Re-imagining Plastics in the Sargasso Sea

28 May 2019
Todd Barker

Imagine swimming through the clearest and bluest water you’ve ever seen knowing that there is more than 5,000 feet between you and the ocean floor. Imagine swimming into a beautiful patch of sargassum – floating seaweed that supports an incredible diversity of species – and realizing, as you dive around and under, that the patch is littered with plastic cups, strapping, chunks of crates, and countless specks of microplastics, spanning the colors of the rainbow.  In just 20 minutes, our crew of snorkelers collected nearly a half cubic meter of plastic debris from just one patch of sargassum in the Sargasso Sea off the coast of Bermuda.

My colleague John Ehrmann and I were aboard the RCGC Resolute, a Canadian-flagged vessel, with 150 corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, activists, and others participating in a 3-day floating collaboration – the Oceans Plastics Leadership Summit – focused on the reality of ocean plastics.

Over the course of 3 days, we spent time helping those on board re-imagine a world – depending on who you talked with – without plastics or without single use plastics (nearly everyone could agree on the latter).

Discussion also focused on how to reformulate plastics to make them easier to recycle and reduce their effects on the environment.  And we discussed recycling including waste pickers, those who sort through mountains of waste to find high value plastic materials. They provide this valuable service while being nearly universally marginalized and often mistreated.

Below we explore re-imagining.

On the ship, we were part of a team that created spaces to think expansively and creatively. Aithan Shapira talked about perception and challenged us to expand our horizons and imagine the unimaginable (a world without single use plastics?).  We heard about cognitive bias and neuroscience from Genevieve Ennis Hume. Ben Von Wong inspired action by sharing his incredible art installations around the world made of plastic bottles, straws, cups and more. Ovie Mughelli, a former NFL fullback turned environmental advocate, challenged the group to act now and aggressively. In the evenings under the stars, we were moved by music from Lauren Turk and Garth Stevenson.

Inspired and challenged by these people and others, small groups that included corporate leaders, government officials, environmental organizations, and scientists (including 5 Gyres and others) dove deep to explore how to create zero waste communities and packaging-free supply chains. One group proposed incentivizing individuals to become #ZeroHeroes. While the groups delved into substance and strategy, several investors and entrepreneurs – including Closed Loop Capital and Circulate Capital– talked about how to financially support needed innovation.  On our final evening, the entire group signed a pledge to continue working together to address ocean plastics, stating “We resolve to continue learning, to work collaboratively, and to have deeper relationships in order to advocate and accelerate the end of ocean plastic waste.” Together, we are Resolute!

A special thanks from @MeridOrg to our co-collaborators who modeled how working together leads to results greater than the sum of the parts: @ideo @HatchExperience @SoulBuffalo & Resilience in Action.

Cover photo: Bryan Liscinsky. Gallery photos (top row): Yarrow Kraner. Gallery photos (bottom row): left, Bryan Liscinsky; middle, Yarrow Kraner; right, Tom Gruber. Final photo: Bryan Liscinsky.

Marine Debris Dialogues

A few months before the Sargasso Sea expedition, Meridian brought industry and environmental organizations together for an important dialogue on the problem of marine debris.