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SPARK speaker series recap – The 5 Gyres Institute and plastic pollution

Last night Green Drinks NYC welcomed Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen from The 5 Gyres Institute to speak about plastic pollution and ocean conservation. The event was located at the Toto showroom and attendees were able to view the latest in water conserving bath fixtures while networking over appetizers and drinks.

Paul McGinniss from The New York Green Advocate introduced the husband and wife duo referring to them as the “Brangelina of the Green Carpet.”

Eriksen began the presentation by explaining how he had been exposed to the issue of plastic pollution by observing many sea birds dying from consuming plastic. He and his wife, Anna Cummins, founded The 5 Gyres Institute to raise awareness about this issue. Gyres refer to large swirling oceanic currents; when plastic and trash is dumped into the ocean the plastic gets swept up in these gyres and eventually ends up in the middle of the ocean. According to Eriksen, one plastic bottle can travel from North America to Asia and back within years. While plastic can break into smaller particles, it takes an incredibly long time to decompose and actually acts as a natural sponge for waterbourne contaminants like PCBs, DDT and other pesticides, PAHs and many hydrocarbons (known as persistent organic pollutants). Animals often mistake these plastic particles for food and ingest them. It was estimated that almost 50% of marine animals are now impacted by plastic pollution.

Anna Cummins sent around a bottle of these plastic particles and explained how this pollution makes its way up the food chain to us. She underwent a blood test and trace amounts of the persistent organic pollutants were found; this has health implications, especially for women during pregnancy.

To raise awareness about the impacts of plastic pollution, Eriksen built a raft of out of plastic bottles and old sail masts and crossed the pacific from California to Hawaii through the Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the 5 gyres. Eriksen and Cummins regularly go on sailing expeditions to collect samples and conduct research; they have totaled over 25,000 miles traveled from their expeditions. Their ultimate goal is to visit all 5 gyres and study the effects of plastic pollution in each location. Eriksen’s next planned trip is to document and study the oceanic debris field created from the Japan tsunami. According to Eriksen the 5 gyres represent 25% of the earth’s surface and the plastic pollution is so out of control that it can be considered the world’s largest oil spill.

Cummins and Eriksen outlined five ways to get involved in preventing and reversing this trend in plastic pollution: reduction, action, legislation, innovation, and recovery. Just individually reducing our consumption of plastic will have an significant impact on this issue. Lobbying local government to ban plastic bags will also further the cause. Getting involved in a grass roots campaign like Straw Wars in another way to raise awareness. You may even want to join them on their next expedition! To find out more information about The 5 Gyres Institute and what you can do click here.

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