
Alexander McCaig (24:45):
Now if I go into the forest, I have mycorrhiza and other fungus that sit on the floor and they essentially break down the detritus, like detritus we have in our oceans. You know this very well. And then from that, it feeds into the system, breaks down the nutrients. And that all gets perfectly recycled in a very symbiotic process. And everybody's helping each other out. We, as a species on this planet, as an organism, lack the ability in essentially the waste we are creating, whether if we're tree-creating sugars, right? That's waste, right? Or we're a human being creating plastic waste or anything else of that nature, we don't do a good job of either recycling it or turning it into something else that could all be beneficial.
Alexander McCaig (25:28):
So that focus, I think, has to look at those behaviors to close that data gap and help us understand how it creates those trends and then how we can really change the direction of those trends going forward, but that makes sense?
Marcus Eriksen (25:42):
Yes, and those actually are some of the exact kinds of questions we're hearing. policymakers and folks from the public and private sector ask, as things shift from, "We're going to focus on downstream cleanup or upstream preventative mitigations. So where's the biggest bang for your buck? What about plastic bags? Are we going to focus on cleaning up bags or look at is there a way to ..." The biggest bang for your buck is always a preventative solution and those conversations are now. So I'd like to add that things are shifting away from people thinking, the place in the environment where the trash exists initially 10-15 years ago, the questions or the answers people were thinking was, "Well, someone go clean it up. Someone go do a downstream mitigation. Clean that trash. Pick it up." And now we're seeing the trend in the kinds of questions being asked is, "Okay, what is the source? Where are the emissions happening? And what are the activities, the behaviors, the consumer culture, the economic structures that are making that waste in the first place."
Marcus Eriksen (26:56):
You mentioned something really important about these biological cycles. And this is part of the circular economic thinking that's part of the conversations today. So the biological circular economy is, like you said, in the middle of forests, mycorrhizomes are taking the detritus and putting it back into the system. That biological circular economy has been in existence since life has been in this planet. Then there's a technological circular economy, which we're not that good at. Then there's the third linear economy which is dominant. That linear economy, as we all know so well, we extract materials, we make raw materials from those. We then make products and those get collected. They become waste, which if they get collected as waste, they become landfill or incinerated. They'll come back to the system.
Marcus Eriksen (27:52):
That's the linear economy. And with the circular economy is where we are seeing right now so much innovation, entrepreneurship, trying to create that circular economy for technical materials. So like you're saying, the plastic bag doesn't fit in a technical circular economy. It's just too difficult to capture all the bags. They're the ultimate escape artists. And like I think you mentioned about the desert, you put a bag in a bin in the desert community, in five minutes, it's going to blow out and be gone. And I saw that when I went back to Kuwait. There was one fence line. It was only plastic bags and the fence was pushed down to the ground.
Marcus Eriksen (28:33):
So in that technical circular economy, we're seeing innovation in reuse economies, repair, remanufacture. We're seeing design. Unfortunately, it's all voluntary right now, but design innovation, designing for recovery like for example an office chair, you can take a part into 100 components and replace ones that are broken. For me personally, I embrace the reuse and repair. I'm always going to Craigslist or offer up and see what's available that I can repair. I'll let someone else have that spend money for the initial depreciation of the goods and I'll buy it secondhand and fix it myself.
Marcus Eriksen (29:14):
So we're seeing those kinds of things happening. I just offer one more example of the reuse economy that's thriving. We've seen companies that for example, one company vessel has one single container, a mug and they're getting every restaurant and coffee shop in one city to collect, wash and give that cup back to customers. It's a localized reuse economy. RePack is a company that's making reusable mailer that maybe UPS, FedEx and Amazon may adopt in the future. Lots of innovation coming out there. So I actually feel more optimistic now than I had in the last decade.
Alexander McCaig (29:52):
No, I think that's incredible and we see that here even locally in New Mexico, in Taos, New Mexico. We have these things called Earthships where they use tires, they use bottles and they build them into the land. And they find that through this recycling process. You can actually have something very efficiently made out of waste itself, but that requires that change of mindset, change of attitude and realize that a little bit extra effort can actually have really great impact rather than just taking the easy convenient way. And now, when you think of convenience, for us, we're very creative conscious thinking beings. But when you think about a fish, especially like one of those rainbowfish you're speaking of, their thought is survival.
Alexander McCaig (30:39):
So the easiest, lowest energy cost food source that they think is available and they have a hard time differentiating between a microplastic or actual phytoplankton or whatever it might be, would cause great harm for them. And so because if they don't know any better and we know better, I would think that it would be our responsibility to protect that life itself, right?
Marcus Eriksen (31:02):
I couldn't agree more.
Alexander McCaig (31:04):
Now, through that protection, if I want to protect it, I also want to understand, what is the effect of that plastic on the fish itself? I understand that there are certain algae is and bio organisms within the oceans that break down things that come from polycarbonates, even oil for instance. Here's the systemic effect on the biological life of the oceans when a piece of plastic actually enters into a fish, is it something cancerous or what happens down the line or actually primarily with that thing going through that ingestion itself?
Marcus Eriksen (31:41):
If you look at the impacts of plastic waste on other life, and this both terrestrial and in the ocean, and let me use camels for an example. That's a charismatic megafauna and I just published a paper on those and talking with Ulli Werner. He was the veterinarian in Dubai that's been working on camels for 30 years. He built the hospital there in Dubai for camels only. Thinking about camels and like the fish, all these organisms have known and in the desert, for example, if it's not sand, its food. Food is so scarce and they'll just [inaudible 00:32:15] on acacia trees. They'll pull leaves and anything off these trees. They've always known it to be just food. No consuming plastics. Either it's litter that's intentionally tossed out and there has been a lot of evidence, people camping in the desert, leaving their trash behind, things blowing out of dens, blowing out of landfills and all the perpetuation of single use plastics, creating lots of opportunities for plastic to escape.
Marcus Eriksen (32:42):
The harm it might cause, when I talk with Ulli Werner and I've thought about the camels, these animals, they keep food in their gut. They're ruminants. They eat the plastic, trash. They don't know any better. Sits in their gut. It creates mechanical elements, lacerations, ulcers on their bodies which cause tremendous discomfort and they bleed internally and can cause death. If not, it creates this large, large mass. Now it's common to have small masses in ruminants called bezoar. They're using calcified mass. They're small and they're fairly normal.
Marcus Eriksen (33:18):
But when you add plastics, we call them a polybezoar. That's a word we invented for these massive large suitcase-sized concreted mass of plastic trash. So the animals had this huge mass-
Alexander McCaig (33:30):
I'm sorry, suitcase-sized?
Marcus Eriksen (33:32):
What's that? As big as a large-
Alexander McCaig (33:35):
It's the size of a suitcase, Marcus?
Marcus Eriksen (33:36):
Yes, I pulled one out of the camel's chest that's about maybe 50 pounds, massive, massive thing. And you imagine that being in your guts-
Alexander McCaig (33:48):
I'm sorry to interrupt but sure. I'm like having a hard time even building that image in my mind. I've seen a camel, but to say to pull a 50-pound block of plastic out of this thing is just the most absurd thing I could even imagine.
Marcus Eriksen (34:05):
Yes, I'll share with you photos. You want to see these things. They're unbelievable. They're large and you can imagine ... Imagine if you had 15 plastic bags, a dozen bottle caps in your stomach. The lacerations, the ulcers might form, but also you have a false sense of satiation. You feel like you're full when you're not. And you may become malnourished as the camels do. You become dehydrated as the camels do. It can cause blockages, twisting in the intestine, the plastic bags can cause. So the suffering is tremendous. So these animals ... Ulli Werner, the veterinarian, he's seen close to 300 camels come through his hospital, all of them died, all with plastic trash in their gut. And we pulled five out of the desert. That became the focus of our research paper. We determined a 1% mortality rate for that local population.
Marcus Eriksen (34:59):
But that suffering, I can't imagine dying of starvation when your stomach is distended or having an internal bleeding from just trash, lacerating your stomach lining. So when I think of that, that goes back to biophilia, that affinity that we have for other life. It's gut wrenching, no pun intended there, but it's emotionally horrible to think that this ... Because a plastic bag is causing that much suffering on an entire population of organisms, it's unacceptable.
Alexander McCaig (35:43):
I didn't realize I'd be so bummed out talking to you and it's not your fault. You're giving me all this information. I'm just like, "Well, damn." I would ask this then, Marcus. What should be our focus as an individual right now across 222 countries? What is the simplest change in our mindset that can prevent the effect on camels or other biodiversity across the world? What is it we can do actionable right this second material or immaterial that could lead to a drastic benefit to change those trends?
Marcus Eriksen (36:26):
You often get that question, "What can the individual do?" and of course, there's a long list of things that you personally can do if you have the resource to do it. Go as zero waste as possible. Zero waste your home, your office, your school. And we see that trend happening. But often, I say get organized. And when you get groups of people together, I've met hundreds of school groups, little eco clubs that have helped to have their school goes zero ways, to switch. For example, one school in Los Angeles, this is amazing, these kids were in such an uproar over the same conversation we're having that they convinced the principal to let them take all the polystyrene foam, polystyrene food trays they use in one week, well over 1000 trays.
Marcus Eriksen (37:21):
They punched a hole in the bottom, made this giant rectangular looking snake and they hung it in the tree for two years until the superintendent of LA Unified School District got so much attention from the school that over a couple years of campaigning, that to pretend and said, "Okay, we're switching to paper, to a renewable resource, doesn't add the harmful effect." Over 900 schools went to a paper tray. This school not only saved their individual school, 10,000 not buying Styrofoam, they influenced the entire school.
Marcus Eriksen (37:59):
Within a couple years later, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, I think Dallas and Fort Lauderdale all collectively found a vendor that could sell a paper tray at the same cost or close to it of a Styrofoam tray and they all switched. They became a market driver for change beginning with kids, kids getting organized. So individuals organizing, there are so many organizations out there from Surfrider, Heal The Bay and others how to get organized to help support policies, to become market drivers, to support the innovators, the entrepreneurs that provide that renewable solution. So I think getting organized and using your market power, your political power as a group which the individual can do.
Alexander McCaig (38:47):
I do love that. And you've taken the leap, no pun intended, into something called Leap Lab. And it shows that what you are creating and educating individuals on these three farms and communities that you have is a process of zero waste in every aspect of how to live and maintain smaller, more localized communities. Is this just a natural progression for you through your research, through your art, through the realization that education and perspective and social psychology, it's important that we almost look at the habits and then you create these areas of example for people to live in learning? Is that what this progression was like?
Marcus Eriksen (39:39):
Yes, I'm glad you asked that question. Thinking about my life trajectory, but more importantly the trends that I'm observing, the idea of globalizing ideas and not stuff, creating local circular economies, but sharing information wildly is where I think we're headed There's enough technology out there and enough will that I'm seeing emerge from the public that create local circuit economies Can we meet our basic needs and take care of each other within a small radius of where we live? And we're seeing examples happen very quickly. So the idea of Leap Lab was to promote that idea. So right now, we just purchased a 15-acre property in Santa Paula. I used my VA loan to get this place, 15-acres. It has a 4,000-square foot-
Alexander McCaig (40:30):
Marcus Eriksen (40:31):
Thanks. And right now, it's packed full of fossils. I'm not sure I mentioned we had a side hustle of collecting Late Cretaceous dinosaurs on Wyoming for the last 30 years. So I've got eight partial Triceratops skeletons in the farm. If you want to do this again and talk natural history, I'd love to-
Alexander McCaig (40:49):
Send me one. Let's go dig for fossils... You're bringing me back to childhood right now. I'm very excited.
Marcus Eriksen (40:57):
Hey, that's why we got this hangar for the eight triceratops skeletons. Kids love dinosaurs. They can come to this farm and see the skeletons. And then we can say, "Oh, by the way, here's sustainability. Here's what local circular economies look like." So we have 15 acres to plant food. We're going as zero waste as possible. There's some infrastructure of some of the irrigation lines and so forth that are plastic, but trying to go zero waste demonstrate what a local circular economy looks like and also bring the joy of science and adventure and art to this younger generation.
Marcus Eriksen (41:36):
Ventura County has 20 school districts, 140,000 kids that don't have easy access to the zoos, aquariums, science center, museum of natural history in LA or Santa Barbara and we're hoping to bring that to them. But at the same time, I have to add this caveat, I'm not going in the community saying, "Here's what you need." We are actively working with community leaders and organizers in Ventura County to ask them, "Here's what we have to offer. What do you think fits? What fits with the school district's needs, the kids' needs?" We're doing this right now and it is wonderful, eye opening, a vertical learning curve for all of us, but it's the right thing to do. It feels great.
Alexander McCaig (42:23):
I want to say first and foremost, Jason and I, thank you for respecting the freewill of these communities and coming to them as a partner with an option and asking if they want to take the responsibility themselves and meeting them where they are, not telling them where they should be. That is the fundamental difference of acceptance to someone's responsibility in a change that could be very positive for them. And I think that sort of attitude is one that needs to be reused over and over and over again for just about anything that we're looking at that is critical to our survival here on this planet.
Marcus Eriksen (43:06):
I think approaching it with a tremendous humility and willingness to just listen. I'm 54 years old. The biggest thing I've learned in the last 10 years is when to be quiet and listen. The greatest advantage for me in trying to reach the mission of our organization is to listen to your audience and let them tell you how it lands on them. If they want to hear it ... And perhaps what's missing. And you learn. And for example where we are now in Ventura County, we're in Santa Paula, an agricultural community. I'm not about to assume that I understand what life is like an agricultural community. I'm not the dominant demographic. I'm a newcomer.
Marcus Eriksen (43:57):
I do understand as a scientist what the core curriculum is for science learning, but I'm not about to assume that I know how that lands or how to present that information to people, so listening and hearing where people are and also hiring local people to be the spokespersons for these issues. To disseminate this knowledge is essential to our success.
Alexander McCaig (44:20):
I like the [inaudible 00:44:22] of Leap Lab, just inject your own people, you leave the ones there that understand the culture and then elevate them within their own cultures to do what they need to do. And I think listening to others is just as important as listening to what the planet is telling us. And I'd like to say, Marcus, we have the big seven initiative through our marketplace that affords donor access from 222 countries towards causes that want to list themselves in our market. And we would be more than happy to list Leap Lab to increase the amount of donation flow going into what you guys are doing because we agree and we want to champion with that sort of perspective, mindset and initiative that you guys are taking. So if you're up for it, we'd be happy to have that conversation.
Marcus Eriksen (45:10):
That would be fantastic. We actually leave in a month to go to Wyoming to dig up another Triceratops skull. You have 30 people and half are kids.
Alexander McCaig (45:20):
Listen, I'll be in Wyoming in a month, so I'd be happy to come up there and meet you.
Marcus Eriksen (45:26):
You're more than welcome. See what we do and the engagement with youth from across the country who come convergent and learn science, hands on science in the context of being on a 7,000-acre ranch. It was a blast.
Alexander McCaig (45:42):
Well, if somebody wants to find out more, whether it's about your research on the gyres of the ocean, micro, macro, mezzoplastics, industry specific research, camels or zero waste farming and sustainable community operations, where would an individual go to do that?
Marcus Eriksen (46:02):
I would say our two organizations 5gyres.org, but also leaplab.org, leaplab.org. That's where you can find me. You can find where to submit questions. Feel free to reach out. I spend half my morning just responding to people, their inquiries. I think it's important to not dismiss people. I love when people come with questions, especially young people. Those two websites links, you can find me and feel free to reach out anytime. It's important to make myself available to engage with listeners.
Alexander McCaig (46:42):
That's incredible. Listen, Marcus, thank you so much for coming on the TARTLE Cast. This has been monumentally helpful, enlightening, a great sharing of truths that need to be heard. And I think this leaves everybody with a nice firm footing for what we need to do to take action in the future.
Jason Rigby (46:58):
Thank you very much.
Marcus Eriksen (47:01):
My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
Speaker 4 (47:12):
Thank you for listening to TARTLE Cast with your hosts, Alexander McCaig and Jason Rigby where humanity steps in to the future and the source data defines the past. What's your data worth?