Gyres: The terrifying true story of the garbage that could kill the whole human race

Gyres: The terrifying true story of the garbage that could kill the whole human race
Gyres: The terrifying true story of the garbage that could kill the whole human race

The ship plows on with groaning sails, with a heave and a shove, like a fat man shouldering through a crowd. The motion is surprisingly stop-and-go, without ever really stopping, or quite going. In the open cockpit we’ve just been holding on and talking about flotsam: things that find their way into the vastness of the seas, and float and float, and finally maybe wash ashore. Grimmest to be mentioned so far by my knowledgeable companion—trumping the foot in the boot—is the skeleton in the survival suit. Those are pearls that were his eyes! When we pause the conversation to climb up onto the pitching deck to launch the trawl, I’m keeping Mr. Bones in mind. The Sea Dragon, a 72-foot round-the-world racing sloop, is all taut lines and cleats to trip on, and a fall overboard after dark would be a possible death sentence. You’d be a mote, a speck in the black night and wild seas.

It’s the start of the graveyard watch—2 a.m. to 6—and most everyone’s asleep in their bunks, except the captain, who’s below in the green glow of the nav station plotting our course: a knight’s move, 1,200 miles east to the middle of the South Atlantic, then 800 miles north to Ascension Island. Above, out in the weather, it’s just Watch Team A: myself, young Emily from France, and the star of our show, Marcus Eriksen Ph.D.—“scientist, marine, explorer,” as his Weather Channel gig, “Commando Weather,” introduces him (“Hi! Dr. Marcus here!”). In those TV bits, partSurvivorman, part Jackass, Eriksen performs stunts, like covering himself with prognosticating crickets or being buried by an avalanche. This job is only slightly more ludicrous: cleaning up the sea.

For the past decade, 47-year-old Eriksen has been an eco-stuntman, drifting on rafts across seas and down rivers, as well as a serious scientist, commissioning vessels and plying his plankton trawls, collecting data, and speaking to groups—including thousands of school kids—about the threat of plastic pollution in the sea. Thanks to environmental gadflies like Eriksen, and emotionally affecting documentaries about wildlife deaths resulting from plastic ingestion and entanglement, this is a well-known phenomenon—if still under-studied and vastly underestimated. Eriksen’s job is to keep poking a sharp elbow and saying, No, really, listen! This shit could kill us all!

For the quantities in play now beggar the human imagination. Dumped or accidentally spilled from ships, blown from landfills, washed down every river in the world, plastic trash has been amassing since World War II in floating dumps, some of which exceed millions of square miles. Round and round the all-too-durable plastic goes, imponderable quantities caught up in the great oceanic gyres. These “garbage patches,” as they are called, are out of sight and out of mind, but not entirely inactive. Like all things the sea claims, plastic too suffers a sea change. And the ultimate harm our throw-away effluvia might yet do, to the health of the sea and the human future, nobody knows for sure.

That’s why we’re out here getting thrashed by a squall, as the rest of the crew of 11 sleep fitfully in their hammocks. The South Atlantic in particular is aqua incognita for marine pollution researchers. Though Marcus has voyaged to four of the world’s five major gyres (the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, and Indian Ocean), studying their respective garbage patches, this is his first trip to the South Atlantic. In fact no one has ever sailed here specifically to study this antipodal gyre’s burden of plastic trash. We don’t know if we’ll find a Poe-story horror-whirlpool of algae-slickened detritus or just bits and jots.

Now, mindful of the mainsail boom, and hanging on to lines and cables where we can, Emily and I untie and untangle, and Marcus hefts the primary research device, the high-speed plankton trawl, a contraption that resembles the starship Enterprise with a tail, and wrestles it to the back of the boat. We’re like a cartoon about the evolution of sea legs, sure-footed and athletic Eriksen leading the way along the slick deck in flip-flops, while Emily and I follow practically on all fours.

“This is a prototype based on a prototype,” Marcus says, regarding the apparatus with equal parts pride and skepticism as he hefts it out over the water. “It might sink. It might flip over.” Basically, it’s a sleek steel box with a keel and wings, trailing a long, 333-micron-mesh plankton net. With any luck, it is heavy-duty and hydrodynamic enough to handle the Sea Dragon’s current cruising speed of 8 to 10 knots. It’s the 20th trawl he’s constructed, welding them in his garage workshop. “I used to own a 1950 El Dorado,” he explained earlier, with humble good humor. “It was learn to weld or walk.”

He chucks the trawl into the foam-flecked water. The lines snap taut, the trawl, henceforth to be known as the Silver Surfer, gulps a mouthful of Atlantic, raises a beckoning wing, and flips. No matter, apparently. Upside down, it rises to the peak of a tall steep sea, nearly catching air; then down it swoops into the trough, shifting from wing to wing, carving endless S-turns as it commences its search for signs that we’ve entered the South Atlantic gyre.

“That’s awesome!” Marcus says, laughing to see that it functions perfectly well wrong side up.

Buoyed by this success, we return to the safety and relative comfort of the cockpit to watch and wait, and talk some more about the things that float in the sea. The hunt is on for the Great South Atlantic Garbage Patch.

Three days ago, the crew had a proper schmooze and send-off in Rio de Janeiro—beautiful Rio, alas dangerous and stinking of sewage. Bound to the dock like Gulliver with power cords and computer cables, the Sea Dragon hosted local press and enviros for a live-feed video conference with the United Nations office in Geneva. Down in the stifling Sea Dragon salon, an overdressed crowd watched a computer screen as the secretariat of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants announced the historic addition of nine new toxic chemicals—tongue-twisting giant molecules like alpha hexachlorocyclohexane—to the global shit list, and then personally wished Marcus and crew Godspeed to the garbage patch, where POPs are feared to be accumulating in a carcinogenic brew.

The déjà vu I felt arose from dozens of sci-fi movies. We were a cliché: the small intrepid crew, the jolly send-off into the unknown. “Bon voyage! Watch out for the giant crabs!” For really, the middle of the ocean, outside shipping lanes, could just as well be Mars in terms of how little we know about what goes on out there. One study from Western Australia University had trawled the great gyres and — missed 99 percent of the plastic rubbish expected to be afloat in the oceans. Had they been in the wrong places at the wrong time? Was the plastic sinking? “Indisputably,” one scientist concluded, marine animals are eating some if not most of it. What will happen to us when we eat them? That’s Sea Dragon’s mission: Find that lurking garbage patch beast, if it’s out there, and determine how poisonous it really is. So, after punch and petits fours to celebrate the nod from Geneva, we rolled up the electrical cords, hosed down the ship, and set sail that night under a spotlight full moon, bound for the South Atlantic Gyre.

The five major oceanic gyres make up about a quarter of the Earth’s surface. Underneath the apparent chaos of the world’s weather, the gyres turn like clockworks, driven by the sun and the Earth’s rotation. A bit of flotsam entering the current off the coast of Brazil might make it all the way to West Africa and then bob on back to where it started in about three years. Or it might catch an eddy and maroon in mid-ocean. At the center of every subtropical gyre is a giant high-pressure zone of fair weather and little or no wind, the dreaded “doldrums” of the age of sail. Things get trapped amid these still waters, most famously, in the history books, the Conquistadors, becalmed in the dead center of the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, the notorious horse latitudes, where they sacrificed their ponies to the sharks.

We haven’t seen any of that calm weather yet, nor any ships or sharks—or much garbage, for that matter. But we’ve been watching for it. The Sea Dragon’s English skipper, Clive Cosby, at 35 already a veteran round the world racer, and 45-year-old first mate Dale Selvam, a classic Kiwi raconteur and renowned big-wave surfer, swap 12-hour shifts so that one or the other is always awake for an emergency; the rest of us, in three teams of three, follow a lopsided cycle of four- and six-hour watches, which somehow manages to seem both leisurely and grinding. We’re all together for the midday and evening meal, and yesterday, a couple of hours after lunch, all hands scrambled on deck when something big and white appeared on the waves. It turned out to be just a battered Styrofoam cooler, but we changed course to scoop it up with a pole net. Everybody cheered. It was absurd, really, how much we enjoyed the capture.

Tonight, as the Sea Dragon crosses the western edge of the gyre—about 3oo miles due east of Rio—Watch Team A can’t see squat beyond the little illumined stage created by the ship’s running lights. The seas arrive out of the darkness, implode into fractals of foam and force, then shove off aft into oblivion. They make a sound like applause. Or hissing disapproval. A fuse? A tremendous snake? It’s beautiful and eerie out here, hundreds of miles offshore, both unreal and hyper-real, and ultimately hypnotic. Why not—I woolgather, shivering in the spray—just beyond our circle of light, a bizarro Atlantis of plastic crap populated by bobbing Barbies and molded plastic action heroes? And hovering above Crapopolis, perhaps, a ring of judicious aliens holding clipboards like doctors in a surgical theater? And how surprised would I really be if, with the next big wave, we crashed through construction-paper scenery, and the lights came on, revealing us to be actors in bad community theater? Pretty fucking surprised, I suppose. And relieved.

“The degree of surrender,” Marcus says now, bringing me back to our shared illusion, this boat, the sea, “that’s the main difference between rafting and sailing, I think. Sailing, you conquer nature. With a raft, you submit to nature and go where it wants to take you.”

(Sergio Izquierdo)

This isn’t a non-sequitur so much as the resumption of our long desultory conversation as watch-mates. Emily, who speaks only un petit peu of English, and is still recovering from sea sickness, lies curled up like a cat against the hatchway, while Marcus and I sit in identical rough-weather posture, backs against the high side bulkhead, feet braced against the low side bench. We’ve talked a lot about the First Gulf War, where then-Sgt. Eriksen led a recon squad, and where, splattered with oil droplets and breathing the fumes of the Kuwaiti oil field fires, he saw the savagery of resource war, and began groping toward the environmental activism that would become his career.

We’ve been talking a lot about rafts. He’s built at least seven, from scrap and recyclables, most notably Junk, 18,000 plastic bottles bundled into two pontoons, with a derelict Cessna fuselage as cabin. In the summer of 2008, he and a fellow activist, Joel Paschal, drifted from Los Angeles to Honolulu in 88 days—“pretty much a walking pace”—to publicize the plastic trash issue.

A thousand waves try to topple the Sea Dragon and are crushed—it’s a formidable rough-weather ship, a sea-going 4x4—and the moon drifts toward the horizon, until it’s time to check the trawl, looking for spoor of the garbage patch beast.

Marcus springs up onto the deck to detach its safety line and haul in the Silver Surfer. Its 40-pound bulk comes out streaming seawater, clanging against the hull. Marcus muscles it over the rail and lays it carefully on the deck. At the end of the net is a PVC collection tube that has to be unclamped—my bit of labor—and by the time I’m done Emily has returned. We gather in the cockpit and train our headlamps on a shallow cake pan, eager to see what shakes out. Lots of little fish, battered to a pulp like anchovies from a pizza. “Myctophids,” Eriksen says. “Lantern fish.” The better-preserved resemble miniature gargoyles, an inch or two long, with underslung bulldog jaws. “It’s the greatest migration in the world, the vertical migration. These little guys coming up out of the darkness of the deep by the billions to feed on the surface every night.” And lots of little black flies, Halobates, tiny marine insects that stride upon the surface of the sea feeding on fish eggs. (What a planet, eh? Where you think there’s nothing, there’s always teeming strangeness!) And finally, among unidentifiable hunks of mucous-like stuff, little bright bits of colorful confetti.

(Algalita Marine Research)

Marcus is speaking into a microphone, recording for the BBC, as he pokes around in the pan with surgical tweezers. “We have crossed the western edge of the South Atlantic Subtropical Gyre and have entered the accumulation zone predicted by drift buoy data,” he says. “And as predicted, we are finding plastic.”

That confetti is indeed garbage patch scat. Particulate plastic pollution. Fear in a handful of dust?

The old Hawaiians — beachcombers par excellence— knew something of gyres, and their power to catch and hold. As the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer writes in his book, Flotsametrics and the Floating World, Hawaiian kings would post sentinels on coastal lookout spots, watching to see what the great current would bring. King Kamehameha, based on the Big Island, was finally able to conquer Oahu and Maui only after a tremendous storm ravaged the coastal forests of the American Northwest. There, some 3,000 miles away from Hawaii, floods uprooted massive spruce and redwoods and swept them out to sea. When these gifts of the gyre eventually arrived, after a journey of some months or years, they made excellent war canoes, far superior to anything that could be fashioned from endemic trees.

The same Hawaiian beaches still receive the dubious bounty of the gyre, these days by the dump truck-ful. One unfortunately positioned spot on the Big Island, known now as Junk Beach, is periodically inundated with plastic trash from the notorious Great Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. Ebbesmeyer, who coined the phrase “garbage patch” in the 1990s, compares it to “a big animal without a leash.” It sloshes around at the whim of the weather, and when it strays close to land “barfs up” a load of plastic debris. The trash includes the usual suspects—cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, toys, containers of all ilks and sizes—but is mostly chips and shards the size of fingernail clippings, a sort of ersatz sand creating a plasticized beach. Before regular—laborious and expensive—cleanups were arranged, the plastic trash on Junk Beach accumulated in drifts 16 feet deep. The EPGP doesn’t confine its “accidents” to the Big Island, but has made the entire Hawaiian chain, including the most remote and once-pristine islands, its vomitorium. And it has an evil twin, the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, closer to Japan. Combined, the northern Pacific marine dumps have been estimated to be twice the size of the continental United States.

Something so colossal could not escape notice, and indeed NOAA and other scientific orgs have been quietly studying marine debris for decades. But the scope of the problem did escape any real publicity until a wealthy California sailor, Charles Moore, decided to take a shortcut home from Honolulu in 1997. What he saw—ghost nets, five-inch-thick towing ropes, Japanese traffic cones and quarts of American-made crankcase oil, drums of hazardous chemicals, tires, volleyballs, on and on, in chunky windrows and soupy brews—amazed and appalled him. He sailed and motored for 10 days and never saw a clean stretch of sea. Ever since, like the Ancient Mariner, he has exhausted his voice—and much of his fortune—telling the world about it.

(Courtesy Pangaea Exploration)

Moore returned to the patch in 1998 with his ship the Alguita and a crew of volunteers, hauling aboard a ton of debris, and dragging a trawl to look at the smaller stuff. From his trawl results, Moore measured six pounds of plastic particles for every pound of zooplankton. In the patch, the sea was becoming plasticized. In a cosmic irony, mankind had become the medium for transforming millions of years of complex, edible life forms—the zoo- and phytoplankton that became petroleum—into their far simpler, and indigestible, petroleum-based simulacra.

In this shell game, the most visibly defrauded of nature’s citizens has been the albatross, the oversized canary in the plastic pollution coal mine. Unable to resist the floating plastic smorgasbord, adult birds sometimes choke or starve to death with a gullet full of polypropylene. The necropsy of one chick on Midway Island revealed more than 500 plastic bits, including cigarette lighters, shotgun shell casings, toy wheels, and a piece of an airplane marked “VP-101,” which was traced to a navy patrol bomber shot down in 1944.

That 60-year-old World War II souvenir confirmed what was long suspected: Plastic debris in the gyres wasn’t going anywhere but in endless circles. Indeed, all the petroleum-based plastic ever manufactured—the billiard balls of the 1870s, the nylon stockings of the 1930s, every tiddlywink and bit of sandwich wrap—is still somewhere among us.

Plastic doesn’t readily biodegrade, of course. That is one of its great anti-microbial virtues, as well as its curse. It can persist for centuries in landfills, and longer in the sea, scientists believe. Plastic does photodegrade, however. Exposed to sunlight, it loses its useful qualities, its plasticity—becomes stiff and brittle and breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. Meanwhile, as a typical 2-liter soda bottle made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) circles the drain, eventually breaking up into bits, it acts as a molecular sponge for whatever poisons it encounters, absorbing “persistent organic pollutants” like PCBs—which are known to cause cancer in lab animals and are probable human carcinogens linked to increased incidence of melanomas, liver cancer, and gall bladder and brain cancer. Many POPs are “lipophilic,” that is, attracted to fatty tissues, but also oily substances such as petroleum-based plastics. Hideshige Takada, a Japanese scientist studying plastic particles from the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, found them to be one million times more toxic than the ambient seawater in which they floated.

All the filter feeders in the sea—from the tiny salps and jellies to the giant baleen whales—may be slurping up these poison pills. Smaller still and more ubiquitous in the sea is plastic dust, which our bobbing PET bottle will one day become. And dust is not the end. Even plastic dust continues to break down, into strings of indestructible synthetic molecules, too small by far for nets of the finest mesh to catch. It is likely that every seabird now has that micro-plastic in it, and every fish. And all of us. The health repercussions of a poisoned food chain seem obvious, but a catastrophe-to-be may brew unseen like cancer before metastasis.

Ebbesmeyer, who became famous late in his career when he tracked a spilled container of 80,000 Nike sneakers, and made “gyres” a household word, is one of the world’s foremost experts on marine debris. By his count there are eight distinct garbage patches in the planet’s seas, all very likely still on the increase, as plastic production continues to balloon—up from 3.4 billion pounds in 1950 to 567 billion pounds in 2012.

“Nobody knows how dangerous they are,” he said of the garbage patches. “We have very little data. And we simply don’t know how to clean the ocean. We are dealing with perhaps the mother of all problems. I think the ocean is totally infected.”

That’s a scary thought. And yet, we’re not much afraid. We’re a bellicose and contentious species rather than a fearful one, and we’re equipped with awesome powers of denial. In that, we may be as fucked as the albatross by our evolutionary limitations. What we are afraid of is losing our jobs and our homes in an economic depression and having to hit the road as hobo hunter-gatherers. And we believe that could very well happen to a lot of us unless more and more consumers keep buying more and more stuff, much of it made of plastic and nearly all of it wrapped in seductive shiny plastic packages.

“We’re adrift on the rapids of consumption,” Charles Moore told me in a phone interview. “We are becoming our products. People are being moronized by an uncritical consumer culture in which there’s no psychological space for change. Growth has become a sacred word, like democracy or motherhood. It’s the paradigm of cancer.”

In 2005, Moore met Marcus when the latter was touring California schools with Bottle Rocket, the small plastic-bottle paddle-craft with which he had recently completed a 7-month descent of the Mississippi River, from its Minnesota source to the Gulf. Impressed with the young maverick scientist, whom he calls “a great educator,” Moore hired Dr. Marcus as director of program development for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation—in effect, as heir to the garbage patch problem. It’s a burden Dr. Marcus bears with cheerful equanimity.

Aboard the Sea Dragon, about 800 miles out and still in the shit weather-wise, we’re all gathered around the oval galley table, which is comically tilted toward starboard. Everyone is gyroscoping some warm beverage with one hand and munching a bit of chocolate from Marcus’s secret stash. After four days of root vegetable soups and pasta it’s a true luxury.

From what he’s seen at sea, Marcus tells us, he agrees with the growing consensus that there’s no way to clean up the existing patches. A Greenpeace study estimated that it would take 68 ships trawling 24 hours a day an entire year to cover 1 percent of the Pacific. They would burn up a tremendous amount of fuel and do more harm than good. “Going after the trash with nets is like standing on top of the Empire State Building with a vaccum cleaner sucking up air pollution,” he says. Reducing litter would help; plastic drives, like the old school paper drives, with economic incentives to corral plastic waste, would do some good. But not nearly enough.

“There’s no post-consumer solution,” Marcus says. “The answer is to stop the source.”

(Sergio Izquierdo)

Of course, the petrochemical complex, its dependents and beneficiaries—just about everybody—resist change. The recent attempt to ban the plastic shopping bag in California was defeated on the grounds that it would cost jobs and hinder growth. The bag even has its own website, Save the Plastic Bag, which, along with quite reasonable-sounding arguments against demonizing the ubiquitous things, shows annotated versions of Marcus’s own Junk voyage videos, pointing out that the small amounts of plastic bits in his trawls are negligible—implying that the garbage patches and the plastics problem are mostly green hype. When Marcus traveled by bicycle from Vancouver to Tijuana, giving talks in 46 cities and towns (the “Junk Ride”), the same organization shadowed them, he’s convinced, using pretty Hispanic girls as audience plants to discredit his research with scripted questions and comments. He believes that “they,” the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry, are also behind pseudo-efforts to clean up the patches with trawl nets. And they are pushing recycling as a final solution, which by itself doesn’t work, and which allows them to carry on business as usual with a clean green conscience.

As a paper published in the 2010 Proceedings of the Royal Society dryly concludes: “Efforts to reduce the flow of plastic to the seas face formidable technological and economic obstacles.”

We’ve been at sea a week now, bounced and wallowed and puked a thousand miles in foul weather, and the eyesore of macro-rubbish has yet to appear. I was prepared to be amazed and appalled like Captain Moore, and, well, it’s human nature to feel oddly disappointed when our worst fears fail to materialize. Maybe tomorrow we’ll strike the mother lode. Do I give a shit? I have in fact succumbed to the surreality of never-ending discombobulation, the lurch in the dark, the ponging from wall to wall, the spilled drink and the piss on your own foot, and have sunk into a funk. In my potato sack of a bunk, I’m listening to the wind shriek and the hull boom like a bass drum, and re-reading my favorite passages from Moby Dick. Like Queequeg, I’m fashioning my coffin from literary references.

Here’s Ahab addressing the crew of the Pequod, freaking them out with his bizarre neo-Platonism and Shakespearean diction: “Hark ye yet again”—says he—the little lower layer.” (I love that.) “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” That’s creepy enough, a double vision of a double world, with a hostile underpinning. “Malice sinewing it,” as Ahab says. A world where every solution is a problem in disguise. But hark ye: Ahab is an oilman. He hunts the purest energy source of his day, the spermaceti. Proto-petroleum, solar juice in a big sentient package. It was bloody savage work. Our contemporary oilmen have lost the blood but perhaps not the savagery, not on the nano-level—“the little lower layer”—where petroleum by-products wreck their havoc.

I scrounge around in my bunk-side library for another volume: Tristes Tropique. With impeccable logic, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss beats the drum of doom, prophesizing the dangers of economic growth on a global scale. He sees industrial civilization as the unparalleled agent of entropy, breaking down complex structures into simpler forms—as a marsh becomes a parking lot, a winding river a canal—until, at the height of human success, every niche has been exploited, every gap filled, and the monolithic monoculture grinds to a halt, one giant gear with nothing left to grab. He goes on, into the realm of lucid paranoia (as if taking dictation from a spaceship), to speak of a “progressive welding together of humanity and the physical universe, whose great deterministic laws, instead of remaining remote and awe-inspiring, now use thought itself as an intermediary medium and are colonizing us on behalf of a silent world of which we have become the agents.”

Say quoi, mon frère? Is Levi-Strauss’s “silent world” the same entity as Melville’s “unknown but still reasoning thing”? The two great pessimists seem to evoke a kind of cosmic accounting in a universal ledger book. Therein is writ the true costs of civilization. Of the Anthropocene. We take. “It” records. And then It moves

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