Piloting a Plastics Pollution Revolution

Piloting a Plastics Pollution Revolution

By Robert Earle Howells

Anna Cummins, photographed on the "Nautilus" whale-watching vessel on April 18, 2018, in Newport Beach, California.
SourceChristina Gandolfo for OZY


Because 5 trillion plastic particles swirling around in our oceans is at least 1 trillion too many.

By Robert Earle Howells

Anyone who traffics in the realm of depressing news can readily look to the world’s oceans and the trillions of bits of plastic and fishing debris floating therein. To wit, the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, aka the North Pacific Gyre, which popped up in the news again last month —1.8 trillion pieces of plastic swirling around in the ocean. It’s a mass three times the size of France — and growing.

Anna Cummins, co-founder and global strategy director of 5 Gyres, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit devoted to solving the crisis of plastics pollution, definitely traffics in a realm where the news is mostly bleak. As the name of her organization suggests, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not alone out there. It’s just one of five major subtropical gyres where ocean currents trap the plastic flotsam of a use-it-and-dump-it world. Cummins’ mission for the past 10 years has been to alert the world to what a god-awful and dangerous mess it has created, and to stop the flow of plastics from source to sea.

“We’ve been a little bit asleep at the wheel,” she says, speaking in a global first-person plural. “We need to get woke.”

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Anna Cummins examines materials collected by the trawl, a netted device dragged behind an ocean vessel to collect plastic pollution that is observed and analyzed by students.

Source Christina Gandolfo for OZY

For Cummins — and her 5 Gyres cofounder and husband, Marcus Eriksen — waking the world extends beyond citing shocking statistics and preachy polemics that could tend to impose guilt or despair. She shows, more than tells. The ingenious central conceit of 5 Gyres has been the staging of expeditions to ocean gyres and the Great Lakes, where scientists, paying passengers (i.e., donors), filmmakers and media see the crisis firsthand. Call them aversion voyages.


“We started them [in 2010] because there was no data or research in other oceans [besides the North Pacific],” says Cummins. “Then we realized that there’s a lot of power in seeing the issue firsthand. People go back and tell their friends, their local councils: ‘I’ve been there. I’ve seen this with my own eyes.’”

The voyages have spawned international awareness — with images circulating of plastic garbage swirling hundreds of miles from land, plastics-strewn beaches, creatures caught in discarded fishing nets and dissected fish bellies spewing out plastic bits — and several other organizations have rallied to the cause.

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A sample of microplastics recovered during a 5 Gyres expedition.

Source Christina Gandolfo for OZY

The results? A lot of scientific data and some baby steps. Campaigns against plastic straws, foam cups and plastic coffee lids, and single-use plastics of all stripes. A fair amount of consciousness-raising.

But one expedition — to the Great Lakes in 2012 — brought about a major success after the 5 Gyres team found more plastics in the water than in any ocean gyre. Most were tiny, perfectly symmetrical microparticles. Says Cummins: “‘Oh my goodness,’ we realized — ‘those are the microbeads from our personal care stuff.’” Indeed, a single tube of exfoliating facial scrub can contain more than 330,000 plastic microbeads, and billions of such particles were finding their way into the environment daily. 5 Gyres rallied a number of other nonprofits and activists, and two years later, President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, prohibiting the addition of plastic beads in the manufacture of cleaning and personal care products.

Two hundred sixty-nine thousand metric tons of plastic, most smaller than a grain of rice. We’ve turned our oceans into a plastic smog.

Anna Cummins

Cummins sailed on several early expeditions (there have been 17) until the birth of her daughter, Avani, now 6. When I first met Cummins, she was pregnant with Avani and had bicycled to our appointment — all spunk and zeal. Today she manifests the poise and well-honed messaging that befits a TED talker and veteran storyteller.

In one presentation, she recounts a voyage when she saw “tiny lanternfish at the base of our food chain surface at night to feed — normally on plankton, but we’ve contaminated the surface of our oceans so much that they’re now feeding on plastics.” When she does deploy statistics, it’s to deft effect: “Five point two five trillion particles of plastic … 269,000 metric tons of plastic, most smaller than a grain of rice. We’ve turned our oceans into a plastic smog.”

Which is to say Anna Cummins’ zeal has not diminished with motherhood. “I definitely feel an added urgency,” she says, “thinking about what [Avani’s] future will be. She’s so little and vulnerable. I feel such empathy for the children of the world.”

That combination of eco-warrior and motherliness suits her for a role she seems to have grown, or fallen, into: ambassador at large for the anti-plastics movement. As with the microbead campaign, she coordinates frequently with other nonprofits, which in turn sing her praises: “She’s been great to work with,” says Emily Jeffers, staff attorney for the Center for Biodiversity. “Very generous in sharing information with others who are fighting plastic pollution.” Adds Kate Melges, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace: “Anna … brings an issue that is so vast and far away for so many much closer and makes it more tangible.” Even an occasional foe joins the chorus. Steven Russell, vice president for plastics at the American Chemistry Council, calls her “tenacious and respectful, always willing to listen. I think she’s extremely effective.”

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Students of Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy in Los Alamitos, California, scan the waters of Newport Bay to spot plastic debris and waste floating on the water’s surface. Sunburst participated in 5Gyres’ “Mi Mar” (My Ocean) program that educates at-risk and underserved high school students about the impact of plastic pollution on marine wildlife and public health.

Source Christina Gandolfo for OZY

But might those diplomatic instincts hinder her effectiveness as an advocate? It’s a concern raised by Stiv Wilson, associate director of 5 Gyres from 2009 to 2015. He’s now director of campaigns at the Story of Stuff Project. “Anna is pretty objective and diplomatic,” says Wilson, “so she’s seen as a safe convener between more radical sides and industry sides. It’s easy to convene panels, have lunch and deal with people on a human level. But you can be taken advantage of. The [plastics] industry plays people. On the other hand, you get to stay in the room.”

Still, Wilson considers her “a great voice for this movement” and credits her for “teaching me not to yell so loud that people can’t hear me.”

Recently, Cummins has been turning her gaze inland, to the source, rather than the result, of plastics pollution. “We’ve spent most our time showing how plastics get into the food chain, into fish, into our bodies. We haven’t been showing so much where it comes from.” Which is to say, oil extraction and the burgeoning uses of plastics. 

As if on cue, our interview is interrupted by a delivery. “Oh, it’s the camel stomach,” Cummins says. “Marcus found it in Dubai. Huge wads of plastic were wadded together — like 40 pounds — lodged in the camel’s stomach cavity.”

If a camel can ingest 40 pounds of plastic far from an ocean gyre, it’s clear that Anna Cummins and 5 Gyres will have plenty of fodder for their crusade, by land or sea.