Marcus Eriksen

2,600-Mile Journey Sparks Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution

By Erica Cirino

Few people intentionally sail through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the world's most notoriously polluted stretches of ocean. Even fewer choose to do so in a ship that's literally a piece of trash. In fact, only two people have done so: Joel Paschal and Marcus Eriksen. The two men accomplished their 2,600-mile journey in 2008 to help publicize the fact that we need to act now to stop the sea from drowning itself in plastic.

Eriksen, president and cofounder of ocean conservation organization 5 Gyres, has written a book about his adventure, Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution, which came out July 4. I recently spoke to him about his book, his adventure in Junk Raft—and yes, she is a registered oceangoing vessel—and his mission to convince the world to stop using and producing plastic.

Cirnio: Junk Raft recounts your epic trip in a boat of the same name across the Northern Pacific Ocean, from Los Angeles to Hawaii. What inspired you to take this journey?

Eriksen: My inspiration to do it was simply the plastic use and pollution issue. Prior to this, I went sailing on the Mississippi River for five months on a similar plastic-bottle raft. What I witnessed there was a never-ending trail of plastic leading to the sea. And then I went to Midway Atoll and saw all the effects on albatross. My idea for the second raft, Junk Raft, went back to my experience in the Gulf War. I was a Marine on the ground, in a sniper platoon. I saw the region's great oil rigs catch fire and burn. I couldn't understand the destruction around me. I wanted to rethink what I was fighting for: Conservation is worth it, not a resource war on petroleum.

I thought, "The plastic problem is fixable. Nonsensically we use plastic to create items we use once or twice and throw away—we just have to stop doing that."

I have a lot of confidence in how rafts work and perform, and a great team: Joel Paschal, my fellow sailor and adventurer, and Anna Cummins, my wife, who served as a one-woman, land-based support team. All three of us were on a boat with Charles Moore—who coined the term "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"—on his sixth crossing across the North Pacific. This was the start of 5 Gyre's global research. We've done at least 20 research trips since.

Cirnio: What kinds of junk was Junk Raft made out of?

Eriksen: 15,000 plastic water bottles donated from schools and recycling centers; 2,000 Nalgene bottles that Patagonia stopped using because they contained toxic BPA; an old airplane cockpit as the ship's hull, salvaged from wrecks in the desert; and 25 broken sailboat masts as a deck. Everything was lashed together Polynesian-style. We put the plastic bottles in socks underneath the deck, used two masts as an A-frame, and also sewed together spare, damaged sails as our mainsail.

We had modern communications and electronics on the raft—solar panels, wind generator, new batteries, chart plotter, satellite phone, computer. I could plug in the satellite phone to the computer and upload short, half-megabyte videos to the Internet for our followers to watch. Anna was our land-based mission control. She was constantly checking weather for us and fundraising like mad to help support our sailing journey on the Junk Raft.

Cirnio: How long did the trip take?

Eriksen: It took two months to build the raft and three months to sail it. Our sponsors thought our decision to sail away on that raft was a death wish. But as soon as we were halfway across, people realized we were succeeding—that we were doing it. When we got to Hawaii, a hundred people stood cheering for Joel and me on the dock. We later learned that a million people were following our journey online.

Cirnio: In November I sailed the same stretch of the North Pacific that you did, but I was in a proper steel sailboat. What were some of the challenges of sailing in Junk Raft?

Eriksen: For what it was made of, the raft was rather seaworthy ... it got the job done. But there were many difficulties, especially during storms.

The boat was constantly falling apart. We had problems with leaks and parts falling off. On day three we had our biggest storm, with 50 mile-per-hour winds. All the bottle caps began spinning off, and as a result, the boat sank a foot into the water. Our deck was submerged and we started sinking. So I called Anna and she sent forth a resupply mission to bring us glue so we could secure the bottle caps. They also brought greens and other fresh foods—because much of our food was damaged by water—and beer.

Cirnio: When did you decide to write a book about the journey?

Eriksen: Two-and-a-half years ago, before I lost my memory of the journey and moved on to my next project. I'd kept a journal the whole time we sailed, and the movement to end the plastic problem was growing fast.

Cirnio: So what was your goal when writing this book?

Eriksen: I wanted to use adventure as a vehicle to attract a lot of people. Here's this crazy adventure we had, but here's this issue we should all be knowledgeable about. We sailed 1.5 miles per hour, our ship began falling apart, we tried to outrun hurricanes and more. It's exciting but it teaches a lesson: We've created such a huge plastic trash problem that it's become easier to sail across the ocean in a raft made of trash than to clean it all up.

Cirnio: This journey was in 2008; it's now 2017. How do you feel about the progress we've made on these issues?

Eriksen: I think it's been highly positive. We've accomplished a lot. There's been a huge surge in environmental NGOs forming to try to address the problem in a variety of ways, and some are doing great things, helping establish legislation that curbs or bans plastic use or changes peoples' habits so that they use less plastic.

Yet stakeholders have reached this impasse: Many people are aware the problem exists, but we as a global community are not doing enough to make sure it doesn't get worse.

What we need now is a revolution by design. There are some plastic products that really have to go, such as wrappers on foods and products. Right now we need to scale back plastic production immediately and eventually stop it. We need better waste management and recycling programs. We need to make bioplastics mainstream and affordable. We must do more recycling. Basically, we must do things that don't harm people and the planet. Plastic has got to go.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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How Trump Could Undermine the U.S. Solar Boom

By Llewelyn Hughes and Jonas Meckling

Tumbling prices for solar energy have helped stoke demand among U.S. homeowners, businesses and utilities for electricity powered by the sun. But that could soon change.

President Donald Trump—whose proposed 2018 budget would slash support for alternative energy—may get a new opportunity to undermine the solar power market by imposing duties that could increase the cost of solar power high enough to choke off the industry's growth.

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Richard Branson's Necker Island was hit by two hurricanes in two weeks. Richard Branson/Instagram

Richard Branson to Donald Trump: The Whole World Knows Climate Change is Real

Virgin Group founder and longtime environmentalist Richard Branson, who faced two damaging hurricanes in a row from his home in the British Virgin Islands, called out President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the science of climate change.

"Look, you can never be 100 percent sure about links," the British billionaire said Tuesday on CNN's "New Day" when asked about the correlation between global warming and the recent string of major hurricanes to hit the Carribean and the United States.

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Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois. Prison ecology advocates are celebrating the launch of a new prisons layer to the EPA's environmental justice mapping tool, but still hope the EPA will expand inspection and enforcement activities related to prisons. Rw2 / Wikipedia

EPA Adds Prison Locations to Its Environmental Justice Mapping Tool

By Zoe Loftus-Farren

As an environmental reporter, it's not every day that I get to communicate good news—the state of our environment often feels pretty bleak. But today, at least, there is a victory to celebrate: Thanks to the persistence of a small group of prison ecology advocates, the support of their allies, and the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prisoners rights and environmental justice advocates have a new tool to add to their activist arsenal.

This summer, the EPA added a "prisons layer" to its Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. Known as EJSCREEN for short, the tool can be used by the public to assess possible exposure to pollutants that might be present in the environment (i.e., land, air and water) where they live or work.

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Kevin Vallely

'Rowing the Northwest Passage' Chronicles An Expedition Through the Changing North

By Kevin Vallely

In 2013 four adventurers set out on an 80-day rowboat mission through the Arctic's rapidly melting Northwest Passage. Their journey brought them face to face with the changing seas in a world of climate change. In this excerpt from adventurer Kevin Vallely's new book about the expedition, Rowing the Northwest Passage (Greystone Books), we also see how climate change has affected some of the people the team met along their journey:

An elderly woman walks toward us from the road. Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories, is a sizable town by Arctic standards, with a full-time population of 954, but it's small enough that the bulk of the town likely knows we're here. The woman is smiling when she reaches us.

"I saw you coming in," she says. "Where you guys come from?" "We're from Vancouver," I say, my mouth still half full of food. "We started our trip in Inuvik nine days ago." Her name is Eileen Jacobsen and she's an Elder in town. She and her husband, Billy, run a sightseeing business. "You should come up to the house in the morning and have some coffee," she tells us.

Our night's sleep in the Arctic Joule is fitful; our overindulgence runs through all of us like a thunderstorm. By seven in the morning, even with both hatches open, lighting a match in the cabin would blow us out like dirt from that Siberian crater. The roar of the Jetboil pulls me out. Frank's already up, down jacket on, preparing coffee. "You like a cup?"

It's still too early to drop by Eileen Jacobsen's house, so we walk into town on the dusty main road, our ears assaulted by a cacophony of barking dogs. Dirt is the surface of choice for roads and runways in Arctic communities, as any inflexible surface like concrete would be shredded by the annual freeze–thaw cycle. Most of the town runs the length of a thin finger of land, with the ocean on one side and a protected bay on the other. About halfway down the peninsula, a cluster of wooden crosses rests in a high grass clearing, facing west. We heard about this graveyard in Inuvik. Because of melting permafrost and wave action, it's eroding into the sea, and community members have lined the shore with large rocks to forestall its demise. This entire peninsula will face this threat in the coming years. There's not much land here to hold back a hungry ocean.

We notice an elderly man in a blue winter jacket staring at us a short distance away. He's sitting outside a small wooden house and smiles as we approach. "You guys must be the rowers," he says. "Too windy to be out rowing." His jacket hood is pulled tight over his ball cap and he dons a pair of wraparound shades with yellow lenses that would better suit a racing cyclist than a village Elder. His name is Fred Wolki, and he's lived in Tuk for the last fifty years. "I grew up on my father's boat until they sent me to school in 1944, then I came here."

His father, Jim Wolki, is a well-known fox trapper who transported his pelts from Banks Island to Herschel Island aboard his ship the North Star of Herschel Island. Interestingly, we had the Arctic Joule moored right beside the North Star at the Vancouver Maritime Museum before we left. Built in San Francisco in 1935, the North Star plied the waters of the Beaufort Sea for over thirty years, her presence in Arctic waters playing an important role in bolstering Canadian Arctic sovereignty through the Cold War.

"We're curious if things have changed much here since you were a boy," Frank says.

"Well … it's getting warmer now," Fred says, shaking his head. He gestures out to the water speaking slowly and pausing for long moments between thoughts. "Right up to the 1960s … there was old ice along the coast … The ice barely moved … It was grounded along the coastline." He looks out over the shoreline, moving his arm back and forth. "They started to fade away slowly in the 1960s … icebergs … They were huge, like big islands … They were so high, like the land at the dew Line station … over there." He points to the radar dome of the long decommissioned Distant Early Warning Line station that sits on a rise of land just east of us. "It's been twenty years since we've seen one in Tuk." There's no sentimentality or anger in Fred's voice; he's just telling us his story. "It's getting warmer now … Global warming is starting to take its toll … All the permafrost is starting to melt … Water is starting to eat away our land."

I listen to his words, amazed. There's no agenda here, no vested interest, no job creation or moneymaking—just an elderly man bearing witness to his changing world.

Excerpted from Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea by Kevin Vallely, published September 2017 by Greystone Books. Condensed and reproduced with permission from the publisher.


Hundreds Dead in Mexico After Earthquake Strikes on Anniversary of Devastating 1985 Quake

In Mexico, a massive 7.1-magnitude quake struck 100 miles southeast of Mexico City Tuesday, collapsing dozens of buildings around the capital city and trapping schoolchildren, workers and residents beneath the rubble.

At least 217 people are dead, and hundreds more are missing. Among the dead are least 21 students at a primary school in Mexico City and 15 worshipers who died during a Catholic mass when the earthquake triggered an eruption at a volcano southeast of the city.

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Fourth St. sign under water in San Francisco. Scott Schiller/Flickr

San Francisco Becomes First Major U.S. City to Sue Fossil Fuel Industry Over Costs of Climate Change

San Francisco and Oakland are suing Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell—the five biggest investor-owned fossil fuel producers in the world—over the costs of climate change.

The two Californian cities join the counties of Marin, San Mateo and San Diego and the city of Imperial Beach that have taken similar legal action in recent months, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

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Climate Alliance States Show Us What Real Leadership Looks Like

By Luis Martinez and Kit Kennedy

In a forceful show of climate leadership, Governors Andrew Cuomo (NY), Jerry Brown (CA), and Jay Inslee (WA) and former Secretary of State John Kerry came together in New York City Wednesday as part of Climate Week to celebrate the progress and growth of the U.S. Climate Alliance, the bipartisan coalition that has grown to 14 states dedicated to meeting the Paris agreement climate goal. The coalition was founded by Cuomo, Brown and Inslee after President Trump announced the U.S. intent to withdraw from Paris.

President Trump may prefer to pretend that climate change isn't real—Gov. Cuomo quipped that the Trump administration is in "the State of Denial"—but these leaders detailed the extraordinary strides they're making, in the absence of White House leadership, to slash greenhouse gas emissions and grow their economies at the same time. For New Yorkers, it's exciting to see Cuomo's leadership on clean energy and climate continue to accelerate, from setting strong renewable energy goals, to a successful push with other Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative states to further slash carbon emissions, to banning fracking.

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Hurricane Maria Devastates Puerto Rico

By Andy Rowell

As new Hurricane Maria brings devastation to Puerto Rico, the governor of the island, Ricardo Rossello, has asked Donald Trump to declare the U.S. territory a disaster zone.

He has said that Maria could be the most damaging hurricane to hit the country in more than 100 years.

With maximum recorded wind speeds of 140 mph and rainfall of up to 25 inches or even higher, Mike Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist from the U.S. National Hurricane Center has also warned locals of flash-flooding and "punishing" rainfall. He added that the storm would remain "very dangerous" for the next couple of days.

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