Surtsey exploded out of the North Atlantic, just off the coast of Iceland, on November 14, 1963. The entire world watched as volcanoes on the sea floor spewed massive amounts of cinder, ash, and rock into the air, as gravity pulled those materials back down to the sea floor, and as the pile of it grew tall enough, eventually, to breach the ocean’s surface. No one could say if the new island would survive; cinder and ash are delicate, easily blown away on wind or washed away by waves. But within a few months, as the emerging island grew taller and broader, lava crested the edges of the still-erupting volcanic craters and black liquid, bright orange at its leading edge, flowed over Surtsey’s surface. The lava cooled, hardened, and protected the island’s delicate base, ensuring it would survive for decades, if not centuries.
In June of 1967, after one final eruption, the volcanoes that built Surtsey fell silent. By then it was one square mile in size, roughly circular in shape, and edged with lava cliffs that rose forty feet straight up out of the ocean. Only on the northern coast did the island beckon, its surface gently sloping down to sea level. Here, on a flat, sandy peninsula separated from the sea by magnificent round boulders, humans can, if they’re lucky, land a rubber dinghy. The peninsula is at the mercy of a constant and powerful surf, and winter swampings regularly mold it into new shapes. In 2015, when I walked on the peninsula, it was shaped bent-elbow, like Cape Cod. I stood in wet, black lava sand, camera around my neck and back to sleeping volcanoes, and struggled to take in the view.
The sea was unbearably blue, its sparkle broken here and there by rocky skerries and spyres, the remains of much older volcanic islands. The sand around my boots was dotted with a few hearty plants, partially buried boulders, and wood of unnatural sizes and shapes: logs with no branches, and boards that looked milled. There were metal objects, too, badly rusted over and unrecognizable, their original intent impossible to fathom. And there was plastic. I found faded buoys, life preserver rings, containers of all sizes, and bottles. Torn nets, worn ropes, styrofoam floats, and a tire. Standing on one of the newest pieces of earth on Earth, listening to waves and wind and bickering sea birds, I confronted the beauty and the heartbreak of being human. Again.
I grew up in coastal New England, spending summer weekends on a beach just outside of Boston. My family always arrived early, before the crowd, securing a parking space close to the covered beach houses and our favorite roast beef shack. The sand was clean at that hour, marked with regular grooves that I now know were from the rakes dragged over it by municipal workers. I remember walking along the wrack line hunting shells. I don’t remember ever seeing plastic. Once, my sister and I were on the beach when a body washed up. We didn’t see the waterlogged corpse, but we saw the ambulance pull in, and the paramedics run through the sand with a stretcher. By the time we joined the crowd gathering at the waterline, there were enough hysterical whispers to prevent us from pushing closer. I understood from the experience that the ocean held secrets. I assumed they were rare.
I grew up, became a scientist, explored the inner workings of cells instead of oceans. And I moved to a landlocked place; when my family goes to the beach, it’s almost always beside a lake. My return to the sea was accidental, and started with a newspaper article. I skimmed it casually one Sunday in 2003, while sipping tea. “Duckies Floating to Eastern Beaches,” the headline winked, before describing a shipping accident that had dumped 29,000 plastic bathtub toys—yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs—into the Pacific Ocean. Eleven years after that spill, as I read about them in my New England kitchen, the toys were still floating, and had made their way, in fact, to the Atlantic. The article claimed there was an ocean scientist on their tail. This got my attention. Oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer was apparently tracking the colorful flotilla in hopes of learning about surface currents in the world ocean. I liked him instantly. I was a new mother then, on hiatus from my work as a molecular biologist, and feeling like I had something to say about science and the people who practice it. If I wanted to teach kids about surface currents and how the ocean moves, I said to myself, I’d start with this Ebbesmeyer character.
That’s how I ended up on the fifty-foot ocean research vessel Alguita a couple years later, skirting the coast of Long Beach, California and glimpsing the darker side of the tub toy story. I was working, by then, on a children’s book about Ebbesmeyer. I was planning a quirky look at ocean science, spotlighting a grown man who chased floating toys around the world. Interviewing Ebbesmeyer several months prior, I asked about something he said of stuff that ends up in the ocean: it doesn’t just disappear. “Where does it go?” I wanted to know. He sent me to meet Charles Moore, captain of the Alguita.
Captain Moore has spent nearly as much time sailing as walking. Once, steering the Alguita on an unusual route home to California, he noticed something a lot of people hadn’t: the sea was filling up with plastic trash. When I met him, he explained how plastic ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs, dropped into the ocean, would break down over time— weakened by constant exposure to the sun and the sea, chomped by animals, smashed into rocks—but since there is nothing in the ocean capable of digesting the small bits of plastic the toys shed, the bits would stay in the ocean, moving along in its currents. Moore and his colleagues noticed that floating plastic accumulated in certain places, and they set out to quantify the problem. In 1998, they dragged nets behind the Alguita while traversing various parts of the North Pacific, counting the good (living organisms) and the bad (plastic fragments) trapped in their nets. The results were shocking: in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, they found six times more floating plastic, by weight, than living organisms.
Sometimes you hear things you just can’t unhear, and then the way you move through the world changes. For me, that thing wasn’t the imbalance of animate and inanimate objects floating in the ocean, but the question Captain Moore asked just before I climbed off the Alguita. Why does a sandwich that needs only to stay fresh from the time we make it in the morning until the time we eat it five hours later need to be stored in a bag with a lifespan of five hundred years? Images of plastic baggies filled with fish-shaped crackers flashed in my mind. At that very moment, such baggies were in my purse, the diaper bag, and on the passenger seat of my car back home. My world shifted. My quirky science book became something else entirely.
If I was going to share Curt Ebbesmeyer’s unusual oceanographic techniques, I had no choice but to also share their underbelly: there is a lot of trash in our world ocean. In each of the world’s major ocean basins—North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian—a natural rotation of currents, called a gyre, appears to trap the trash. These are not islands of garbage, though you often hear them described that way. Rather, they are accumulation zones, places where buoyant plastic is carried in on surface currents and left behind when those currents sink to deeper seas. The plastic gets stuck, floats around and around on the gyre until a storm churns things up enough to send it back into the open ocean. Until it breaks down into smaller and less buoyant pieces that can sink. Or until some unsuspecting sea turtle or jellyfish swims by and eats it.
Just to be clear: this is not good for the sea turtles and jellyfish of the world.
Soon I was drowning in the horrors of the ocean plastic problem. I learned that plastics are chemically hydrophobic. This means they don’t like being exposed to water. Think of holding a plastic duckie under the tub spout, and how the water cruises over it into the tub, differently from how the water would interact with, say, a facecloth. The way hydrophobic things deal with being in the water is to, whenever possible, join up with other hydrophobic things—I’m talking now on the level of molecules. The tiniest hydrophobic plastic bits become magnets, really, for even tinier hydrophobic molecules in the sea. Chemical contaminants with nasty names like dioxin, PCB, and DDT, which are not only hydrophobic but also disturbingly plentiful in the world ocean, when brought into contact with floating bits of plastic, adhere to it. So, the plastic bit ingested by a turtle or a jellyfish in the North Pacific might be just plastic, but it is more likely to be plastic that is coated with chemical contaminants.
I started feeding my family less fish, because if jellyfish and turtles are ingesting contaminated plastic bits, then mackerel and salmon are, too. I also seriously considered giving up the idea of a book about the tub toy spill. I was writing for kids, after all. Did I really want to tell them all this? But the story was hard to shake. Charles Moore had put me in touch with another scientist, Cynthia Vanderlip, who spent five months a year living and working on an uninhabited Pacific island called Kure Atoll, and I lost my mind to a disturbing and little-known aspect of Cynthia’s work: the debris that washed ashore on Kure Atoll twice a day at high tide. Cynthia sent me a photograph of a white sandy beach under a brilliant blue sky, the sort of place you might expect seals to breed. But there was trash all over the place, scattered amongst the driftwood and beach shrubs. There were fluorescent orange buoys, yellow floats, unidentifiable bits of red plastic, glass bottles. Styrofoam floats and even a rubber tire. Standing among it all were sea birds, at least one with its head down, as if investigating the washed-up junk. The image poked at the same place in me that Captain Moore’s plastic sandwich bag question had.
I wrote my children’s book. Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion was published in 2007. It tells Curt Ebbesmeyer’s story, and it does not shy away from its darker side. The book shares Captain Moore’s work, Cynthia Vanderlip’s photo, and ideas for how readers can stem the flow of plastic into the ocean. It encourages Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling. (Given the chance to rewrite the book now, I’d include the most important R: Refusing.) It introduces readers to the International Coastal Cleanup, a worldwide citizen science initiative to collect and document ocean plastic that washes up on beaches.
My book does not mention the plastisphere, a term coined after the book’s publication to describe the plastic terrain we humans have created in the ocean. This novel and man-made ecological habitat, consisting entirely of discarded plastic, is used as a substrate for ocean creatures to raft around on. In some cases, animals use the plastic to invade new oceans, arriving in and settling parts of the world they would not otherwise visit. In other cases, the plastic stays put, but animals live on it, instead of on seaweed and other natural substrates.
Neither does my book talk about recently-banned plastic microbeads, tiny spheres found in facial scrubs and other beauty products that, when rinsed from human faces, flow down drains and into municipal sewage systems and, eventually, out to sea, where they float, soak up contaminants, get eaten, wash ashore, break down, or expand the plastisphere.
I didn’t mention microscopic synthetic fibers either, the sort found in polar fleece jackets and hats, which are released into our washing machines and flow out of them with used water, travel through sewer pipes and, eventually … well, you get the idea. A single load of laundry can release hundreds of thousands of synthetic fibers. I don’t know how many of these reach the ocean.
Several years ago, at a school in the Boston suburbs, I talked to a group of fifth graders about my book. There was this one kid whose hand shot into the air the minute I stopped speaking. Like every student in the room, he’d had only 45-minutes to think about the massive human problem I’d just introduced: our world ocean was carrying a lot of plastic trash. When I called on him, his words fell out in a rush.
“I have an idea for how to clean up the plastic in the ocean,” he said.
Variations of this statement are a regular part of the Q&A sessions I have with students. You don’t have to be a grown up to be moved by this story.
“Lay it on me,” I said.
He wondered if we could change the way we make plastic. ‘We’ meaning humankind, everyone, everywhere. Could every single company on this Earth that makes plastic, particularly the single-use, throwaway kind, do it a little differently?
“We could put metal shavings in the plastic, at the beginning, when it’s still a liquid,” he said. “And then when we mold it into bottles and stuff, the metal will be part of the plastic.”
I didn’t quite see where he was going.
“Then, whenever plastic bottles get lost in the ocean, we could get them out with a big magnet installed on the bottom of a boat. You wouldn’t need a net, so you wouldn’t accidentally catch any fish.”
Okay. Take a deep breath. Let go, for a moment, your practical adult concerns. Don’t get hung up on the rate at which microscopic shards of metal might leach from your plastic bottles. Just don’t go there yet. Instead, marvel at his complete lack of inhibition. His ability to ignore the adult in the room who was telling him cleaning up ocean plastic was not possible and, while she was yammering, came up with a technically feasible way to do it.
Now hold this boy in your mind, if you will, and travel back with me to November of 1963. On the east coast of the United States, my older brother was born. The very same week, off the southwestern coast of Iceland, Surtsey erupted into being. By the time my brother started kindergarten, the undersea volcanoes that belched her to life had settled down and Surtsey had been declared a nature preserve. The island was closed to all visitors except for scientists who planned to study every aspect of it, especially the process by which a sterile lump of lava-coated ash can become land on which plants and animals thrive.
I went to Surtsey in 2015 to write about those scientists. A coast guard helicopter dropped me and my gear on a lava field, along with a geologist, a botanist, and the two entomologists I’d be profiling. My first couple days on the island were rainy and raw and busy with the setting of various insect traps. On the third day, though, the Arctic sun finally broke through a ceiling of gray clouds. In the late afternoon, under this sun and while the entomologists were busy with other things, I explored Surtsey’s bent-elbow shaped peninsula alone. And although I was on the other side of the planet and it was fifteen years later, I found myself standing in that photograph Cynthia Vanderlip had sent me from the Kure Atoll. I confronted with my own eyes and in real time the insidiousness of human-engineered plastics.
Curt Ebbesmeyer had told me that plastic doesn’t just disappear. Properties that make the stuff so convenient—strength, indestructibility, water-resistance—also make it extremely hard to get rid of. Many types cannot be recycled, and burning others can release toxic fumes. And so the 8,300 million metric tons of plastic we’ve produced since the end of World War II, when plastic production kicked into high gear, is still here. A fraction of it has been recycled, a slightly larger fraction has been incinerated, but the majority—somewhere around 79%—is sitting in landfills, floating in oceans, or washing up on remote, uninhabited islands.
Not long after I returned from Surtsey, I went to dinner with my husband and some of our friends. He ordered a water with no straw. Our waitress eyed him suspiciously.
“No straw?” she said. “What do you have against straws?”
“There are too many of them,” my husband told her, shrugging. “And I don’t need one to drink out of a glass while sitting at a table.”
“Huh,” she said, noncommittedly. “And you?”
“Water, please,” I said. “No straw.”
Everyone at the table laughed, and there was a brief conversation about the number of plastic straws used by Americans each day (500 million) and what happens to them when diners are finished sucking on them (centuries in a landfill). I’m not sure if anything we said changed the waitresses in any way. I can say that everyone else at the table opted to forego straws, and that the diners at the next table listened in on our entire conversation. Maybe they thought we were nuts. Maybe they decided to commit to a straw-less future.
You might be wondering if, in the gargantuan scheme of 500 million plastic drinking straws, the one I didn’t use that night matters. My friend—let’s call him Todd—would tell you it doesn’t. If he’d been with me on Surtsey’s peninsula, he would have put a hand on my shoulder, pointed at the detritus, and said, See? Nothing has changed. You’ve carted canvas bags to the grocery store, put stainless steel straws in your kid’s Christmas stocking, and still, the world is covered in trash.
And that’s when I would channel my fifth-grade friend, the one with the idea for how to collect plastic out of the ocean. In my gentlest voice, but with unshakeable belief in my point, I’d remind Todd that one is a real and quantifiable amount, that 499,999,999 is not the same as 500,000,000. The question, I’d suggest, isn’t whether foregoing one straw makes a difference. The question is how many people have heard me talk about straws in the past ten years, and what they did next.
Alas, I’ve known Todd a long time, and I don’t think he’d be swayed. So I’d take him by the hand and lead him around the rest of Surtsey. I’d guide him to the top of her volcanic ridges, where the view of glaciers on the Icelandic mainland are breathtaking. I’d lead him into the deeper of the island’s two craters and once at the bottom, marvel at being so deep in new earth that the sounds of the entire world are silenced. I’d bring him into the bird colony, where the remains of nests and seafood and guano has, in half of one human lifetime, turned a scorching lava bed into a meadow of Icelandic daisies.
Boyan Slat is a 23 year-old Dutchman. As a teenager, vacationing in Greece with his parents, he had a plastic experience that changed his life. While scuba diving, he’d come across more plastic bags than fish. He began to wonder how many bags were trapped in the ocean, and how to get them out. Soon after, as part of a high school science project, he and a friend built a manta trawl, a net attached to floating arms that can be pulled behind a boat to strain out floating objects. That’s how he discovered for himself that microplastics, not plastic bags, are the main problem in the ocean: his trawl pulled out forty times more of them than anything else.
“Don’t tell me we can’t clean this up,” Boyan said at the end of his first TEDx talk in 2012. He was 18 by then and had spent a couple of semesters as a college engineering student, designing ocean cleanup technologies in his spare time. One of his ideas was good enough, he felt, to attempt on a larger scale. He was so convinced of its merit that he quit school, launched a crowdfunding campaign, and raised two million dollars in 100 days. His was one of the most successful nonprofit crowdfunding campaigns in history, drawing 38,000 donors from 160 countries.
The blowback was instantaneous.
For every person who read about Boyan’s work and rejoiced, there was a marine debris professional who hesitated. And by hesitated, I mean lashed out. The articles that appeared in mainstream newspapers and magazines were universally positive. Online, though, in marine debris forums and publications, Boyan’s ideas were critiqued and ridiculed. Articles like “Those crazy plastic cleaning machines,” and “The fallacy of cleaning the gyres of plastic with a floating ocean cleanup array,” trended. The logistical difficulties of Boyan’s ideas were spelled out in bold print, everywhere. Cleaning an area that represented forty percent of the Earth’s surface was an insurmountable task, these articles said. The expense of diesel fuel alone, necessary to cart plastic from Boyan’s cleanup site back to dry land, was prohibitive. We must keep our focus, the naysayers insisted, on the production of environmentally safe plastics, on passing laws that curb our throwaway culture, on keeping trash out of the ocean.
There was a tinge of anger in their dismissal. One sensed the frustration of good people who’ve been slogging away on a huge problem that most humans don’t know about and, if they do, don’t seem to care about. A young upstart wows with a bad idea covered in slick marketing slogans. Crowds throw money at him. Those in the know fume.
But I understand why the media and the public love Boyan’s story, because it’s the same reason I do: it’s hopeful. A very real and fragile part of me wants him to succeed. Some of this is innate optimism, the insistent kind that friends like Todd find so annoying. But even more of it is the fact that I know—not in some abstract sense, but in real life—young people coming of age in the Anthropocene (look it up), forced to swim in the plastisphere, who need Boyan’s story. I happen to believe the rest of us need it too.
Perhaps education, the pursuit of more sensible plastics, and enforced corporate responsibility is the best approach to the ocean plastics problem. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t tend to inspire media coverage or crowds of investors, but it works. A recent study documented a 75% decrease in the number of plastic pellets in the North Sea since the 1980s, and this progress was attributed entirely to tighter control of the number of plastic pellets that make it into the ocean … although I must point out that the measure was taken by comparing the plastic-filled bellies of Northern fulmars collected on the North Sea in the 1980s with the plastic-filled bellies of Northern fulmars collected there now. We’ve been coming to terms with the staying power of plastics for decades, working to decrease the amount of it that reaches the ocean for just as long, and still birds who live and feed near our oceans are eating it. Newborn islands are awash in the stuff. Doesn’t this suggest we need to do a little more?
Look, I don’t have all the answers. I’m not a person who can hold in two cupped hands the sum total of her annual plastic waste. I have a deep respect for those that manage such a feat, and also supreme doubts about ever convincing 350 million Americans to live that way, much less the 6 billion Earth-dwelling humans. I think it’s time to corral our fighting spirits, listen deeply, and celebrate earnestness. Not blindly, but rationally, with vigor, and with a wide-open mind. Amidst disaster, someone has raised a hand, willing and able to attempt the impossible. Isn’t that the real story here? Despite despoilment, plastic-filled seabirds, near-constant environmental trauma (just this morning someone sent me a photograph of the very last Northern white rhinoceros on Earth), we are still raising kids willing to step up and apply their creativity and their brilliance to human mistakes. Why would we ever stop listening to them?
We continue to make progress: cities around the country are banning single-use plastic bags; an ever-increasing number of Americans routinely bring their own bags to the grocery store; packaging made from plant starches are now in production; the plastic water bottles produced today use 42 percent less plastic than the ones produced ten years ago. But Surtsey taught me that we have a long way to go.
Where does all this leave us?
I think it leaves us in a rough, toxin-coated place, needing to be more thoughtful about the types of plastic we can afford and the single-use throwaway plastics we can’t. It leaves us confused, but putting fish-shaped crackers in Certified Compostable Unbleached Totally Chlorine-Free Paper Snack & Sandwich Bags anyway. It leaves us with the plastisphere, fleece jackets we’re afraid to wash, and having to decide if Boyan Slat is worth our investment. It leaves us on the shore, mouths agape at the secrets the ocean carries, wanting to close our eyes and knowing that we can’t.
Author Bio: Loree Griffin Burns holds a PhD in biochemistry and has spent the past fifteen years traveling the world to research stories of science and discovery. She has published work in outlets from Nature to Yankee to Ranger Rick and is the author of six books for children. The latest of these, Life on Surtsey, Iceland’s Upstart Island was released in 2017. You can visit Loree online at www.loreeburns.com.