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Episode 106: Using Science to Find Solutions for Circularity (Transcript)


[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste, recycling, and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry, and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.


[00:00:26] Liz: Hi, everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 and I'm with Marcus Eriksen, [inaudible 00:00:31] author, Marine Scientist, and co-founder of Leap Lab, as well as the research director and co-founder of 5 Gyres Institute. Welcome, Marcus, and thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:43] Marcus Eriksen: Hi, Liz. Thanks for having me.

[00:00:46] Liz: Could you please introduce yourself and tell me what fueled your passion for your important work?

[00:00:52] Marcus: Sure. My name is Marcus Eriksen. I am a Marine Scientist. I work on plastic pollution in the world's oceans. That work has really expanded to step back from the oceans and look at the global issue of plastics, some of the impacts on our ecosystems, our economy, on human health, social impacts, and then really what the solutions are in going forward. But my background in this goes back, I'd say, a few decades.

I grew up in New Orleans, just outside the city, I could walk three miles to a swamp, and I really grew a love for nature. That really stuck with me, that strong conservation ethic. When I finished high school, I joined the Marine Corps and I found myself in the first Gulf War. Do you remember back in 1991 when the US went into Kuwait City? I was there and I was among all the burning oil wells. Do you remember that scene of all the oil wells on fire? My conservation ethic really came back to me and really questioning, "Why are we here? What are we doing? What is this addiction to fossil fuels?"

We extract fossil fuels to make energy and chemistry, but the true costs of full life cycle of that chemistry on the backend is pretty horrific when you look at plastics and climate change, of course, with plastics and its own documented harm. I was there in the Gulf War and I saw these burning wells. I thought to myself, "If I survive this war, I want to raft the Mississippi River." I grew up in New Orleans and many kids talk about it. I actually did it 13 years later back in 2003. What I saw was an unending trail of plastics.

I could look to the left and right bank of the Mississippi River, my five months going down the entire river, and just see trash. Everything came back to me, all my memories of childhood, of the war in the Persian Gulf, and now this beautiful river that I fell in love with to see it trashed by plastics. I came back to California and I had to understand, what is this garbage patch everyone's talking about? That goes back now 17 years. I was wondering, "What is this?" so I met captain Charles Moore, the guy that discovered the garbage patch.

Within a few weeks of meeting him, I had a job as his Director of Research, and that re-launched my career. Here we are today. We've begun the 5 Gyres Institute. Now it's 10 years old. We've sailed around the world and it's really interesting times now. I feel more optimistic now than ever.

[00:03:34] Liz: I'm so glad to hear that you're optimistic. That's huge because we need that going forward and more people involved in stakeholders to really make change happen. I want to dig into the journey you had mentioned, but first, could you tell me a little bit more about Leap Lab and the work you're doing at 5 Gyres Institute?

[00:03:56] Marcus: Yes. Both are organizations that my wife, Anna Cummins, and I have both founded. The 5 Gyres Institute came first. The 5 Gyres Institute is really about ocean plastics. It began that way. What we saw 10 years ago was a huge gap in the data. I'm an environmental scientist and Anna works on policy. We thought. "There's all this talk of islands of trash in the ocean, this fictional garbage patch." And there's more than one. There's more than one gyre in the world's oceans.

Gyres are these spinning currents. There are five major ocean gyres, subtropical gyres, North Pacific being just one. There was questions about, "Well, how much trash is out there? Where is it? What is the impact?" We set sail in, I think, 2008 was our first expedition. Another rafting voyage followed by about 20 research expeditions. We've done the equivalent of sailing around the world twice, just studying ocean plastics. We've answered those questions. We published a paper on plastics, The Abundance, and Distribution of Plastics Globally.

Then, by 2013, we were in the Great Lakes and discovered plastic microbeads. That set us on this policy trajectory looking at, "Okay, now we can really pinpoint the type of plastic, where it's coming from, the product, which country, which company." Which we couldn't do in the ocean. In the open ocean, plastic is so degraded you don't know where it came from. It's the tragedy of the commons.

By finding microbeads in the Great Lakes, we were able to launch a policy campaign with about 50 other organizations and we got President Obama to sign the Microbead-Free Waters Act back in 2015. That's what 5 Gyres does. We turn science into policy. Now we're looking at a few things, plastics and asphalt. We're seeing that using our roads. We're looking at bio-plastics, are plastics really biodegradable and which ones are, which ones are not. That's the focus of 5 Gyres.

Now, Leap Lap, we're just starting that organization, and that's a passion that both Anna and I had since childhood. It's about science literacy. Increasing science literacy throughout society in our schools. We have seen what can happen when we're not using science as the foundation for policy and public conversations and in politics. We need to have strengthened our foundation of science. We are building a science center. In Ventura County, we aim to build a science center to house a lot of our exhibits that we have. It will be your typical science center, but with a much more research-based progressive mission.

Those are the two organizations and, like I said, I feel much more optimistic. Having heard Biden's conversation with 40 leaders around the world on Earth Day, the Earth Day Summit he did last week. So inspiring. Add that to couple that with all the policy wins we've had, I'm feeling much more optimistic.

[00:07:17] Liz: That's great. I know I've read about that discovery of the microbeads in the Great Lakes. Amazing that you were behind that. It really was the cornerstone of removing microbeads from cosmetics, isn't that part of what the Microbead-Free Waters Act was? Can you talk a little more about what it actually did?

[00:07:41] Marcus: Yes. There was an organization already in the Netherlands called the Plastic Soup Foundation that had a campaign around plastic microbeads. They made a lot of public awareness initially, but there wasn't any data to support all of that, and that was happening in Europe. Here in the US, we found the microbeads and then we had a smoking gun. We were able to coordinate with 50 organizations. It was pretty amazing. It goes to show what collaboration can do.

We were sharing media, we were sharing film and photography. We had Tulane Law School dedicate one of their quarterly journals just to microplastics and microbeads, so we had sample policy. Then, working with some other organizations that are really, really good at policy. Steve Wilson, for example, was a huge part of this at the driving force to get this bill passed. A couple of senators picked up the bill, the sample bill that we worked with Tulane Law School to create, brought it to Obama's desk and what he saw was much of the country advocating for getting rid of this plastic product in cosmetics, facial scrubs, and toothpaste.

It was a no-brainer. It was like, "Why are we putting little small microbeads into products you put in your face and you wash down the drain?" Industry came around to agree as well. Although it did fight us a bit, but eventually we won and in 2015 the bill passed.

[00:09:16] Liz: That's awesome. I love hearing that and I loved the way that you phrased it, that you and your wife are using science to actually drive policy. That's amazing. I know you said you work with your wife and you guys had similar backgrounds in what you wanted to accomplish, but I also saw that you have a unique and very fitting engagement story. Do you mind sharing that?

[00:09:38] Marcus: [laughs] Yes. We have similar backgrounds, but culturally very different. I grew up in the Deep South, outside of New Orleans, playing in the swamp. Then when I came of age, I joined the military. I was in the Marine Corps, like I mentioned before, for six years and Anna grew up in Santa Monica. Very much went to a progressive school and the military was so far from her mindset. But we met and our core is really about conservation.

She and I both bonded over what is going to take to set next generation up for success to conserve all the resources that we need to survive, basically. On that foundation, we founded the 5 Gyres Institute. When we met within about, I'd say, five months of meeting, I was set to go at sea with captain Charles Moore into the North Pacific to survey plastics in the subtropical gyre in North Pacific, what we call the garbage patch. I asked her if she wanted to come along.

Charlie Moore had said yes already and she agreed. We've been dating for a little while. We were there from January through February, a solid month at sea. February 14th in 2008, we're in the middle of the North Pacific, halfway between Hawaii and California's coast. I spot Anna, she's sleeping in the bundle of sails that'd been dropped from the mast and there's a comfortable little bed outside and I climbed up to her. The day before, I found some fishing line floating in the ocean.

I cut a little piece, an eight-inch piece, and I wove a little ring.

I come next to her and I just asked her, "Would you marry me?" I followed that with, "You don't have to answer now, I know we're in the middle of the ocean. You can wait a few weeks we get to land." But she said, "Yes." I followed that with a question also. I said, "Before we get married, can we build another plastic bottle boat and sail across the ocean?" I didn't mention that my Mississippi River raft was made from 252-liter plastic bottles.


I thought I knew plastic bottle boats pretty well. When Anna and I get engaged, I asked her, I just said, "I want to build this plastic bottle raft, can we do this first?" And she said, "Yes." She was [unintelligible 00:12:23] control. My friend Joel Paskel, he is a sailor and he and I were their co-navigators on this raft that we made out of 15,000 plastic bottles. We took 26 sailboat masts and made a square deck. All the bottles we stuffed into old fishing nets.


We had the old fishing nets, all these used bottles, all these old sailboat masts from broken sailboats, and for a cabin went to the coolest junkyard in California. I found a Cessna 310 aircraft. I cut the wings off and I put the rest of it on top of this platform, this floating platform. An a-frame of two masts to hold a little piece of sail. We found some old junk sails somewhere, and we spray painted them with black spray paint, "Junk" across a sail. That was the name of the raft.

We left the coast of Los Angeles, Joel and I, roughly two and a half months after Anna and I had landed from our trip in the North Pacific gyre with Charles Moore. We had two and a half months. We built that boat. We put it right into the water next to the aquarium in long beach, California, and then Charles Moore, he pulled up next to us and he towed us out to sea, 60 miles out, and let us go. That began this ocean odyssey. We thought it might take us three, maybe four weeks. Six weeks max if we're unlucky.

13 weeks later, we hobbled into Waikiki. We lost 20 pounds of weight each. We were pretty much out of food, eating mahimahi and peanut butter, but we made it. I saw Anna waiting on the dock and we succeeded in terms of the number of people we reached with the message that a plastic bottle leaving your land anywhere in the world is going to travel far, far, far before it makes landfall somewhere else. A million people saw our website on the day we landed thanks to the APN, Reuters, the newswires. That was a successful journey and that launched 5 Gyres. Also launched my marriage with Anna.

[00:14:34] Liz: That's amazing. What a beautiful story. If you guys can withstand that, you're in it forever. I love it.

[00:14:42] Marcus: [laughs] Yes, so far it's been wonderful.

[00:14:46] Liz: Tell me more about that journey. What did you see? Did the boat withstand the winds, the current, and everything else? I'd love to hear more.

[00:14:58] Marcus:  If we have a few days to talk. It was a lot. It's three months at sea and it was amazing for many reasons. One is that I got to really understand how plastics move in the oceans. I got to really fall in love with the ocean. My feet were wet pretty much all the time as our raft, the deck was touching the water waves would splash up. I would sit there and for three months just watch the ocean. I could sit there and I could count to a thousand.

I can't count to 10 now without thinking about checking email, or paying a bill or something, all the distractions. But there, I was just at peace with the oceans, watching the waves, and I saw some amazing things. I remember one night, Joel and I had this rotating watch schedule. Eight hours on, eight hours off. Four hours on, four hours off. When you're on watch, you're at the helm and you're making sure the boat goes straight. If the raft would've turned, the wind would spin it and the sail would flood. It was a big mess.

They really on for eight hours making sure their raft goes straight. I had to the 1:00 AM to 9:00 AM watch. I had the middle of the night. I remember one morning, it's like 3:00 in the morning. It's pitch black and I can tell there's a storm in the horizon. Behind me, there were no stars and I could see lightning. There was a squall that was building and coming our way. I could tell which ones are going to hit me based on the direction I would see at the [unintelligible 00:16:34] of the storm.

The storm hit. It's so fierce and they move very quick. In 15-20 minutes it's over, but during that time, there can be 30-40 knot winds. The boat spins around. We towed one sail with one squall, and to these days to repair it. But this time, the squall passed. It was a moonlit night, so a full moon. At this point now, the storm is in front of me. It's already passed. I'm soaked to the bone. The water just trickled right through my raincoat, my waist, my feet were soaked, my neck and my shirt is miserable and cold.

I look up and on the clouds, in front of this wall of clouds, there's a rainbow in shades of gray. It was a moonbow and it almost brought tears to my eyes. It was so cool, so beautiful. My first time ever and I haven't seen one since. This moonbow just at 3:00 in the morning in the middle of the ocean.

[00:17:43] Liz: That's beautiful. That was a sign of good things to come, I think.

[00:17:49] Marcus: Yes. I was constantly chasing the wind. I had my north star to my right and just chasing the stars west, keeping that moon right where it needed to be on the side of me. The wildlife I saw, there wasn't that much, but I remember a few occasions seeing tropic birds all around me with those long tails. Watching mahimahi. Mahimahi are beautiful fish. Seeing these giant adult mahimahi, I think it's three and a half feet long.

Watching them chase flying fish and watching the flying fish then jump out of the waves, and then watching the birds above dive and try and catch him. Now, I felt bad for the flying fish, but that's as nature goes. Just watching this dance that we pin to wildlife was pretty amazing to watch at the sea. We saw a rudderfish. Actually, I watched a whole school of little yellowtail eat a little small fish. Not yellowtail, sorry, they were a rainbow runner. Watch them hatch under our raft.

I watch them hatch like at week three. Two months later, I see these fish and there were 300, then were down to five. Hardly any left. At that point, we were hungry. We're out of food, so I caught one intending to eat it. I filleted this fish, maybe a foot long, and I see its stomach is really tough. I took the filet knife and I just tapped the stomach. It opened up and 17 particles of plastic poured out. I was speechless. A fish I watched being born and I watched it grow.

Then when I got hungry, I caught the fish to eat it and eat every bit of it, except for the plastic trash in its stomach. I was like, "Wow, in the middle of nowhere, we were a little more than halfway across the ocean, and these fish are eating our trash." I would later discover that thousands of species, well over 2,000 species discovered today, are either eating or are being entangled by our trash. That was a huge a-ha moment, and that photograph I took of that fish it's perhaps the most famous picture I took out of that expedition, perhaps the most important I've taken in my career. It's been shared so many times and it makes it a huge point in the public, it really resonated with the public to see this coming out of a fish's stomach.

[00:20:36] Liz: I bet. How much more concrete can you get? The reality is there.

[00:20:40] Marcus: Exactly. 

[00:20:42] Liz: Speaking of that, I'm really resonating with the community and people worldwide. Do you think there is now a growing movement toward ending plastics pollution worldwide?

[00:20:56] Marcus: There is, and the movement has become very powerful. Break Free From Plastic is one organization, it brings organizations together. They are an umbrella of maybe over 2,000 organizations worldwide under the Break Free From Plastic umbrella. The Plastic Pollution Coalition is another that has hundreds of organizations working with them in collaboration. These coalitions are really building, they're global, and they're powerful, they're influencing the Biden administration. They just put forward the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which we all need to support. That is going to really bring back producer responsibility for plastics in the US.

Then you've got the United Nations' global treaty on plastic pollution that's being discussed right now, and in February of 2022, UNEA, [unintelligible 00:21:51] the United Nations organization is going to debate the efficacy of the global treaty on plastic pollution, but we have our work cut out for us. Industry is working overtime, of course, to defend production of plastics. We're seeing more and more plastic production plants growing around the world, and that's being driven by demand, of course, for plastic products as the middle-class rises around the world, but there's also demand for single-use plastics. That's what we're trying to influence, because much of the harm that we've documented is from single-use plastics. Fishing gear as well, and single-use plastics.

If we could create better systems of responsibility for the full life cycle of fishing gear and single-use plastics, it might be eliminating some of those or creating net lease programs like [unintelligible 00:22:48] for single-use plastics finding all the alternatives, different materials, different ways of moving goods, ushering in the reuse economy so we're reusing things locally, rather than throwing away some of these plastics, that's what we're working on. But industry is fighting fiercely to defend production and their end-of-life solution is really more recycling, and we know for the last 40 years that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem.

For example, in the US we recycled less than 10% of the plastic we produce. It really has failed miserably, and there are two big reasons why this failed. One is that companies are not obligated to design or recycling. When you laminate plastic and paper together, it's unrecyclable. Technically, you could if you throw enough money at it, but economically, unrecyclable. You laminate plastics and metal like all the pouches you see, like the one you see in juice pouches, those are metal and plastics, those are economically unrecyclable.

Technologically, sure. You can technologic recycle anything if you throw money at it, but we're seeing that most single-use plastics, they fail to work in a circular economy. Much of the world's coalitions are trying to eliminate single-use plastics, bringing the reuse economy, whereas industry is pushing for recycling more. They call it advanced recycling techniques to take plastics, you break down the chemistry and remake something else, but that could work for other things like durable goods, like car bumpers and computer housings, but single-use plastics, there's just too much harm in the loss of the environment, we got to get rid of those.

[00:24:43] Liz: I love that you said we can't recycle our way out of this problem, and a lot of our listeners are haulers and recyclers, they handle the end of life of a lot of these products and they're the first ones to say that. They're left holding the bag with a lot of these products that have already been produced. It does need to be dealt with upstream a bit, it's good to hear you say that. Do you see any other role that waste and recycling, the industry itself, can have in all of this in combating this issue?

[00:25:17] Marcus: Yes, for sure. This is where I'd love to brainstorm with you and other folks in the industry about how to create local circular economies around how materials flow. At some point, it'd be good to be material hollers where we get the idea of waste out of our mindset and think of resources. You already see a growing and increasingly robust system for managing biodegradable materials, yard clippings, and food scraps. I'm seeing more and more cities create diversion for that, and that becomes less waste, it becomes more of a resource material.

Same for most haulers, they know what's recyclable and what's not. To get better at diversion of materials from households, from businesses, from schools so that they can maybe be captured, sorted, and captured. What becomes too dirty to have value like a styrofoam plate or a plastic bag, those things that create problems, they [unintelligible 00:26:33] machinery. To get those problematic products, there are better ways that we can package and deliver goods to the public.

Can we create these localized, circular economies where things can get reuse, remanufactured within a small radius of where they're utilized? I think waste haulers play a big role in really telling the rest of the world how this could work in a practical sense, and also in an economic sense, what's going to work to make those materials valuable. That is mostly creating the local systems rather than moving materials around the world. As you know, transportation is the most expensive thing to do.

[00:27:21] Liz: Absolutely. I do like the way you're focusing on local because, as you know, that's most of the waste is managed here anyways. It does get harder once you get into more national ideas and things like that. I think you're onto something with local [inaudible 00:27:38]

[00:27:39] Marcus: Yes. We're seeing that's the big push for the coalitions that are working on plastic pollution issues. They're really looking at the local circular economy through reuse, and there are many models of reuse. Their business models are being tested and they're working. There's a company vessel that creates a reusable mug and cup that can be used in restaurants and coffee shops can share the same cup. If the cup is dirty, you bring it back to one restaurant and they'll take it, clean it, and give you back another beverage. That your local reuse economy.

Then, there's RePack or reusable mailer, which Amazon, FedEx, and UPS could use. There's CupClub, they reuse cups. GO Box it's reusable to go container for restaurants. These examples of local reuse economies business models, I think are what we're going to see in the future. That's what much of the coalitions of nonprofits around the world are working on.

[00:28:47] Liz: That's great to hear. I know that we're talking about some other options and organizations that help with reuse, and I know we had a question too, is, what's the current state of biodegradable plastic? Have you seen anything that you find that could be usable or is a solution going forward?

[00:29:10] Marcus: That's a good question. We did a study about almost four years ago, where we were asking the same question. There's a lot of talk about bio-plastics, and we saw PLA, polylactic acid, was getting a lot of attention. There are many claims on the packaging about its degradability. Eco-friendly, you saw lots of little green leaves, green trees, and little green triangle symbols on this packaging, and a lot of it we thought might be greenwashing. We took about 20 different products, all made from PLA, there was one PHA product, some paper products, and then some conventional plastics like polyethylene as a control.

I took the 20 products and I put them into a milk crate with about a dozen bricks and I sunk it under a fishing dock, actually, Charles Morris fishing dock, for two years. Took the same set, put another set in my backyard under a few inches of soil for two years. I was trying to simulate what happens if they're lost in the ocean or lost on the roadside, and I found in two years all those PLA products like the corn cups you might get, or the starch wear, utensils made from cornstarch. All those things in two years, nothing happened, they were still there.

Two years in the ocean, two years in the roadside on my backyard, nothing happened, but the paper products were gone. The papers trial was gone, the wet wipes made from cellulose were gone, and that one PHA product I had, it was the thickest item of them all. It was a beach toy, really thick, and that was gone. I was wondering, "What is PHA and how does this stuff work?"

PHA it's made from microbes, they make PHA in their bodies to store energy, and during lean times, they'll eat the PHA and [unintelligible 00:31:19] salt walls. PHA it's a natural material, and to have this one beach toy that degraded, it really made me think that this has legs. Right now, we're launching another study, we're taking 22 products, almost all are PHA. There are a couple of cellulose and conventional plastics, some PLA stuff in there, but mostly PHA. We're now going to launch this study and put these products. We have six sets, we'll put three of them in an aquatic environments in Maine, in Florida and California.

Now, there are three sets in terrestrial environments in Maine, Florida, and California. Six environments over 64 weeks. We'll pull them out, we'll pull one set out in two weeks, one at four, eight, 16, 32, and 64 weeks. They really understand degradation over time in different environments because we really think that PHA has potential to be useful in applications where lost environment could happen, so we want to see if PHA really works.

What's missing is, again, that bit of science, how does it degrade over time in different environments? That's where 5 Gyres really excels. Science to solutions. We began doing our ocean plastics work, and now we're transitioning doing some primary research. We're really looking at how can we really test the claims that industry is making on solutions. There are so many solutions being proposed now, the private sector has really stepped up, but who's going to validate the claims they might make on their products and their materials. That's the kind of work we're doing now. We're actually studying PHA, and we'll know in a year and a half how it performs. I think it's going to go well, that's my hypothesis, but we will see.

I do believe in bioplastics. Should bioplastics be replacing all the single-use plastics? I'm not sure. That's for the coalition to really figure out, it depends on some of the science, but I could see bioplastics being used in aquaculture, in other maritime activities, led to see being used in the fishing industry. I have found some fishing nets in our ocean expeditions that were 20, 30 years old. It's ridiculous that we have this material wood that we're using in the ocean, and if we lose it, it's not going away. Biopolymers could play a role in some of these industries.

[00:33:57] Liz: Definitely. I agree with you on the net thing and a lot of what you said as well. When are you starting this study? Are you starting this now, Marcus?

[00:34:07] Marcus: In about two weeks.

[00:34:10] Liz: That's great, you have to keep us posted. I'll be very interested to hear, and I'd love to share the work you're doing as well.

[00:34:18] Marcus: Yes. It's interesting work and actually, there's some interesting policy initiatives happening right now here in California in bioplastics. It's based on the definition, is PHA for example, and PHB a similar copolymer? Are they plastic? Are they a natural material? That's a debate happening at the policy level right now. Some of that debate is because there are unknowns. If it doesn't degrade in the 64 weeks of our study, that's going to make the case that it behaves more like plastic and its persistence, but if it doesn't, then it's going to lend credence to the argument that this could be a viable material for some of the applications that are prone to be lost in the environment, like maritime industry.

I think this is a really interesting time for biopolymers. Our study I hope contributes some good information. The world is now really stepping up, the private sector is really stepping up to the plate and say, "What do we do?" Governments around the world, the UN is debating a global treaty, Break Free From Plastic just launch, a Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. The Biden administration is taking it seriously. Like I said a couple of times already, there is room for optimism.

[00:35:38] Liz: Definitely, and you just noted many reasons why. The momentum is definitely going in that direction, so it's great to see. We'll keep it going.

[00:35:49] Marcus: Yes. Good. We need to.

[00:35:52] Liz: Has COVID 19 impacted your work at all?

[00:35:56] Marcus: Yes. We no longer have an office, like many people do, we all work from home. We all Zoom constantly. We just hired a new scientist, so we're doing a lot of work. We're launching a couple of studies, the PHA study. We have one looking at plastics and asphalt. Here in Los Angeles, there is one test road, a couple of sites actually, where they're testing the practice of putting plastic waste, mixing it with asphalt as a binder. Rather than using raw fossil fuels, using tar, they want to use melted plastic.

We discovered that no one has done a study to see the environmental impacts. There's no EIR on plastics and asphalt. That's a [unintelligible 00:36:44] we're launching. Lisa Ertle is a science we've hired. She's an amazing, brilliant, young scientist from the University of Toronto. In terms of COVID, we are getting lots of questions about the abundance of masks and gloves and PPE out in the world. I've received so many photographs from divers, from folks walk on beaches, just picking up masks, seeing masks, and not wanting to pick them up. 

I believe that's just temporary, once you're out of the pandemic, we're going to have to deal with the cleanup of all that, but there is, and I'm sure you've seen it in Waste Management, an increase off PPE that's been utilized. That makes me think of plastics in the world of hospitals. My sister-in-law's a surgeon, and she says the amount of plastics PPE uses all the time is unbelievable, how much gets used.

Every time they go into procedure, the gloves come on, gloves come off, gloves go on, all the waste. Unlike single-use plastics in the hospitals, that's a very controlled regulated setting for managing hospital waste. It's the single-use plastics that we're trying to address, and that's what we're doing good during this COVID time, we're still pushing for the policies. We have a program called Reusable LA. It's actually a coalition of Los Angeles-based organizations trying to shift Los Angeles away from single-use to reuse. I would say we're busier now during COVID than ever, and to some degree, we're thriving having hired three people last year.

[00:38:28] Liz: Great, I love to hear silver linings like that. I think, if anything, it put a spotlight on important work like this, so hopefully, this will continue. 

[00:38:40] Marcus: Yes. Unfortunate, I don't see this problem being solved in the next few years, although I do see huge try to the UN treat and Break Free From Plastics Act, but I think there's still work to be done. I think what we've always thought is it's constant pressure over time. Things won't happen overnight, and you have to be thick skinned and just understand that if you don't give up and you believe you're right, you can have success over time, but you got to put in the hours.

It's a lot of me sending emails at 2:00 in the morning, and just trying to get things done. We've had lots of success in the past, and I foresee in the future a lot more dialogue, a lot more policy, a lot more innovation, and entrepreneurs coming to the table. A lot of work ahead.

[00:39:38] Liz: Definitely, but like you said, there's optimism in the air, and it's definitely moving in the right direction. Do you have any advice for people who want to do their part to overcome the plastics crisis, but well, "Hey, I'm just one person. What can I do?"

[00:39:53] Marcus: That's a good question. I often say that, first of all, one person it's not going to change the whole world, but a group of people will. My advice is just, "Get organized." If you're passionate about this or you just want to contribute something, look the organizations who are working on this issue, and help to contribute to them your time, donations, but get organized. There's a lot of policy work being done, and that needs people, average citizens to call their local leaders to support these bills.

Then also to think of in your world, in your sphere of your kids' school, your business, your home, how can you zero waste your lifestyle, your operations? How can you get throw away plastic spoons out of your school's cafeteria that go through hundreds a day? How can you get rid of water bottles at your office, and instead have a reusable water cooler? There are lots of little things like that, so zero wasting your life. They're getting organized to support the groups that are collectively working on policy, or science, or education. That's why I advise the individual to do.

[00:41:21] Liz: That's great advice, and you're right, individual [unintelligible 00:41:25] up. If you look at it that way and get groups involved, and contact the right people.

[00:41:34] Marcus: Yes. We got to get organized.

[00:41:37] Liz: Love that. You talked a little bit about this, but what's next for you beyond all of the studies that you mentioned and that important work? What else do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?

[00:41:52] Marcus: Well, we're still working with 5 Gyres. We're consulting with a few companies on their products and packaging. That's the role we've taken out, working with the private sector more closely. I'm working on another global estimate paper, looking at the trend of plastic in the oceans over time, and the case I want to make there is that, it's so difficult to survey the ocean surface, to monitor it that perhaps the ocean is not the best place to look. We're discovering coastlines [unintelligible 00:42:25], that's a bit of research I'm still involved in. But 5 Gyres is working more on policy, working locally in LA for Reusable LA.

For me personally, Anna and I, we've begun Leap Lab, the science center. We are now three months since we bought a 15-acre farm in Ventura County in California. Our intent is to turn this into the science center we dreamed up. The Leap Lab Ventura, we're based here in Santa Paula, California, and we're looking forward to building up the exhibit space, creating education programs, and getting out into the county. There are 140,000 students within a 30-mile radius where we live. We're going to focus on that half of our time, other half continue working on plastics.

[00:43:21] Liz: That's great. What type of exhibits are you going to have there?

[00:43:24] Marcus: Well, I didn't mention this, but I have a side business of collecting Late Cretaceous dinosaurs. For 30 years I've been going to Eastern Wyoming, and now in our garage, this property has a 4,000 square foot metal barn. I've got eight triceratops skeletons, some T-Rex parts, and a duck-billed dinosaur on the way. So we're going to have a nice natural history exhibit.

We have a timeline going across a property 700 feet, so you walk through time, beginning at 4.6 billion years at the first step, and you walk across the property and get to the Anthropocene today. Then there should be a model of our solar system on one corner of the property, and the rest of it, we're going to grow a passion fruit. We're going to have an active agricultural tourism program thriving where folks can see what does it look like to grow your own food, to make your own power, to capture and clean your water.

It's a science center with a strong sustainability bend, and we're really thinking about what does the localized community of the future need to know, need to have, to have a strong local resilient robust circular economy. That takes really knowing the science of getting there. That's what Leap Labs is going to be about.

[00:44:51] Liz: That's great. Having things like that hands-on can educate a lot of people.

[00:44:55] Marcus: Kids love dinosaurs. We can get the kids in the door to come see the bones. I mean, I've got the only triceratops skull in Ventura County, I believe, in my garage. I want the 140,000 kids in the county to come check it out, and while you're here, let's talk about ocean plastics and how much we love the ocean. We can talk about [unintelligible 00:45:18], we can talk about time and natural history. I'm really excited about the next few years on our plate.

[00:45:27] Liz: Well, that's exciting. You have so much interesting, thoughtful, important work that you're doing. Please, tell me how everyone can kind of follow along with this journey and learn more about what you do. Do you want to share social networks or your website?

[00:45:44] Marcus: Sure. I'll just share our two websites. With the interest in ocean plastics, if you get any questions, please reach out to us. I answer a dozen questions a day each morning. I just love talking, especially the kids, and that's at 5gyres.org. It's a number five G-Y-R-E-S.org. You can find me there, and then this new venture with Leap Lab, is Leap Lab, L-E-A-P L-A-B.org. You can find me there as well. If you have any interest in natural history, sustainability, and if you want to come dig dinosaurs this summer, we've got expeditions starting in July to go dig another triceratops skull.

A lot of diverse eclectic things going on, but those are two websites, 5gyres.org and leaplab.org. I invite everyone to come check it out and don't hesitate to reach out to me personally.

[00:46:39] Liz: Can you tell me quickly about your new book and the one that I just received that I need to dig into a little bit more? Junk.

[00:46:49] Marcus: Yes. It's called Junk. Junk Raft, an Ocean Expedition and a Rising Tide to Address Plastic Pollution. It's about the junk raft voyage, and it's a bit of an adventure story at sea for three months on a homemade raft. It's a love story also that it really chronicles the work that Anna and I have done together. I'll tell you, three months, being away from my new fiancĂ© was tough, but then it's really is a deep dive into the science of plastic pollution and what are the viable solutions. I wrote this almost three years ago, but so the science hasn't changed, and really is a good deep dive. If you want to know a lot about ocean plastics, a good introduction, that book is a good way to find out more.

[00:47:45] Liz: Awesome. Well, I can't wait to dive in and I may get back to you with questions or thoughts. I can't wait.

[00:47:50] Marcus: Anytime. I'm happy to answer any questions and talk more about plastics.

[00:47:58] Liz: Well, this has been great. Thank you, first of all, for your service. I meant to say that in the beginning, we appreciate everything that you've done for our country, and thanks for your time today, Marcus. I really look forward to following your journey and seeing what else you and Anna do. It's exciting.

[00:48:14] Marcus: Thank you. My pleasure, and again, thank you for having me on the show, really appreciate it.

[00:48:19] Liz: Thank you for listening. It would mean the world if you would take a moment to rate or review this podcast. If you share it with us on one of our social networks, we are giving out some fun Nothing Wasted Podcast swag. Just tag us and see what you get. Thanks so much.


TAGS: Plastics
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