October 7th 2015
Trails & Ways and Stiv Wilson of The Story of Stuff Project Talk Microplastic Pollution and Ocean Inspiration
Trails and Ways' Keith Brower Brown (TW): Stiv, we understand that you’re an expert in microbead pollution. How did you learn about this problem?
The Story of Stuff Project's Stiv Wilson (SW): I helped start a nonprofit whose mission was to sail all the world’s oceans gathering data on the abundance of plastics in all the so called garbage patches or gyres. After sailing 35,000 nautical miles, we learned two things: one, there is an incomprehensible amount of plastic in the ocean; two, very few people care about plastics in the middle of nowhere. Having learned these lessons, and being a native Minnesotan, I wondered what kind of microplastic pollution might exist in The Great Lakes—my gut told me that if we demonstrated plastic pollution in homegrown waters—that is, waters that people have an emotional and nostalgic connection to, that it might help drive political will to do something about it.
Well, it worked. In the lakes, we found extremely high concentrations of plastic microbeads that we traced back to personal care products. I started a campaign to eliminate them from products that went viral. First it was corporate facing, then it was legislative. In the course of the movement building, I learned everything there was to know about the harm the microplastics cause in the environment—truly, microplastics is the macro problem. Though we as people tend to have emotional connections to charismatic macrofauna like dolphins and turtles, the microplastics are destroying the oceans' food system at the base of the food chain. Nobody roots for plankton and lugworms, but if you hurt those guys, you hurt everybody who swims the seas. Microbeads were the vehicle to shift the public dialogue on the plastic pollution issue—we needed to get away from viewing the solution to this problem by focusing on just plastic bags. Microplastic is the real problem.
TW: We’re excited to gather October 9-11 at Surf & Sound Sessions to do a beach cleanup and learn more about the problem, but can you give us a preview of the most important solutions to the plastic pollution in the ocean, especially from microbeads?
1.) Bannning of problem products through legislative actions—single use containers, bags, Styrofoam, flexible packaging, microbeads, etc. In the case of microbeads, we simply need to get rid of them—this is a particularly egregious offender in that it’s designed to be littered in the environment and can not be recovered. Though anything made of plastic can technically be recycled, there is a big difference between ‘recyclable’ and ‘is recycled’. Recycling is a business, not an altruistic activity executed by green gnomes and elves. If the supply outpaces the demand, and it’s cheaper to make new products from virgin sources, then recycling falls apart. I think many people would be aghast to find out that just because you throw it in that pretty blue bin doesn’t mean it’s getting recycled.
2.) Toxics in, toxics out. If you recycle a product made of toxic materials, then next product will be toxic. Though exposure to these toxics might appear small, they have a cumulative effect. Mammals can’t metabolize persistent compounds and they bioaccumulate in our blood stream. The only way to get rid of them is through breast milk and the umbilical cord ensuring that every subsequent generation will have a higher body burden. In science we’re just beginning to understand the consequences of low dose, chronic exposure to these compounds, and the overwhelming consensus by scientists is that left unchecked, we’ll be fundamentally corrupting our species and others at the cellular level. I’m not interested in walking around in some giant chemical/plastic experiment waged by multi-national companies who don’t consider the toxicity issue of the products we consume. It may sound alarmist, but think of this—every time a cashier hands you a receipt, you’re putting endocrine disrupting chemicals into your body. The vectors of exposure to toxic compounds are many. And they add up in your body and your children’s bodies.
3.) We need design change. We simply shouldn’t be making products out of dinosaur fuels that cause harm to people and animals, especially ones designed to fool nature’s ability to biodegrade them. The plastics we use now persist in the environment in orders of magnitude in geological time that isn’t sustainable without serious damage to the biosphere we call earth. They accumulate and will continue to do so until we redesign them. When I was in the middle of the ocean studying plastic, I realized how small the earth really is—we are all in a bubble. The more we alter the chemical composition of that biosphere, the more we corrupt its natural system for regeneration. We have one ocean and one atmosphere. We simply can’t take elements and turn them into compounds that the earth has no idea how to deal with. News flash, nature actually makes plastic itself, and the future of plastics are biopolymers that truly degrade in the environment.
Recycling is a good concept when you can make one thing into exactly the same thing like a soda can—but if the second generation material is dead end or has unintended consequences, it’s not okay. For instance, we make clothing out of recycled soda and water bottles. When you put those clothes in a washing machine they shed persistent fibers that escape wastewater treatment only to choke and poison microorganisms. Imagine someone sticking a bag of uncooked spaghetti down your throat—that’s what we’re doing to microorganisms at the very base of our food systems. I think people believe that because it’s so small, it’s probably not a big deal. Well, consider that microbeads enter the ocean in amounts of 3 trillion particles annually and that’s a very small subset of the microplastics issue in general. Synthetic clothing fiber pollution is degrees of scale bigger. Think of it this way—in the U.S. alone, we have 89 million households with washing machines. Multiply that by an average on nine loads a week that shed an average of 1,900 fibers per load. That’s a lot of pollution to ask nature to deal with.
4.) Cultural shift towards conservation. It astonishes me how much bottled water we drink. The average American consumes over 160 plastic bottles a year. Multiply that by 308 million and you’ve generated 50 billion reasons why this kind of consumption is unsustainable. Especially when tap water is free and often times cleaner than bottled water. Culturally, it was once the mark of civil society when a city could provide clean, safe, potable water to its residents. Creating policies that change the economics of disposable products or puts fees on them to generate funds for increase public water infrastructure would solve this problem. Policies regarding plastic should focus on the Producer paying for the entire lifecycle of the product, unburdening us, citizens, for having to pay for their end of life scenario.
5.) Waste management infrastructure. The plastics and chemical industry, recognizing the problem their products are creating have offered one single solution to the plastic pollution crisis—burn it. That’s a terrible solution, even if there are good emissions limits. All the stuff you stopped from going into the air still needs to go somewhere in the biosphere we call earth—burying toxic waste isn’t a solution. It’s a band-aid on gunshot wound. Real, complete, systems level thinking needs to be applied to this problem and because the consumer consumes these products, the true cost of the product from cradle to cradle needs to be reflected in the price. Market adjustments such as these will organically create demand for non-polluting alternatives and the infrastructure needed to deal with waste.
SW: Trails & Ways, your name sounds like that of a group of travelers -- are you? How did you become interested in the issue of plastic pollution and participating in Surf & Sound Sessions?
TW: Three of us have been lucky to get to live in Brazil or Spain, all in spots close to the Atlantic.
The ex-Spain-residents, Ian and Emma, have been mad about surfing for years, and I think that connection makes them pretty intimately aware of some ways that human pollution affects coastal waters.
Myself, I lived on the coast of northeastern Brazil, doing research on the conflicts between big new wind power plants and neighboring small fishing communities. That got me really interested on how many human communities live off their relationship with the sea, and how easily that tight relationship can be messed up by blind industrial projects, by pollution, by commercial fishing, by ocean warming and acidification.
SW: Has the ocean inspired any of your work?
TW: Our new album closes with a song, "Vines", that packs a lot of sea metaphors into a story about love across distance. The idea for the lyrics started on a drive home from a show; watching container ships come into the Bay at night, I felt something in common with them. In the song I call myself a container ship--a stiff bearer for commodities--and ask to be changed, rusted, sunk by the waves of this love into something wilder, weirder, more open--into a garden on a wreck, into an island in free waters. Maybe foolish to ask for any human love to compare with the transformative powers of the ocean, but I can hope.
SW: Surf and Sound Sessions is a chance to connect with people from all over in a place closer to nature where people can see the evidence and consequences of our disposable culture. I find that getting people out of their normal routines where they confront the tension between the beauty of the natural environment juxtaposed with the human stain inspires people to take deeper action. Inspiration and awareness is a great place to start, but a terrible place to stop. Surf and Sound Sessions gives participants a chance to more deeply engage with issues and identify space for collaboration and alliance making in a positive, celebratory setting. Changing the world should be fun, and that’s why I’m very excited to be a part of this gathering.
TW: Thanks Stiv and everyone organizing this! I feel like many shows exist in a weird vacuum, and how campaigns can have their own vacuum of all work, no play. It's really a thrill to play a show tying together music and work for ecological justice; all that is tied up in our hearts & minds and we want to find ways in our music to keep it tangling forward.