In Pursuit of Plastic: Erica Cirino’s Go and See Tour
by Beth Young
After science writer and artist Erica Cirino graduated from Stony Brook University in 2015, she wasn’t about to go do something boring that you might expect from a college grad let loose into the world of bills and careers.
The first mission she took on was to embark on a “Go and See” trip with the Danish group Plastic Change on a 64-year-old steel sailing vessel, the S/Y Christianshavn, across the Pacific Ocean, from California to Hawaii.
They were in search of plastic, and plastic is what she and the crew of nine scientists and sailors found.
From rubber to fishing line to finely ground pieces of bottlecaps, washed up like weathered stones along the shores of Hawaii, to plastic in the stomachs of the fish they caught for research and food, it was easy for the crew to find man-made junk in parts of the ocean that few humans ever get to see.
Ms. Cirino is embarking this summer on a “Go and See” Tour of libraries and lecture halls throughout Long Island sharing her story of plastic in the ocean, including a talk sponsored by the North Fork Environmental Council at the Jamesport Meeting House July 14.
“Life on the ship was exciting and slightly terrifying,” she told attendees at the NFEC lecture, telling stories of mechanical breakdowns ranging from a rope fouling up their engine five days into the trip (it was ok, the crew mused, because they were on a sailing vessel after all) to their rudder cracking in half on their final approach to Hawaii, when they limped into port using their spare spinnaker gear as makeshift steerage.
Along the way, they took samples of ocean water from 20 to 200 meters down, quantifying the plastic they found, and passed through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre filled with trash halfway between California and Hawaii.
Ms. Cirino said that, while large chunks of plastic trash that entangle sea life and wash up on shore are the most visible sign of plastic pollution in the ocean, the smallest pieces of fibers and microplastics have the potential to do the most damage.
She said plastics that are used as part of textiles shed their fibers when they are washed, after which the waste water from washing machines makes its way either to the groundwater or a sewage treatment plant and eventually to the sea.
“Fibers are more problematic than microbeads because they entangle internal organs, and digestion shuts down,” she said.
When the Plastic Change crew arrived on the big island of Hawaiii, they found beaches where you could barely see the sand underneath the plastic, which Ms. Cirino found alarming.
She said she met many Hawaiians who are distraught to see the beaches of their island, which they’ve long viewed as a sacred space, overrun by more plastic every year.
And that plastic comes from places far from their environmentally sensitive home.
Ms. Cirino has also traveled to Thailand, where she took part in several beach cleanups and learned about the cultural differences there that can lead people to not see the environment as part of their personal space.
“You won’t find most Thai people picking up trash, because there’s a cast system, and who wants to be the lowly person picking up garbage?” she said. “They’re into cleaning their own space, but they don’t see the environment as their space as well.”
“That’s kind of changing amongst Thais,” she added. “I met kids who were really into the environment and wanted to change things.”
She shares an equal amount of optimism about young people bent on innovation in America.
Ms. Cirino said there’s work being done now with natural polymers like beeswax and mushroom-based products, while experiments are also being done with worms that eat plastic.
She then showed off her stainless steel Kleen Kanteen, which she brings with her everywhere.
“Every little bit really does count,” she said.
At Ms. Cirino’s lecture, NFEC Programs Director Debbie O’Kane said she’s seen more plastic than ever on the North Fork’s beaches this year.
“This year is just the worst. I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “When I’m wading through the water, I’m wading through wrappers, and there are so many pieces of plastic and bottlecaps. I’ve found hypodermic needles. It’s gotten totally out of control.”
Ms. O’Kane, who is running this year for a seat on the Southold Town Board, said the North Fork Audubon Society collected 1,000 signatures a couple years back in favor of a town-wide ban on plastic bags, but the town board wasn’t interested in enacting such a restriction.
“We just have to change our habits,” she said. “We all have to be activists. We’ve got to make our voices heard.”
Ms. Cirino will speak at the Quogue Library on Aug. 1 at 6 p.m., at the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Library on Aug. 9 at 6:30 p.m., at the Smithtown Public Library’s Commack Branch on Aug. 10 at 7 p.m. and at the National Geographic Society’s Explorers Club in New York City on Sept. 18 before heading to the West Coast for a series of lectures there.