JUNK sails to bring awareness to the scourge of plastic polluting the world’s waters
On June 20, a Coast Guard plane flew over the most unusual seagoing craft the crew had ever seen. The vessel’s name: JUNK. It’s a ship that truly lives up to its name as it is predominantly made up of the type of trash that is increasingly clogging the channels of our oceans. The Coast Guard chatted with crew members Dr. Mark Eriksen and Joel Paschal while they were sailing the open ocean en route from Long Beach to Hawaii.
JUNK was assembled on the grounds of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. There the intrepid and resourceful crew along with a group of committed students, volunteers and members of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (JUNK’s sponsor), built the vessel literally risen from junk. They collected around 20,000 empty plastic bottles (from Muse Elementary School, Redondo Union High School, Santa Monica High School, the Environmental Charter School’s Green Ambassadors and Burbank Recycling Center) to fill pontoons framed by rope made from woven plastic bags. The ship’s cabin is fashioned from a discarded airplane fuselage.
There are three phases to the Message in a Bottle project: measuring and collecting plastic-filled ocean water samples, sailing on plastic (in JUNK) and then delivering the message of the plastic plague to policymakers and educators via vials of plastic-filled ocean water. Phase one was completed back in February, 2008, when Eriksen, Paschal and Anna Cummins were crewmembers on one of two Algalita vessels that traveled a circuitous route from Hawaii to California, collecting samples of seawater. The purpose of collection was twofold: to analyze the plastic composition of our world’s oceans, and to bottle those samples in small vials to give away visual examples of our plastic plague to educators and policymakers.
Peter Bennett/Ambient Images. californiastockphoto.com
The discoveries made on that voyage are mind-blowing when you consider that the scourge of plastics has made our oceans a sea of floating plastic. According to statistics that roll off Dr. Erikson’s tongue the way some people can cite last night’s baseball scores, .002 grams of plastic per square meter were measured in Algalita’s first study in 1999. Six years later, the plastic content had doubled. On their latest voyage—only three years later—it had doubled again. This plastic explosion is exponential. And while some of these pellets are nearly invisible, plastic is beginning to coat the world’s beaches, and out at sea floats the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” 3.5 million tons of debris in an area twice the size of Texas.
With a sense of urgency that peppers all of his words, Dr. Eriksen gives some perspective on the impact of this material’s pervasiveness, “Plastic outnumbers plankton in the world’s oceans by six to one.” This means that the sea life that rely on plankton as their source of food are eating plastic instead. And aside from the negative health effects of eating plastic, the plastic currently floating worldwide is anything but innocuous. As Dr. Eriksen says, “These plastics that are floating at sea, all these pollutants are sticking to it: PCBs, pesticides, DDT, materials from the incomplete burning of fossil fuels; all that smog settles in the ocean, it all sticks to plastic. And all these particles become toxic pills. And we find that as the animals eat it, the pollution migrates from the plastic into their bodies and up the food chain and into your sushi.”
The floating adventure of the raft named JUNK is the second phase of the Message in a Bottle mission. It’s symbolic, in a way, that the very trash that is threatening to suffocate our oceans (specifically disposable plastics) are the materials upon which Dr. Eriksen and Joel Paschal chose to trust their lives as they float to Hawaii. They hope to draw more attention to their mission through the extreme nature of their voyage. On their way, they’ve been keeping in touch with the outside world through their blog and video clippings blown on the wind.
As they’ve seen directly, on the ocean’s surface, the plastics problem is multifaceted. Dr. Eriksen insists, “We’re finding this plastic trash is an environmental issue, an economic issue, a human health issue and a moral issue; it touches all of us.” The moral issues relate to some of our current world crises: our ongoing involvement in war in the Middle East. It’s an issue that is particularly personal for Dr. Eriksen, a Gulf War veteran, who has seen first-hand the moral implications of our dependence on petroleum—the raw material that becomes shaped into the plastics that are ubiquitous in our modern, convenience-driven lives. Plastics that are largely disposable: “It is irresponsible: the single use plastics, plastic bags, water bottles or cup lids. It is a ridiculous part of our culture. It is ridiculous to use something for five minutes and its going to last for five centuries.”
Dr. Eriksen and the rest of the crew at Algalita want to deliver this urgent message. They’ve been collecting written missives from people stating their feelings about and relationship where he picked up some of his final bags of plastic bottles, the students’ responses revealed what hopefully is becoming a sea change in our attitude towards plastics. They’re drinking water from reusable stainless steel bottles and relaying stories of bringing reusable cloth bags to the grocery store with their parents. Their—and our—actions matter. “This exponential increase of plastic in the world’s oceans has to end yesterday,” Dr. Eriksen says. After all, “there’s no such thing as away; plastic ends up somewhere.”
To track JUNK’s journey through the powerful elements of the ocean to the sometimes harsh environs of policy and government, visit: junkraft.blogspot.com. Learn more about the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, where Dr. Marcus Eriksen is the director of education and research working with founder Captain Charles Moore to document and facilitate conditions to change the plastic composition of the ocean at: www.algalita.org.