Gringo Trails

Are tourists destroying the planet — or saving it ?

How do travelers change the remote places they visit, and how are they changed? GRINGO TRAILS, a new documentary film offers answers—some heartbreaking, some hopeful. From the Bolivian jungle to the party beaches of Thailand, and from the deserts of Timbuktu, Mali to the breathtaking beauty of Bhutan, GRINGO TRAILS shows the unanticipated impact of tourism on cultures, economies, and the environment, tracing some stories over 30 years. Through serious and at times humorous reflection, backpackers and local inhabitants tell startling stories of transformation, for good and ill.

© Zebra Films

© Zebra Films

Marine Debris: Cause, Effect, and Prevention

Trash and litter is not only harmful to our health, but also to marine life at sea. Marine life such as turtles, birds, and the fish we catch and eat mistake this trash for food. Most of this trash begins its journey on land and enters the ocean through our streams, rivers, and waterways. See and hear how this harmful problem can be prevented and how EPA’s efforts can keep our oceans clean.

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Published on May 16, 2013
US Environmental Protection Agency

Marine Debris Prevention: it takes teamwork

By: Sherry Lippiatt, California Regional Coordinator

Saving Our Synthetic Seas, a traveling exhibition put together by The 5 Gyres Institute. Pictured from left to right is a Japanese vessel found floating in the North Pacific, masks cast from plastic, and the stomach contents of a camel that ingested rope and plastic bags.

Saving Our Synthetic Seas, a traveling exhibition put together by The 5 Gyres Institute. Pictured from left to right is a Japanese vessel found floating in the North Pacific, masks cast from plastic, and the stomach contents of a camel that ingested rope and plastic bags.

Hello from Long Beach, CA!

In mid-February, I was honored to participate in an event and panel discussion at the Aquarium of the Pacific highlighting plastics in the marine environment. The panel introduced the issue to the audience and talked about solutions, while the non-profit 5 Gyres Institute debuted a traveling exhibit on the impacts of ocean pollution.

Here are my take-aways from the evening:

It became clear that although marine debris seems like a relatively simple problem to solve – it’s visible, tangible, and comes directly from humans – the issue needs to be addressed at multiple levels. Meaning, to make great strides in preventing marine debris we need industry participation and innovation, effective policies grounded in sound science, and changes in consumer behavior.

It’s true that more research is needed to fully understand and measure the impacts of debris, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action. While advances in science will help us identify better, more successful management strategies, there are easy changes we can make every day to make a huge difference. For example, reducing our consumption of single-use, disposable plastics is a great start. (See Ocean Conservancy’s Keep the Coast Clear website for more suggestions).

A big thank-you to the Aquarium of the Pacific, Algalita Marine Research Institute, 5 Gyres, and my fellow panelists from the NRDC and Packaging 2.0 for the inspiring discussion!

February 26, 2013
Marine Debris Blog

Marine Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act Introduced by Assemblymembers Ben Hueso & Mark Stone

Leila Monroe’s Blog

Experience and scientific study both reveal that plastic now pollutes the farthest reaches of the world’s oceans.  From the deep seabed of the Arctic, to once-pristine coasts – from the local riverside parks to distant islands – globally, we produce far more plastic waste than is recovered or recycled.

While this is a global problem, we can accomplish a lot with leadership and action at the State level. We at NRDC are thrilled to be working with California Assemblymember Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), joined by Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), who have introduced the Marine Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act.

A 2012 study by the Convention on Biological Diversity found that 663 marine specieshave been impacted by marine litter through entanglement and ingestion—a two-thirds increase in species from a similar study in 1998.  And a 2012 report found that California’s coastal communities are spending more than $418 million each and every year to combat litter and curtail marine debris.

This Act will create benefits not only for our oceans, but also for tax payers and local governments that currently pay millions of dollars every year to manage excessive plastic packaging that often pollutes our environment.  The bill also encourages industry to use their power of innovation by making design changes that can eliminate the problem in the first place.

For decades, much of the effort toward solving the problem of “marine debris”–the general term for solid waste found in the ocean – has been in trying to educate people not to litter and to clean up the beaches.  But plastics production worldwide is increasing, and half of all plastic items are designed to be used once and then thrown away.  Our recycling infrastructure has not kept pace with the amount of disposable plastic packaging that is being produced, and this packaging often ends up as blight in the environment because it is lightweight, blows away, and is shipped all around the world to places where it is not being disposed of properly.

Because 60-80% of marine plastic pollution comes from land sources, resulting from inadequate waste management and inappropriate disposal, NRDC is helping to tackle this problem by uniting the expertise of both our ocean and our waste management experts.  The goal of AB 521 is to require that producers of plastic take their fair share of responsibility for infrastructure — such as recycling plants, full capture devices on stormdrains — needed to properly recycle materials or prevent them from reaching the marine environment.   This will then incentivize business to make better products – durable, reusable and truly recyclable products – rather than the disposable polluting plastics that are now so ubiquitous.

We are excited and very grateful to Assemblymembers Hueso and Stone for their leadership in launching a comprehensive solution to the problem of marine plastic pollution that threatens the California’s communities, economy, and environment.

February 21, 2013
Switchboard, from NRDC

Plasticized – An Oceanic Catastrophe



PLASTICIZED is a film that places the viewer aboard a transatlantic expedition, as if one of the crew, revealing the unembellished evidence that the human footprint has reached every corner of the earth, even if we have not been there.

Despite rumors of massive garbage islands, an immeasurable amount of plastic pollution of all sizes is floating throughout every major ocean in the world. With the numerous ghost nets of trash or larger windrows of rubbish dominating the the occasional headlines, tiny bits of plastic particulate from frail chunks is the overwhelming contaminant that is secretly infiltrating all levels of sea life like a cancer.

Every day the disposable single use items that we take for granted, such as bags, bottles and straws, just to name the tip of the plastic iceberg, find their way through mismanagement into the waterways and eventually the oceans, becoming part of the food chain. A cycle that inevitably comes round insidiously to our plates or worse, leaves our plates empty.

When conservative estimates are made in regard to the actual volume, the amount of plastic collecting in the sea is astounding. PLASTICIZED conveys a clear understanding of the issue through seeing the arduous mission cross an entire ocean from Brazil to South Africa.

With every nation, rich or poor, reaching further for dwindling resources at any cost, it is perplexing to see how we neglect one of our most precious and vital assets, the Ocean.

The South Atlantic Crew was comprised of lead scientist Dr. Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyre researcher and education advisor Anna Cummins, Stiv J. Wilson 5 Gyres communications director, Chelsea Rochman studying the trophic effects of persistent organic contaminants’ adsorption to plastic debris in the marine environment, research scientist Bonnie Monteleone, Captain Clive Cosby and first mate Dale Selvam, Environmental Cleanup Coalition founder Richard “Sundance” Owen, ocean activist Mary Maxwell, with professional surfers James Pribram and Mary Osborne, and filmmaker Michael J. Lutman.

The crew spent 31 days at sea after leaving the beautiful port of Ilha Grande in Brazil in able to cross the South Atlantic Gyre on their way to Cape Town, South Africa. Their objective was to sample the seas with a trawling net every 60 nautical miles to document the amount and dispersal of plastic fragments throughout the ocean.


To find out more about the film, head to:

Go to to learn more about the topic of oceanic plastic pollution where you can also become part of the solution.

Contact to find out about the use of the film PLASTICIZED for education. It is available with English closed captioning as well as Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.

Litter found in deepsea survey of one of Earth’s final unexplored realms

A glimpse into one tiny nook of the UK’s vast ocean depths uncovered two drink cans, one bottle, and a rusty food tin

Jon Copley

Deep-sea pollution at 2,300 meters has arrived before the James Cook survey. Photograph: NERC

Deep-sea pollution at 2,300 meters has arrived before the James Cook survey. Photograph: NERC

On 15 August 1934, two adventurers squeezed into a tiny metal capsule and became the first people to see another world. Their names were William Beebe and Otis Barton, and the world that they saw was the deep ocean, when they dived more than half a mile down in their bathysphere near Bermuda. They were the first to journey beyond the sunlit waters of the upper ocean, and Barton later commented that “no human eye had seen this part of the planet before us, this pitch-black country lighted only by the pale gleam of an occasional spiralling shrimp”.

Colonies of teeming glorious life in the abyss. Photograph: NERC

Colonies of teeming glorious life in the abyss. Photograph: NERC

For the past two weeks, my colleagues and I have been exploring that pitch-black country further, by sending a remotely operated vehicle called Isis to the bottom of the Cayman Trough, which is located between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, from the UK’s royal research ship, James Cook. We have surveyed the slopes of an underwater mountain twice as high as Ben Nevis, but whose summit still lies one-and-a-half miles beneath the waves. We have also investigated the world’s deepest undersea vents, three miles down in a volcanic rift on the ocean floor. And our journey has brought us face-to-face with new species of deep-sea creatures, from colonies of teeming glorious life in the abyss.

The area where we are working is part of the UK’s deep-sea territory, which covers an area 27 times greater than all of our land above the waves. Besides finding out what is in that unexplored realm, the goal of our expedition is to learn more about the geological forces that shape our world, the processes that govern the chemistry of the oceans, and how species disperse and evolve in the dark depths.

During our present expedition, we plan to collect sediment cores around the world's deepest known undersea vents. Photograph: NERC

During our present expedition, we plan to collect sediment cores around the world’s deepest known undersea vents. Photograph: NERC

But while we have been among the first to see this particular part of our planet, we have found that human rubbish has arrived here before us. The list of litter we have seen so far during dives includes two soft drink cans, one beer bottle, and a rusty food tin. And ours is just one expedition, glimpsing only one tiny nook of the vast ocean depths.

In the logsheets that we use to record our observations at the seafloor, we have several categories for any human impacts that we encounter. To pass the time during a recent three-hour descent to the ocean floor, one of my research students asked me which of the categories I had seen before in recent deep-sea expeditions. The answer was all of them. Discarded fishing nets? Yes, on underwater mountains in the Indian Ocean. Discarded longlines? Yes, more than a mile deep in the remote south Atlantic. Plastic? Yes, a shopping bag at a deep-sea vent in a Pacific marine protected area. Scrap metal? Yes, a tangle of discarded pipework on an undersea volcanic ridge north of the Azores.

Deep-sea pollution at 5,000 metres. Photograph: NERC

Deep-sea pollution at 5,000 metres. Photograph: NERC

Human-generated rubbish unfortunately has a long history in the deep ocean. In the age of steamships, for example, vessels dumped the remains of burned coal, known as clinker, from their engine rooms. Clinker changed the nature of the seafloor in well-travelled areas, transforming the seabed from soft sediment in which some forms of marine life can burrow, into cobbled areas suiting other life-forms that can anchor to hard surfaces. The scale of that transformation is such that clinker is now recognised as a seafloor type when we are mapping the deep ocean.

At the time that our great-great-grandparents were dumping clinker, however, they only had hazy notions about the depth of the oceans, let alone what was going on down there. Just starting to map the depth of the ocean, let alone visit it, required two technological advances. One was the ability to fix a ship’s position accurately far from land, solved by inventions such as John Harrison’s longitude-determining chronometer. The other was steam-powered winches, which helped early survey ships to pay out and haul in the miles of cable required to plumb the ocean depths.

Today we can gauge the large-scale landscape of the ocean floor from satellites, map it in far greater detail using sonar, and visit its most extreme depths with deep-diving vehicles. Plastic, meanwhile, has replaced clinker as a common contaminant of the deep ocean. During our present expedition, we plan to collect sediment cores around the world’s deepest known undersea vents to see if there are any microplastics here: tiny ground-down remnants of plastic that may now be quite ubiquitous in the oceans.

Although we might not think about it, our daily lives have an impact on the deep ocean, not just through items of litter that end up there, but increasingly through the resources that we use. We are fishing in deeper waters, extracting oil and gas from deeper waters, and now eyeing deposits of metals and rare earth elements on the ocean floor, needed for the ever-developing technology of our modern lives.

As our planet’s population continues to grow and develop, so will that impact. When William Beebe and Otis Barton first ventured into the deep ocean, the global population was around two billion people. Fewer than 80 years later, it is more than seven billion. But for the first time in human history, we can explore and investigate the half of our planet that lies beneath water more than two miles deep. With vehicles such as our Isis remotely operated vehicle, we can begin to understand the impact of our lives on the previously hidden face of our world.

So while my colleagues and I are exploring the deep ocean, we try to share what we are finding with anyone who wants to join us, through programmes of online outreach and work with the media. In this, too, we are following in the wake of William Beebe, who broadcast live on the radio during his bathysphere dives in the 1930s, describing what he was seeing.

However, I don’t expect that simply finding out more about the deep ocean will prompt anyone suddenly to care more about it. But at least ignorance of it can no longer be an excuse. And to plot our course ahead among the economic opportunities and environmental challenges that the deep ocean has to offer, we need to think deep thoughts.

• Jon Copley is aboard the RRS James Cook on a research mission to explore the ocean’s deepest hydrothermal vents. You can follow him on twitter at @expeditionlog and use #deepestvents for updates from current expedition. There is also a free eBook about deep-sea vents and other recent expeditions

Monday 25 February 2013 13.24 GMT
The Guardian

To Go: Plastic-Foam Containers, if the Mayor Gets His Way


It is the most humble of vessels for New York City foodstuffs, ubiquitous at Chinese takeout joints and halal street carts. In pre-Starbucks days, coffee came packaged in its puffy embrace.

But the plastic-foam container may soon be going the way of trans fats, 32-ounce Pepsis, and cigarettes in Central Park.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose regulatory lance has slain fatty foods, supersize sodas, and smoking in parks, is now targeting plastic foam, the much-derided polymer that environmentalists have long tried to restrict.

On Thursday, Mr. Bloomberg, in his 12th and final State of the City address, will propose a citywide ban on plastic-foam food packaging, including takeout boxes, cups and trays. Public schools would be instructed to remove plastic-foam trays from their cafeterias. Many restaurants and bodegas would be forced to restock.

In excerpts from his speech released on Wednesday, Mr. Bloomberg rails against plastic foam, even comparing it to lead paint. “We can live without it, we may live longer without it, and the doggie bag will survive just fine,” the mayor plans to say.

Call it the era of clamshell prohibition.

To become law, the ban would require approval by the City Council. The Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, suggested in an interview that she was open to a ban on plastic foam as part of a larger effort to increase recycling.

“It lives forever,” Ms. Quinn said. “It’s worse than cockroaches.”

The plastic foam used in food packaging is not actually Styrofoam, according to Dow Chemical, the company that makes Styrofoam. The company says its product is widely used as insulation, but not “in the manufacture of disposable foam products, such as cups, coolers, meat trays and packing peanuts.”

Officials at City Hall said a plastic-foam ban could save millions of dollars a year. Plastic foam, which is not biodegradable, can add up to $20 per ton in recycling costs when the city processes recyclable materials. The city handles about 1.2 million tons of food waste each year; the mayor’s office estimated that the city’s annual waste stream included about 20,000 tons of plastic foam.

New York led the nation in restricting smoking and sugary drinks, but the city is a relative latecomer to the antifoam trend: measures against the material are already in place in Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco and Seattle. Mr. Bloomberg has been only a sometime-ally of recycling advocates; early in his tenure, he called for the suspension of some recycling to save the city money.

Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, hailed the foam plan as “an important step forward,” saying it would bring environmental and quality-of-life benefits to the city.

Plastic foam, Mr. Goldstein said, “is so brittle.” He added: “It breaks into these tiny pieces, and it’s not easy to clean up. Getting rid of it means our parks, our streets, our waterways, will all be cleaner.”

The restaurant industry, which has complained about overregulation by City Hall, offered a more measured response on Wednesday.

“We have to consider what the costs will be for both government and the business owners who make the city run,” said Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association. He noted that containers made of paper can often be more expensive than their foam counterparts.

Mr. Bloomberg is not the first mayor of New York City to propose a crackdown on foam. In 1987, Mayor Edward I. Koch joined a campaign to encourage fast-food restaurants to reduce their use of the product. McDonald’s later phased out foam boxes from its restaurants.

Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal is one element of a larger environmental protection effort he plans to pursue during his final year in office. In his speech, he will also pledge to install 1,000 recycling containers on sidewalks, doubling the current number.

The percentage of waste that is recycled by the city has fallen during the Bloomberg administration, to 15 percent today, from 23 percent in 2001. Mr. Bloomberg, in his speech, will call for the city to achieve a 30 percent recycling rate by 2017.

He will also propose taking the first steps toward city collection of food waste for composting, starting with a pilot program on Staten Island.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 14, 2013, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: To Go: Plastic-Foam Containers in New York, if the Mayor Gets His Way.

February 13, 2013

Invisible Plastic: What happens when your garbage ends up in the ocean

Plastic is ubiquitous in our modern lives – a $17.6 billion industry in Canada alone that makes everything from shopping bags to packaging to clothing. It’s made our lives much more convenient and until recently we haven’t thought much about the fact that we throw a lot of it away after just one use, let alone what happens to the plastic that finds its way into the world’s oceans.

In Invisible Plastic, award-winning science writer Alanna Mitchell sets out on a quest to find out just what happens to plastic on the high seas. Her story is riveting, and essential reading for every concerned Canadian.

To get the full story, simply go to and subscribe for $1/week. “Invisible Plastic” is also available for single-copy purchase at or for $2.99.

Invisible Plastic

Invisible Plastic

On board the SSV Corwith Cramer, north of Bequia, Caribbean Sea

In the old-fashioned sense of the word, plastic means something that can change into something else. It’s pliable, transformative, maybe metaphoric, certainly shifty. In the modern sense, plastic is a substance made from crude petroleum engineered into chains of molecules so freakishly long that they are both supple and unbreakable.

Unknown at the beginning of the last century, uncommon until after the Second World War, plastics now permeate everyday life in ways we barely keep track of. We use these man-made molecules to wrap and carry food, mass produce juice and water containers, fashion intravenous bags and syringes and polar fleeces, insulate homes, make car parts and air bags and baby carriers, record music and even create artificial human hearts. It’s been said, with only a touch of exaggeration, that plastics make modern life possible.

And while some of these plastics are made to be useful for years, many are one-use wonders designed to be tossed away. The problem is that the very characteristics that make plastics versatile also make them immortal. While other materials eventually get broken down by bacteria or other processes into the minerals that made them, plastics don’t. They live on, breaking down only into smaller and smaller pieces of themselves.

Much of that plastic ends up in landfills, and scientists are increasingly worried about its effects on groundwater, human health and wildlife. But a vast amount also ends up in the ocean, making ever larger tracts of indestructible plastic trash in the great, living basins of the sea. The most famous, but not the only one or even necessarily the biggest, is the Pacific garbage patch north of Hawaii that news outlets have focused on in recent years. But scientists have found plastic litter in every single part of the ocean no matter how far from human civilization, from the floor of the Arctic Ocean to the surface of the waters surrounding Antarctica to the deepest reaches of the abyss, where it acts like a sponge soaking up toxic chemicals we have also dumped in the sea.