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JUNKride Interview: Cyclists on 2,000-mile Ride Roll Into Santa Monica, Raising Awareness of Ocean's 'Plastic Soup'

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The JUNKride duo, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Anna Cummins, used with permission.

On April 4th, two LA residents, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, set off an a 2,000-mile bike ride, the JUNKride, from Vancouver to Tijuana, to raise awareness and educate children and adults about the damage plastic is causing to our oceans.

The ride has lead them through dozens of cities including Portland, Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Chico and San Francisco, and has included stops to give presentations and lead discussions about the ''plastic soup-which has doubled in size in the past decade-despoiling our oceans." They have met with the Mayor of Portland, and Cummins has tested her own blood "for DDT, PCBs and other chemicals we all may be ingesting by eating fish that eat tainted plastic."

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This Saturday, Los Angeles will have their chance to meet the JUNKride crew and join them for a group ride from the Santa Monica Pier to the Long Beach Surfrider International Surf Day event.

Anna took the time answer some questions for LAist about her experiences on the JUNKraft, how this lead to the JUNKride, the myths about recycling plastic and tips on avoiding plastic shampoo bottles with shampoo bars.

What inspired this journey?

Last year, Marcus and I spent a month sailing 4,000 miles across the North Pacific Ocean with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. This was our foundation’s 6th expedition across the North Pacific Gyre, a slow rotating oceanic current, at the center of which our plastic trash accumulates, breaking down into smaller and smaller particles. During our 2008 voyage, we found that the density of plastic floating on the surface had doubled in less than a decade. We also found that 35% of the small fish we collected in our trawls had plastic in their stomachs. Our plastic trash is slowly but surely entering the food chain that we depend on.

To draw attention to this alarming eco-tastrophe, we decided to launch a 3 part campaign called “Message in a Bottle”. We’d already collected 100 surface samples full of plastic and zooplankton to give away - part 1. Then, to launch the issue into the public eye, we built a raft called JUNK out of 15,000 plastic bottles, which Marcus and our friend Joel Paschal sailed from Long beach to Hawaii, in 88 days. With the media attention this drew, we’re now riding 2,000 miles along the coast, from Vancouver BC to Mexico, to give presentations and give away gyre samples to legislators and educators. We can’t afford this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality any longer, and must begin stemming the flow of plastic trash into our oceans.

What has been the most rewarding experience of the ride so far?

Getting to hand deliver samples of Pacific Ocean, full of plastic and zooplankton, to 5 mayors. Once people have a chance to see what we’ve seen floating thousands of miles from land - a thin plastic soup fouling our beautiful blue Pacific, they are inspired to make a difference.

Having our JUNKraft displayed on the front steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento was another highlight. 2 ½ months of hard work to gather materials, raise funds, build a raft from 15,000 plastic bottles, and then 3 months risking a 2,600 mile journey across the ocean paid off and then some. As JUNKraft was surrounded by hundreds of school children, teachers and legislators, all learning more about Algalita’s research on plastic in the marine environment, we felt our efforts had made at least a small difference.

What has been the greatest challenge?

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There are a few major challenges to the plastics issue. One: disposable plastics are now deeply imbedded in our culture. Our insatiable appetite for cheap, expendable, short-term convenience relates directly to the plastics trash we now find in all corners of the world. To truly tackle plastic pollution, we need to address this much larger issue - our focus on immediate profits over longer term sustainability. Granted, that’s a big one....

Two: the industries that make throw away plastics have tremendous resources at their disposal to fight legislative efforts to reduce production. But we are beginning to see positive changes around the world, as more and more countries recognize the environmental hazards posed by throw away plastics.

What is the biggest myth about our plastic consumption?

One of the biggest plastics myths is recycling. Recycling plastic is a difficult, inefficient process, and only a small percentage of our plastics even make it to the recycling bin. Most of the plastics we dutifully place in our recycling bin are sent either to the landfill, or overseas. We’ve met now with 3 recycling centers, all of which ship their plastics to China. Some of this gets burned, some is downcycled into fake lumber, packaging or carpeting, the one seems to know. Some may get burned, or landfilled. We hope to investiage this further.

What is the easiest thing we can do to curb the problem?

We can start by switching to reusables - bags, bottles, utensils, cups, and eliminating “disposable” from our daily routine as much as possible. We can encourage our friends and family to do the same - leading by example, rather than by lecturing.

And a very important action: we can call or write our legislators to show support for legislation to stem the flow of plastics into our oceans. Legislators must hear concern from us - their constituents - rather than from companies with profit driven interests.

Why is this issue so important? Why should people care?

Far from being simply an aesthetic issue, plastic pollution in our oceans has devastating impacts on many species of marine wildlife, and ultimately on our own health. Thousands upon thousands of creatures mistake plastic for food, leading to starvation, dehydration, and often death. This year alone, our foundation documented 7 new fish species with plastic in their guts. These plastics particles act as sponges for toxic chemicals like PCBs, DDTs, pesticides, and other pollutants that wash into our oceans. A question now facing us: do chemicals that stick to plastic “desorb” into the tissues of these fish, bioaccumulate as they work up the food chain, and end up in our sushi?

Are you both totally plastic-free?( What do you do when you go to a restaurant, for example, and there is an obvious use of plastic? How far do you guys take it?)

We try in our lives to avoid unnecessary plastics, but it’s nearly impossible to live completely plastic free. Plastic bags, bottles, and utensils are easy to avoid with our BYO bags, our Ecousable water bottles, and our To-Go Ware. At restaurants, we always ask for our water with no straw, and never accept Styrofoam or plastic at restaurants - we bring our To-Go ware or insist on tin foil/paper. We don’t use a plastic trashcan liner - since we compost, our trash is generally dry, and we let our can go “commando”. I just learned about shampoo and hair conditioning bars - thus no need for plastic shampoo bottles. We use powdered laundry detergent in a cardboard box. We’re working on a “plastic free shopping list”, coming as soon as we finish our ride. Cheese is tricky...we’re going to try and start buying cheese from a deli, and asking that they wrap in wax paper, or put in our own container.

We’re still surrounded by plastic - our bike helmets, computers, cell phones - etc. We can at least avoid disposable plastics, and demand that our companies start taking responsibility for the end life of their products.

How can people learn more and get involved?

The best way to learn more about this issue it to get involved directly, by becoming active members of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. We’re a small organization with a huge mission, and rely on the support of our community to conduct our research.

Our founder Captain Charles Moore is currently on his 7th, and longest expedition through the North Pacific Gyre. Captain Moore and crew are keeping a live blog at sea, so people can experience this critical issue first hand!

Check out their JUNKride blog for great stories and updates from the trip.

Saturday's ride: Meets at the Pier on Saturday at 6:45am, and departs at 7am for a leisurely-paced 33-38 mile ride down to Long Beach.