Ocean advocates are changing the conversation about plastic

By Bliss Bowen

Alison Teal braved storm runoff in Ballona Creek to generate support for the plastic bag ban

Last year, when West L.A.-based ocean conservation research nonprofit 5 Gyres held its first Voices for Oceans storytelling benefit, co-founders Anna Cummins and scientist husband Marcus Eriksen noticed that both the speakers and the audience responded warmly to the opportunity to share personal stories about their relationship to the ocean. Heeding the time-tested maxim of not fixing what ain’t broke, this year they are once again focusing not on the pressing urgency of environmental problems but on connecting everyone emotionally to what they’re striving to save.

“There are many, many problems right now with sustainability, with climate, with oceans,” Cummins explains, noting how “few examples of positivity” exist around this topic in the media. “So we really wanted to have an event that featured why we do the work that we do — how we connect to the oceans, why we love the oceans — and not talk about plastic in the ocean, acidification and climate change.”

Reminding people of the joy they experienced the first time they splashed in the waves or spotted a dolphin arcing above the surf is one way of helping them understand more abstract issues, like how they are affected by microplastic marine pollution, coral reef bleaching and sea level rise occurring thousands of miles away. Those weighty concerns will backdrop next Thursday’s 2nd annual Voices 4 Oceans storytelling benefit at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica, hosted by Cummins and Eriksen. “Female Indiana Jones” Alison Teal, paddle-boarder Shilpika Gautam, surfer Jamie Brisick, actress Barbara Bosson, “Baywatch” co-creator Greg Bonaan, open water swimmer Matt Moseley, Earthrace Capt. Pete Bethune, Surfrider’s Roger Kube, scuba diver/photojournalist Szilvia Gogh, and HDXmix CEO Vipe Desai will also be on hand, and KCRW DJ Chris Douridas will spin tunes between their stories.

“The idea is to reconnect people to what grounds us in this work and why it’s so important to engage in ocean conservation,” Cummins says. “It’s that old idea of we love what we protect, and we protect what we love.”

That’s a concept embraced by Teal, the telegenic daughter of globetrekking parents (her father’s a National Geographic photographer, her mother a yoga-teaching naturalist) who built a self-sustaining home mostly off the grid. Teal’s trademark pink bikini and fun persona carry a serious message; the bikini, like her pink surfboard, was made from recycled plastic. Inspiring people to feel a personal stake in environmental issues goes to the “heart and soul and foundation” of her work, which dovetails with 5 Gyres’ BAN List (“Better Alternatives Now” to plastic) and Nix the Six anti-polystyrene campaign.

An independent documentary filmmaker who was featured in the Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid,” Teal maintains an active social media presence. Some of her videos have gone viral, perhaps most notably when she hot surfed around the Kilauea volcano in her home state of Hawaii. (“Just sitting there being one with the ocean on my recycled surfboard and watching these waterfalls of lava, I was thinking, ‘The Earth is a live thing, just like we’re live humans.’ We need to protect it or it dies.”)

Locals may recall a 2016 cellphone video that aired on CNN and showed her paddleboarding through Ballona Creek after first flush, the year’s first big rainfall. In the video, which sought to persuade voters to support an ultimately successful ban on plastic bags, the waterway looks more like solid sewage than a creek — a slime-covered dump of plastic bottles, plates, crumbled Styrofoam and supersized soda cups.

Above: Drawing attention to plastic debris was Teal’s mission in the Maldives (Photo by Sarah Lee) · Lower Left: Conservation is a family value for 5 Gyres founders Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins · Lower Right: ‘Adventure activist’ Shilpika Gautam has stories to tell

“My friend Tina at Surfrider called me and I happened to be in L.A., and she said, ‘Get in your car and meet me at Ballona Creek!’ It was a guerilla strike mission on both of our parts. I kind of took one for the team to help ban the plastic bag.

“I really want to make change, whether it’s in our backyard or far away. Those bags float everywhere. It took me half a day to wash my paddleboard. It was disgusting.”

It wasn’t Teal’s first up-close encounter with global garbage, but it framed something she wishes more people understood.

“Whether it’s near my house in Hawaii, or Trash Island in the Maldives, or Indonesia, or California, or Martha’s Vineyard, it’s the same story: this trash is coming from all over the world. I think people have a misconception, like, ‘Oh, that’s their problem.’ ‘Oh, the Maldives is dirty? That sucks, they should recycle.’ … This is definitely a global issue; it’s not a ‘them’ issue. I saw labels in the Maldives from all over the world; you can see labels wash up from Colorado. It’s from the mountains to the sea and it’s from the sea all over the world. When you put that into perspective, it’s like, ‘Holy taco, it’s whatever I throw away.’ There’s no throwing away. There’s no such thing. It doesn’t go away; it goes somewhere. Right now, it’s ruining paradise.”

That won’t be Teal’s story next Thursday — she’ll be relating her discovery of a 3,000-year-old surfer — but the benefit will present other personal encounters with the ocean and its tributaries, in sync with 5 Gyres’ work.

The institute focuses on utilizing science to effect policy change, design change and even behavior change (individual acts like refusing single-use plastic and, more importantly, engaging as citizens and flexing “civic muscles”). In addition to challenging a culture of convenience that encourages the production of hundreds of millions of tons of plastic, 5 Gyres has expanded its narrative to include both the upstream and downstream dangers of plastics.

“They break into microplastics, they can absorb pollutants, enter the food chain through foraging animals, and we’ve now found evidence of microplastic and even nanoplastic in consumer products like beer and honey and sea salt and drinking water,” Cummins observes.

Upstream, additional health impacts are caused by the extraction of fossil fuels to create plastic products.

“The health impacts on vulnerable communities that live near those refineries — including right here in Los Angeles, which has the largest urban oil field in the country — that fossil fuel-health-climate connection is not one that most people really think of when they look at that plastic bottle or bag.”

On the upside, major corporations, policy makers and even governments are onboard with protesting plastic pollution — a global movement that didn’t exist 10 or even five years ago.

“The EU just came out with a big voluntary strategy for how they’re going to deal with plastic pollution,” Cummins says. “Awareness and interest in this topic is at an all-time high,
and it takes that awareness to drive solutions.”


The second annual Voices 4 Oceans storytelling benefit is from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, March 22, in the Moss Theater at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $60 at 5gyres.org/voices.