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Taking a Trip to Better Understand the Floating Piles of Garbage in Our Oceans

The writer and environmentalist Stiv Wilson is on a mission to better understand how plastic ends up in the ocean, and what he—and the rest of us—can do about it.

As a surfer, I've always been interested in the ocean's health. Several years ago I started noticing that no matter where I traveled one thing remained the same: Our world's beaches are covered with plastic debris. I've been to beaches in Nicaragua that are knee deep in plastic bottles, beaches in Canada where ground plastic is as ubiquitous as grains of sand. Understanding that plastic in the ocean doesn't biodegrade, I was alarmed. That alarm ultimately put me on a course that would change my life forever.

I read everything I could find on the subject. I combed through websites like whose founder, Captain Charles Moore, discovered The North Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. Moore's research has been invaluable for getting the word out to the world that our ocean is becoming a synthetic soup. He's made remarks that plastic pollution in the marine environment is as significant and challenging an issue as climate change. As a Surfrider Foundation activist, and after working on plastic policy in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, I started to look more globally at the issue because the more I read, the more my heartstrings pulled at me; I wanted to engage full time. For real. I just needed an "in." In April of 2009 I got that "in" and was invited to be part of a scientific research mission to The North Atlantic Gyre on The 5 Gyres Project (

There exist five major subtropical oceanic gyres in the world (North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans) and it is hypothesized by The 5 Gyres Project that these areas will collect plastic garbage much like The North Pacific does. A gyre is a naturally occurring phenomenon where two opposing dominant wind patterns (North and South) bend because of the earth's ubiquitous Coriolis Effect to form a swirling vortex in the ocean. In January of this year I boarded the science research sailing vessel, The Sea Dragon, as an embedded journalist. I got off the boat as a 5 Gyres Project board member. Seeing this collection of plastic trash in a vast wilderness of water, firsthand, had such a profound effect on me I quit my day job and started working on plastic issues full time. Most people (hopefully) have heard of The North Pacific Garbage Patch by now, but few realize that the problem exists in other parts of the ocean as well.

Now on land for a few months, I decided to tour the west coast in my 1984 Volkswagen Westfailia with surfboard and dog in tow. I'll go from San Diego to Tofino, B.C. documenting beaches, people, and plastic and share those stories with GOOD readers. Along the way, I'll be talking to Charles Moore, Surfrider CEO Jim Moriarty, Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder Dianna Cohen, pro surfers Chris Malloy, Mary Osborne, and Jennifer Flanigan, as well as Portland Mayor Sam Adams and artist Chris Jordan. I'll also be chatting with plastic bloggers and ordinary folks who all have a stake in the sanctity of their beaches. As a full fledged marine plastic geek, I wanted to see what other folks with a big stake in the ocean had to say about plastic pollution and how we as a society might work together to solve this problem. So, in the coming weeks, I'll be posting on the interviews, pictures, videos, and stories I collect as I go. I hope you'll follow along.

Stiv Wilson is a freelance writer/photographer and the communications director for the Project. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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