Anna Cummins’ first experience with plastic pollution happened during a scuba diving excursion in Monterey Bay, California. “I had just gotten certified and was out on my first ever dive when suddenly, I couldn’t breathe,” she says. Fighting panic, she reached for her instructor, who helped her to the surface. Once she could breathe again, they examined her equipment and discovered that a small piece of plastic, floating in the ocean water, had gotten stuck in her filter and blocked her airflow.
Today, more than twenty years later, Cummins is a tireless champion working to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, as well as National Parks and natural areas around the world. As luck would have it, her husband Marcus Eriksen is also crazy for plastic.
“When I proposed to her I said, ‘Will you marry me? And also I’d like to build a big bottle boat,” he laughs. Thirteen weeks, and 2600 miles later, Cummins and Erickson had motored a boat built from plastic water bottles across the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii, documented the presence of microplastics in the bellies of fish, and gained the attention of more than one million people.
The couple went on to found the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts scientific research to quantify the impacts of plastic, and engages product manufacturers and local communities in reducing waste.
This week, the 5 Gyres Institute released findings from its 2022 Plastic-Free Parks TrashBlitz, a community science project that tracks pollution in National Parks across the United States. According to data submitted by volunteers between July 1 and September 30, plastic makes up 81% of all trash collected in National Parks and federal lands. Nearly half of the litter collected was related to food and beverages and, for the fourth year in a row, Coca-Cola “won” the contest for the brand that was most commonly collected. Other brand names in the “Top Ten litter list” included Nestle, PepsiCo, Camel, Marlboro, Nature Valley, Gatorade, Crystal Geyser, Parliament, and Kirkland.
Unfortunately, plastic pollution is not just a problem for oceans. In 2018, UW River Falls student researcher Claire Simmerman collected brook and brown trout from 12 different locations in the Kinnickinnic River and found microplastics from face wash, synthetic fabrics, and litter in the stomachs of every single fish she sampled (see report). In 2019, UW-La Crosse graduate student Courtney Baker collected surface water samples at three different locations on the Mississippi River and found an average of seven to eleven pieces of plastic in every cubic meter of water she sampled.
Less than 9% of plastic used in the United States gets recycled, so the best way that people can help to reduce plastic pollution is by buying less plastic products and working with local businesses and communities to reduce the abundance of single-use plastic.
“Companies spurred a transition from a conservation mindset to a disposable “throw away” culture in the 1950s, when they began selling and promoting plastic utensils and plastic packaging,” Eriksen explains. “Product manufactures like Coca-Cola need to make changes in order to reduce plastic pollution worldwide.”
In addition, individuals can help to reduce plastic pollution by using reusable containers, water bottles, and grocery bags, in lieu of disposable products, and purchasing laundry balls or filters to remove microfibers that would otherwise end up in the wastewater stream.
To learn more about the 5 Gyres 2022 TrashBlitz study, download the full report.