To fight plastic pollution, Marcus Eriksen sailed the Pacific on a vessel made of trash

By Bliss Bowen

Eriksen sailed for 88 days on 15,000 plastic bottles

Environmental scientist Marcus Eriksen’s recently published book “Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution” recounts the kind of nail-chomping adventure you see in films.

In 2008, he and invaluable co-navigator Joel Paschal sailed from Los Angeles to Hawaii in 88 days using the North Pacific Gyre’s swirling current. Their motor-less “junk raft” floated on six pontoons made of 15,000 recycled plastic bottles, and carried a Cessna plane body where they slept and stored provisions like batteries, a satellite phone and laptop computer. When they disembarked in Waikiki, Eriksen was greeted by future wife Anna Cummins, with whom he later co-founded the ocean conservation nonprofit 5 Gyres Institute, which addresses the “global health crisis of plastic pollution.”

That’s the deeper story the amply footnoted book’s adventures hook readers into: plastic’s insidious permeation of the global ecosystem, and industry’s deep-pocketed campaigns to squash anti-plastic legislation and compromise scientific research. Eriksen draws lines clearly: conservatives call plastic waste “litter” while progressives refer to it as “pollution,” and he is not shy about calling out politicians who suck at industry’s teat.

“The plastics industry has tried to own the conversation [about plastic pollution] since the 1970s,” he says. Polite and intensely focused, he ticks off a list of 1960s-’70s corporate anti-litter ads that pushed the idea that individuals cause pollution. “Nothing about design of products. Nothing about the overabundance of plastics replacing everything, especially single-use throwaway items. … To this day, their two reasons for the problem are waste management, which they expect us to pay for, and human behavior.”

“Junk Raft” shifts between scientific reportage and sometimes harrowing passages about storms at sea, emergency raft repairs, dwindling supplies and one extraordinary mid-Pacific meeting with ocean rower Roz Savage. In three months at sea Eriksen and Paschal encountered no dolphins or whales, but they did find thousands of microplastic particles — more devastating than the erroneously hyped floating “Texas-sized garbage patch” that gripped public imagination almost 20 years ago. As Eriksen writes and musician Jack Johnson’s new Eriksen-featuring documentary “The Smog of the Sea” spells out, that “plastic smog” of trillions of particles is destructively infiltrating the bottom of the marine food chain.

Eriksen describes netted fish covered in microplastic “like sprinkles on cupcakes.” Plastic’s ubiquity has also turned marine life and aquatic insects into transoceanic hitchhikers, potentially threatening endemic species across the globe.

“That open highway of organisms to move across oceans did not exist prior to plastic in the entire history of life on Earth,” Eriksen observes. “We had mass migrations of birds and fish and larvae and some organisms, but typically things didn’t survive those long floats unless they were evolved to do so. Now they do. In the past, coconuts and logs wouldn’t survive a 5,000-mile journey at sea. But now plastic can.”

Ericksen continually calls for product designers, systems engineers and recyclers to collaborate as a matter of survival and efficiency.

Sixty-nine days into their journey, when Eriksen and Paschal have grimly discovered that, unlike mariners of the past, they can no longer depend on the ocean’s bounty to feed them, they’re elated when Paschal catches a rainbow runner. But when Eriksen dissects the fish’s hard stomach, he finds plastic inside — and nothing else.

“Often we look to charismatic megafauna, things with big eyes — the panda, the tiger, the whales — but it’s the smaller things that perhaps aren’t so cuddly that often, when they’re impacted, can bring the most harm to us overall,” he says.

But Eriksen, a self-described “eco-pragmatist,” finds hope in the growing zero-waste movement, which ultimately buoys “Junk Raft.”

“When humans first made fire, we had a huge transformation around that captured energy. Then we began agriculture, and captured the sun’s energy in plants, and then the industrial revolution to capture fossil plant energy to create machines. And now we have this other transformation of energy, where we’ll preserve our biosphere by getting all our energy from sustainable sources — from the sun and wind and water, and not polluting sources,” he says. “That transformation is happening right before our eyes. It’s pretty amazing to see.”


Marcus Eriksen reads from “Junk Raft” at Patagonia (1344 4th St., Santa Monica) from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, and at Diesel Bookstore (225 26th St., Santa Monica) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9.